‘Star-Ledger’ Poll Director Quits Over Partisan Hiring

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By: Joe Strupp

The director of The Star-Ledger’s most high-profile poll — which is often used by the Newark, N.J., paper for its coverage of political campaigns and other high-profile issues — resigned in protest over the poll’s hiring of a former Democratic pollster, the paper reported Thursday.

Cliff Zukin, who has directed the Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers University Poll for the last 6 1/2 years, said in a resignation e-mail that hiring someone with partisan political credentials “jeopardizes the non-partisan reputation” of the poll and was a “serious mistake,” according to the paper.

Star-Ledger Editor Jim Willse apparently agreed with Zukin’s decision, saying in a story today that “we share his belief that the poll must be free of even a perceived partisan tinge. We know the Eagleton Institute also shares that belief, and we look forward to meeting their nominee to succeed Cliff.”

Zukin’s abrupt action followed the hiring of pollster Jeff Levine, who accepted Rutgers’ offer to become the new director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics Center for Public Interest Polling, which conducts polls for nonprofits, state agencies and the university. The Eagleton Poll has been in existence since 1971 and has been sponsored by the Star-Ledger since 1983.

Since 1998, Levine had worked at two firms that conduct polling and focus groups for Democrats. He is a managing director at Westhill Consulting, whose clients have included former presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and state Senate contender Blair MacInnes last year. From 1998 to 2000, Levine worked at Global Strategy Group, a pollster for Democratic candidates.

Eagleton officials said Levine has a solid academic background and that most of his work has been for corporations and nonprofits.

“Jeff Levine is primarily an academic,” Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute, told the Star-Ledger. “We would never hire somebody for that position who was primarily a political pollster or a political operative.”

Levine said that while he is a registered Democrat, he has never worked on a political campaign. While his boss at Westhill, Ed Reilly, was a close aide of Gephardt’s, Levine said his job was to produce and analyze “objective, high-quality research.”

Zukin, president-elect of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, had planned to step down from the poll in August to devote time to his new post. He intended to complete one final Star-Ledger/Eagleton poll; instead, he quit when he learned of plans to hire Levine, the paper reported.

Levine replaces Michael Hagen, who is leaving Rutgers for Temple University in Philadelphia.

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