NEW JERSEY CONFRONTS ITS IMAGE PROBLEM

by David P. Rebovich T”was the week after Christmas and all through the State House, not a creature was stirring. Well, not exactly. The Codey Administration was still at work, although winding down in anticipation of Jon Corzine and his new staff assuming office in a few weeks. The governor-elect’s transition team was busy, but its activities were taking place behind some very tightly closed doors out of the view of the press and the public. While it would be a few weeks before the real excitement of a new Administration and legislature begins, the holiday season still provided ample fodder for the political junkie to feed and comment on. For starters, how about Rutgers’ appearance in the Insight Bowl against Arizona State, televised by ESPN? A political story? You bet. Could the state that sends more blue-chip prospects to Notre Dame and Penn State and more politicians to the federal and state pen actually put together a successful football program at its flagship university? Could a good team give residents a reason to be proud and perhaps give out-of-staters a better opinion of the Garden State? This is what New Jerseyans were told for decades, but few folks bought it. After all, what did national football championships won by the likes of LSU, Alabama and Nebraska do for the reputations of their states? Nonetheless, last Tuesday New Jerseyans with even a passing interest in football had to be hoping that their State University would achieve some credibility on the gridiron and for a few hours at least take their minds off of high property taxes, budget deficits, tales of political corruption, and other Jerseyana. Then James Gandolfini appeared. The star of HBO’s “The Sopranos” is a Rutgers alum and helped his alma mater create enthusiasm for the school’s first bowl game appearance since 1978. He also joined the Rutgers captains for the coin toss, a neat touch. But short clips from “The Sopranos” were shown on the stadium’s big screen. Fans who were musing, “great actor and Rutgers grad, that’s nice,” may well have had a different thought – “Tony Soprano, mobster….oh, of course, it’s New Jersey.” Too bad Ozzie Nelson, a one-time Scarlet Knight quarterback, wasn’t still around to represent Rutgers! In any event, the Scarlet Knights played a spirited game and almost pulled off a victory against a foe from a more powerful conference. Goodness knows the Insight Bowl could have been a lot worse. Imagine the public relations nightmare had Rutgers and NJIT merged with UMDNJ, as proposed by former Governor Jim McGreevey a few years back. Would the ESPN announcers have had to explain that Rutgers – the proposed super-university would have retained the name – was now being monitored by a special auditor per a deal made with the U.S. Attorney in order for the University to avoid indictment or being shut down by the feds? How mortifying would that have been to every New Jerseyan? Of course, having the state’s medical school investigated for possibly defrauding the federal government of millions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid funds is bad enough. This cannot be papered over by having a winning football team. Or, for that matter, by having a new state slogan. After the lowest turnout ever for a New Jersey gubernatorial election, it will be interesting to see how many residents bother to vote for a new state slogan. From a list of pretty lame lines, I chose “New Jersey. Come See for Yourself.” Maybe in a few years Governor Corzine can propose something more meaningful, like “New Jersey: We’ve Cleaned Up Our Act.” In the meantime, given UMDNJ’s problems one has to wonder what will happen to the support in the legislature and from Codey and Corzine for a stem cell research institute. UMDNJ was supposed to play a central role in this research and receive public funds and attract private money to help make New Jersey a leader in this emerging field. Given its legal and financial woes, will UMDNJ lose some of its top researchers, frighten away potential private partners and investors, and make lawmakers leery about involving the University in anything so major until the federal investigation is complete? State officials also want to improve its second largest industry, tourism. The Shore, and to a lesser extent the Atlantic City casinos, draw scads of in-staters and visitors from the northeast. But officials here want to attract tourists to other venues like the Camden Aquarium and the Battleship New Jersey and the state’s revolutionary war sites, especially those in and around Trenton. These efforts are certainly well-intentioned. But getting people to come to Camden or Trenton is a hard sell. Camden was once again named the most dangerous city in the nation. And despite some impressive redevelopment projects, Trenton has had 30 murders in 2005, many of them gang related. Ironically, in the pivotal Battle of Trenton that turned the tide in the patriot’s favor during the Revolutionary War, none of General George Washington troops were killed. Try explaining to an out-of-state tourist that Trenton is more dangerous today than when Washington crossed the Delaware!. Before these cities can sell themselves as tourist destinations, the state needs to help them become more presentable and safe. But will the state have any money to help these cities, pursue stem cell research, or do a lot of things that the new Governor said he wants to do? Before Corzine can answer this question, he has to put together an administrative team to help him establish his priorities, gain control over a sometimes unwieldy bureaucracy, and develop some purposeful policies. With the New Year upon us and his inauguration a few weeks away, the Governor-elect has not yet named any members of his cabinet. What gives? Surely there are lots of Democrats who want a spot in the new Administration. But Corzine has set high standards and apparently does not want to burden himself with party legacies who may bring baggage but not a lot of ability to office. Will he be able to attract “the best and the brightest” to his cabinet, despite the state’s reputation for political corruption, the enormous policy challenges it faces, and the modest compensation, by big business’s standards, of a cabinet post? Hopefully the Governor-elect has a catchy slogan that will appeal to the talented. Failing that, perhaps he can promise them tickets to a bowl game, hopefully one in which Rutgers is playing. 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 and now writes monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS MAGAZINE.

NEW JERSEY CONFRONTS ITS IMAGE PROBLEM