New Jerseys’ Democrats got some very good news last week courtesy of the most recent Star Ledger/Rutgers Eagleton Poll. The survey showed that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine has a whopping 48-28 percent lead over Republican Doug Forrester. With Election Day only seven weeks away, that lead will be hard for Forrester to overcome. This challenge will be even more difficult because of something else the poll revealed. Most New Jerseyans have soured on President George W. Bush and the Republicans in Washington, D.C. Only 33 percent approve of the job the President is doing, while just one in five residents believe the GOP-controlled national government will respond effectively if a disaster strikes New Jersey. by David P. Rebovich New Jerseys’ Democrats got some very good news last week courtesy of the most recent Star Ledger/Rutgers Eagleton Poll. The survey showed that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine has a whopping 48-28 percent lead over Republican Doug Forrester. With Election Day only seven weeks away, that lead will be hard for Forrester to overcome. This challenge will be even more difficult because of something else the poll revealed. Most New Jerseyans have soured on President George W. Bush and the Republicans in Washington, D.C. Only 33 percent approve of the job the President is doing, while just one in five residents believe the GOP-controlled national government will respond effectively if a disaster strikes New Jersey. Given these sentiments, Forrester has to not only distinguish himself from Corzine and the Democrats who control the State House, he must also convince lots of voters that he is not like the Republicans in the nation’s capital. For months now the Democrats have argued that Forrester is closely connected to Bush Administration because he donated money to, and raised money for, Bush and has accepted assistance from Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney for his own campaign. That argument is a stretch. After all, Corzine supported McGreevey financially and on the stump. Following their own logic, New Jersey’s Democrats would have to call their reform-minded gubernatorial candidate a “McGreevey Democrat.” But the truth is that Forrester has not done much to take the Bush factor out of the gubernatorial race, in large part because he has not detailed policy positions that could demonstrate that his views are different from his more conservative Republican colleagues in the national government. To make matters worse, the President’s slow reaction to the effects of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the increased violence in Iraq, have given Democrats everywhere more ammunition to criticize him and his Republican ideology and to revive their own party’s values and image. Last week the Mercer County Democrats were doing both to good effect. More than 200 supporters turned out for a Monday evening rally for Corzine, the 14th district Assembly candidates – incumbent Linda Greenstein and running mate Dan Benson, and several candidates for county and local offices. Ably hosted by Hamilton Township Mayor Glen Gilmore, the event focused on, surprisingly so to many present, the contrast between the inadequacies of the Bush Administration and the great promise that a Corzine governorship holds. Gilmore, who recently visited the hurricane ravaged Gulf region, kicked things off by discussing what he called a “national leadership problem” that put undue pressure on state government to help communities like his own deal with “…issues that matter most – education, the environment, and making the community safe.” Corzine was billed as the headliner of the rally but was stuck in Washington, D.C. on Senate business. 12th district Congressman Rush Holt, a frequent surrogate, filled in and read a letter from the Senator. Corzine explained that he remained in the nation’s capital to try to stop President Bush’s “blockheaded proposal on mercury admissions that would roll back current laws important to New Jerseyans.” In addition, he had to focus on John Roberts’ nomination to be the next Chief Justice, deal with aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and keep up the fight for the state and its citizens. He noted that back here in New Jersey we need better schools, more affordable health care, and lower property taxes. Corzine also asked those in attendance to reflect on the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, calling New Jerseyans a “compassionate and caring people.” Congressman Holt, speaking extemporaneously, offered an additional perspective on the politics of the day and on Corzine. Referring to Hurricane Katrina, Holt said, “You couldn’t ask for a better reminder of the importance of government….In FEMA the enemies of government pushed aside the experts in emergency management. The National Guard from the Gulf states would have been there to help but many are overseas….It doesn’t work to simply have your own evacuation plan. You have to have compassion for people and apply that compassion in many different ways.” Corzine, Holt added, is “…well known to be smart and a great manager, but he also a decent person who has great compassion for all people.” The latter is reflected in progressive personnel policies at Goldman Sachs and his policy platform this campaign season. Lucy Walters, an incumbent freeholder seeking reelection, continued to discuss these themes and said, “This election is about the message we send.” Walters complained that American soldiers, veterans, and now Katrina victims are not being treated adequately by the Bush Administration. “We are the bluest of the blue states,” she added, and “voting strong for Democrats will make our congressmen more powerful.” But this fall in New Jersey the questions that voters face are who should be the state’s next governor, which party should control the General Assembly, and who should win county and local races, not who’s in charge in Washington, if their foreign policy is good, or even if their response to Hurricane Katrina was adequate. However, one veteran Mercer County Democratic leader at the event candidly told me, “Katrina has mobilized the Democratic base. People have come out to events and volunteered to help with campaigns who were never involved before. They feel they only way the could react to the tragedy in New Orleans is to show their concern for the victims and their anger at President’s Bush’s slow response.” Holt also sees Hurricane Katrina as providing an opportunity for people, including younger ones, to “make practical our ethics” and do something positive. He encouraged the high schoolers present to get involved in the campaign because “the outpouring of help may not matter unless we have good leadership.” But Holt thankfully connected this call to activism to the issues in the state and the elections at hand. The Congressman said, “Jon Corzine is reaching out for the support of New Jerseyans so that he as governor can make the tough decisions.” Yes, New Jersey’s election is about who will address the challenges facing the state now and in the future. And these challenges – ever-increasing property taxes, the need for immediate tax relief and long-term reform, excessive political patronage and influence peddling, poor fiscal management and the squandering of state funds, the need to find a long-term revenue source for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, expanding the higher education system to serve more New Jersey students – are legacies of the McGreevey Administration. And until the former governor announced his resignation over a year ago, nearly every politician who spoke at this rally and many of the rank-and-file in the audience would have proudly called themselves “McGreevey Democrats.” Now, of course, they are all “Corzine Democrats,” presumably committed to the pro-reform, anti-machine, anti-patronage, anti-pay-to-play agenda of their party’s popular gubernatorial candidate. However, while many Democrats at this rally criticized President Bush for the nation’s problems, none would admit that here in New Jersey their own party is a big part of the problem and must change its ways. Except, that is, the one state official, who along with Congressman Holt, did not have to make such an admission because she has supported meaningful reforms even when her party’s leaders didn’t. That person is 14th district Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein. She advocates property tax reform, not just bigger rebate checks. She supports comprehensive pay-to-play reform, even if that means that some of party’s bigwigs lose out on lucrative government contracts. And she sided with environmentalists, not developers and party bosses who pushed through “fast track” legislation that Acting Governor Richard Codey has since put a hold on. In her calm, matter of fact way, the cerebral and principled three-term Assemblywoman from Plainsboro leveled with party loyalists at the rally. Greenstein said, “We lack a real a sense of solutions in the legislature. We need people with fresh ideas and real ideas about how to approach issues….On property taxes we will try our absolute best to make people happy. We also need to deal with the crisis in confidence in our state and to build up confidence in our government.” Now by themselves these statements do not constitute a policy agenda. But they do reflect the candor that is necessary to get New Jerseyans to take a candidate seriously and to listen to her detailed ideas. And such introspection, honesty, and commitment to reforms that may shake up the political establishment are no doubt what the Democratic gubernatorial candidate has in mind when he thinks of what it means to be a “Corzine Democrat.” Others in the party who want to be taken seriously by Corzine if he is elected governor would be wise to emulate Assemblywoman Greenstein. David P. Rebovich is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.