WHERE ARE THE ANGRY SUBURBANITES?

by David P. Rebovich “Where are the angry suburbanites?” This question is being asked by political reporters, observers, and operatives, especially operatives in the Republican Party. And most especially in the Forrester campaign, which needs strong turnout by suburbanites and a strong support from them for the GOP gubernatorial candidate to have any chance of catching Jon Corzine by Election Day. But at this point there is no evidence that a large number of suburbanites will show up at the polls on November 8th, much less that a sizeable majority of them will vote for Doug Forrester. That’s bad news indeed for Forrester. To win a statewide race in New Jersey, a Republican candidate has to do two things. One is generate enthusiasm among the party faithful and garner large pluralities in the GOP bastions of Morris, Ocean, Monmouth and Somerset counties and smaller counties like Hunterdon, Warren, Sussex and Cape May. The other is to do well in voter rich Bergen (all modern governors have carried Bergen), Burlington, Union and Middlesex counties. These are largely suburban areas where Tom Kean and Christie Whitman scored well. But Union and Middlesex have been solidly in the Democrats’ column, and both Bergen and Burlington have also swung to the Democrats in recent elections. Coming into the general election campaign, it was clear that Forrester had to get these suburban areas to swing back to him in order to have a shot of winning. After all, Jon Corzine will no doubt get huge pluralities from Democratic strongholds. Essex, Hudson and Camden counties alone may give Corzine a 150,000 vote advantage. Winning big in GOP areas will not be enough for Forrester, since Republican-rich counties are less populated than urban Democratic ones. The key then is who does well in suburbia. Jim McGreevey certainly did well in the suburbs in 2001. He carried Bergen, Middlesex and Union counties by over 100,000 votes. He also won in often Republican Burlington by 14,000 votes and even took Monmouth County by about 2,000 votes. Yes, McGreevey was able to pigeon-hole his GOP opponent, Bret Schundler, as being too conservative on social issues for most New Jerseyans. But the underlying reality is that in the last decade the state’s suburbs have become more Democratic. Many former urbanites, from diverse ethnic backgrounds and with college degrees in hand, have migrated to the suburbs where there are well-paying professional jobs, good public schools, and a quality housing stock. These new suburbanites, many of whom are registered as unaffiliated voters, brought with them an array of attitudes that incline them to support Democratic candidates. These attitudes include the following. Belief in an activist government that is willing to address social and economic problems. Support for quality programs in such areas as education, the environment and open space, public safety, and children’s and senior services. And, moderate to liberal views on abortion, gun control, and gay rights. Are suburbanites eager to pay higher taxes for government programs in these areas? Well, they don’t want to pay much more! Are they willing to tolerate high levels of patronage, some inefficient and ineffective programs, and even a little corruption as the price to pay for having otherwise friendly and supportive politicians in office? Hopefully not! And that’s why this year had great potential for the Republican Party and its gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey. If, that is, its candidate could do two things. The first is to reassure unaffiliated voters, including lots of suburbanites, that he shares many of their values. How a GOP gubernatorial candidate does this while keeping the conservative base content is certainly not easy. The second is to tap into citizens’ anger about the current political scene and their concerns about how high taxes, wasteful spending, and unethical political behavior. Forrester was slow acting on number one. When he finally got around to admitting that he is in fact a “Tom Kean” Republican, his poll numbers improved. But his recent change in position on stem cell research – now he’s for embryonic stem cell research – may turn off some conservatives in his party who weren’t too keen on his candidacy in the first place. On number two, tapping into citizens’ anger, it’s not clear that Forrester has had success, much to the dismay of his supporters. In fairness to Forrester, however, the state’s political environment and citizens’ attitudes about politics are complex. Most folks will not respond to the call, no matter how passionately it is made, to “throw the bums out.” In large part this is because simple anger has been replaced with disenchantment that has made New Jerseyans skeptical of anyone who promises wholesale reform, not just the Democrats who currently control the State House. While it is true that upwards of 60 percent of New Jerseyans do not like the direction the state is headed in, an equal amount approve of the job Acting Governor Richard Codey is doing. And, more New Jerseyans tell pollster that they plan to vote for Democrats for Assembly than Republicans even though the Democrat-controlled state legislature is viewed favorably by only 30 percent of likely voters. These views are not so much contradictory as they are indicative of New Jerseyans’ complicated views about politics. Folks here don’t like what their state officials have given them the last several years, not just the McGreevey-era Democrats but the Whitman-era Republicans. The fiscal irresponsibility and the political shenanigans of the Democrats are deplored, but so are budget policies of their Republican predecessors and the antics of local GOP officials who have been indicated by the U.S. Attorney. As such, New Jerseyans are not about to support a Republican for Governor simply because of the bad job that the Democrats have done in Trenton. Nor are the willing to accept the claim that since Jon Corzine helped bankroll the campaigns of his fellow Democrats the last few years, he is directly responsible for the fiscal problems, high taxes, and ethical lapses in the State House. Voters want to know precisely what their alternatives are. In regard to Forrester, they want to know if he using his crusade against political corruption to avoid talking about his policy positions that may be unpopular with many New Jerseyans. Will he really improve the efficiency of government operations and the effectiveness of government programs or make indiscriminate cuts under the guise of getting of “waste, fraud and abuse” to pay for his property tax relief plan? Voters may dount Forrester’s self-stated reformism because he has not spent much time detailing what he would cut to pay for his property tax relief plan. He presumably agrees with the Assembly Republicans who have identified some one billion dollars in savings. But it’s to imagine that more than a few voters know about this plan. In addition, Forrester has decided not to talk much on the campaign trail about school funding in New Jersey and the huge disparities in state aid to, and spending per pupil in, the so-called distressed districts. While he has paid some lip service to the argument that tax dollars are often squandered in urban areas, Forrester has not aggressively pursued this theme either. Both topics may have captured the attention of suburbanites who pay high taxes and have seen state aid to their schools and towns frozen in recent years and their rebate checks reduced. They are upset about these developments but want more complete explanations of what will be can be done to help them than Forrester has offered. Rather than being angry, New Jersey’s unaffiliated suburban voters seem discouraged about how some important issues have been avoided and how others have been dealt with superficially. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., 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.

WHERE ARE THE ANGRY SUBURBANITES?