LOW TURNOUT, BUT STILL A MANDATE

by David P. Rebovich A relatively close race turned into a route last Tuesday when Jon Corzine beat Doug Forrester by over 200,000 votes and a 53-44 percent margin to become New Jersey’s next governor. Democrats here were both happy and relieved that their party was able to hold onto the governor’s office after the tumultuous McGreevey years. Political observers around the nation were surprised the state’s Democrats could do so well at the polls despite citizens’ anger about high property taxes and political corruption. But what does Corzine’s victory mean? On the surface, it seems clear that most New Jerseyans were not impressed with the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate. Not surprisingly in this blue state, more folks agreed with Jon Corzine that the values of the Democratic Party, e.g., its positions on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and the environment, were more in line with their own values than those of George W. Bush’s Republican Party. But many of these same people were also concerned about “politics as usual” in Trenton, i.e., the patronage, irresponsible fiscal practices, and unfulfilled promises associated with the McGreevey Administration. Corzine had to convince enough voters that he was not part of the Democratic Party establishment and instead was committed to cleaning up state politics. In the end enough voters did conclude that Corzine was preferable to Forrester and is a different type of Democrat than those who had put the state in such dire straits. Thus, his solid 9 point victory, one that is now causing analysts to wonder why they ever thought that Forrester had a serious chance of winning the governorship. But if that 9 point victory is a good figure for the Democrats, there’s another number that should be a concern for the governor-elect and his party. That number is the 45 percent of registered voters who bothered to turn out on November 8th to cast their ballots for the state’s next chief executive. If 45 percent sounds like a small amount of voters, it should. It’s the lowest turnout for a governor’s election in New Jersey history. This sad fact should cause the victorious Democrats to stop congratulating themselves and the defeated Republicans to end their finger-pointing and instead reconsider how they conduct their campaigns. In addition, the new governor and legislature need to reflect on what the public thinks of, and expects from, them in 2006 and beyond. Ironically, this fall’s governor’s race was expected to be an intense, competitive affair and a substantively rewarding one. Most New Jerseyans realized that the state is at a crossroads. The shady political practices of both parties would no longer be tolerated. Something would finally have to be done about ever-increasing property tax bills. And budget problems – a recurring deficit and the need to refinance the Transportation Trust Fund, pay for new school construction, and to shore up the government workers’ pension fund – would have to be addressed. Corzine and Forrester had their own views on how to deal with these problems and challenges. Presumably they would use their vast personal fortunes to communicate these views, make spirited arguments for their positions, and to criticize their opponent. What New Jerseyans got, of course, was two multimillionaire candidates who devoted much of their campaign spending to running ads that attacked the other guy. Citizens were not only unimpressed, they were disgusted. The fact that neither candidate was charismatic and that both ran on pretty much the same platform made this a disappointing campaign season. But the main reason for low voter turnout was the negative campaigning, made even worse by the ability of these super-rich candidates to run their attack ads during what seemed like every commercial break on most television stations. While explanations for low voter turnout abound, there is widespread agreement that it is bad for democracy and governance. When few citizens cast their ballots, elected officials have a hard time making the claim that they represent the will of the people. When those same officials pursue a policy agenda, it is not clear that they have a mandate to do so. What about the state’s next governor and legislature? Will these concerns apply to Corzine and the Democrats? Well, fewer than one in four registered voters – 1.12 million of 4.8 million – voted for Corzine. That’s hardly reason for celebration, especially since he spent some $40 million on his campaign. What’s also disturbing is that as Election Day approached, fewer than fifty percent of New Jerseyans regarded Corzine or Forrester favorably, further that neither the candidates nor their campaigns impressed a lot of people. But throughout the campaign season, New Jerseyans had been regularly telling pollsters that the two most important issues to them were high property taxes and ethics reform. Other issues mentioned included education, the high cost of health insurance, and homeland security. While it is true that most folks were skeptical about Corzine’s or Forrester’s ability to implement their property tax relief plans, both candidates did talk a lot about property tax relief, and ethics reform as well. They each promised to make these two issues the top priorities of their administration. As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that the 2.1 million people who cast their ballot for them were voting for property tax relief and ethics reform. Likewise, given the finding of several polls, it is fair to assume that many of the folks who decided to sit out this election are nonetheless hoping that the state’s next governor can do something about these issues. Thus, public opinion, if not votes, does provide Corzine with a mandate, and a strong one, to take action on property taxes and government ethics. Based on his post election remarks, the Governor-elect plans to do just that. On Tuesday night he announced that ethics reform is his top priority, insisting that his administration would not provide economic opportunity for politicians. In a spirited victory speech, he called for bold reforms to root out corruption and to restore trust in state government among citizens who are understandably concerned about how politics is conducted in New Jersey. This trust, Corzine noted, is necessary in order for lawmakers to be able to address New Jersey’s several policy challenges, including short term property tax relief and long term property tax reform. The governor-elect correctly recognizes that if he wants his constituents to support changes, and potentially painful ones, in state revenue-raising and spending practices, they must be convinced that their elected officials are clean and are committed to the common good. Yes, it would have been desirable if Corzine had talked more specifically about these matters during the campaign. But to his credit, he seems to recognize that the public is skeptical about him and his ability to realize his broad policy agenda, in large part because they don’t yet know if really will change the way business is done in Trenton. Four years ago, Jim McGreevey came into office preaching to citizens that they must tighten their belts because of tough times, but then gave his cronies government jobs and contracts. Don’t expect Corzine to make the same mistake. It’s hard to imagine that he spent $40 million and gave up a seat in the United States Senate to make a fool of himself. 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 NEDW JERSEY LAWYER.

LOW TURNOUT, BUT STILL A MANDATE