ALL POWERFUL DEMOCRATS CALL FOR BI-PARTISANSHIP

by David P. Rebovich Last fall’s Corzine-Forrester race was far and away the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in state history. Most New Jerseyans also regard it as the most negative. The Democrats described GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester as a front man for the unpopular, ultraconservative Bush Administration in Washington. Republicans characterized Corzine as the leader of the Democratic Party cabal that condoned political corruption and brought the state to the bring of bankruptcy. In the end Corzine won in a landslide and the Democrats picked up seats in the General Assembly where the they now have a 49-31 majority, their biggest in three decades. With Corzine as governor and majorities in both chambers of the legislature, New Jersey’s Democrats came out of last November’s election poised to dominate state government. Perhaps this should not be a surprise in what some national political observers call “the bluest of blue states.” But what may be a surprise to not only those national political observers but to folks here in the Garden State is that New Jersey’s all-powerful Democrats are now calling for bipartisanship as the Corzine era begins. Bipartisanship after beating the Republicans to a pulp in a year when the GOP had the opportunity to make gains but flopped? Bipartisanship now that the GOP has been relegated to something resembling a permanent minority in New Jersey or at least the minority party for the foreseeable future? What’s going on here? Are New Jersey’s Democrats calls for bipartisanship simply courtesy in the aftermath of the party’s big victory? Are they an attempt to bury the hatchet and put the harshness of the last two campaign cycles aside, given the public’s concern about how politics is conducted in the state? Are they based on a sincere desire to receive input from the opposition party on the key issues of the day? Or, are the Democrats talking about the need for bipartisanship because, frankly, “misery loves company” and the reality that no matter how powerful they are, the Democrats have to make decisions that many New Jerseyans will find miserable? Smart money says that it’s all of the above. And that Democrats are most interested in bringing Republicans into the process to support some painful budget and unpopular decisions. Yes, Joe Roberts, the new Speaker of the General Assembly, was no doubt sincere when he told the new legislature that Democrats and Republicans need to put bickering aside and work together on the state’s many challenges. The public surely regards a restoration of civility as a necessary part of a large reform of politics in New Jersey. But do Roberts and other proponents of bipartisanship believe that the latter entails more than civil behavior and may have unpredictable consequences? After all, true bipartisanship means more than Democrats and Republicans speaking nicely to and about one another. It means putting aside pre-ordained positions, weighing various sides of an issue, approaching problems and solutions without being bogged down by concerns about political gain, and agreeing that the common good is more important than the good of the party or any particular constituents. If this is what Roberts means by bipartisanship, he’s making one heck of an admission. Jon Corzine may have won by nearly 10 points over Doug Forrester last fall. Democrats may have picked up a few seats in the Assembly. And citizens certainly expect the new governor and legislature to act on priority issues like property tax relief and reform. But what last fall’s election did not do is give Democrats any clear mandate to take particular actions to address major issues. That’s because neither Corzine nor Forrester detailed where they would find money for property tax relief and did not talk at all about what they would do about the Transportation Trust Fund, the School Construction Corporation, and government workers’ pensions. This lack of specificity fed into citizens’ cynicism about the candidates and politics in general. Polls showed that most New Jerseyans did not believe Corzine’s or Forrester’s promises to provide property tax reform or transform the state’s seamy politics. Hence, the record-setting low turnout on Election Day. But Corzine did raise some folks’ expectations about what he would do if they voted for him. Besides insisting that he will deliver property tax relief this year and reform in the near future, he also ran on an “affordability agenda.” This is a plan to provide needy New Jerseyans with access to low-cost health care, college tuition assistance, and affordable housing. While this agenda did not catch on with the general public, it may well have mattered to Democrats in urban and working class areas who did give Corzine huge pluralities at the polls. Two months after voting for Corzine and his agenda, these folks are being told that the “affordability agenda” is “unaffordable” for the foreseeable future. Indeed, for the last several weeks Corzine has been talking about the need for “shared sacrifice.” That may be a surprise to some dyed-in-the-wool Democrats who thought that since their party controls state government, they would get what they were promised. In a partisan political environment, we would certainly expect the vanquished Republicans to sympathize with any rank-and-file Democrats who feel they were misled by their own party’s candidates. And if the Democrats in power have to raise taxes to balance the budget, to fund required programs, and to ultimately satisfy their supporters, Republicans would likely complain about those tax hikes, too. And, get lots of New Jerseyans who are affected by those tax hikes to agree with them. Which helps explain why in his State of the State Address last week Richard Codey said, “…the issues before us are bigger than any of us or either party. Now is when the people of the state expect that we put aside any differences for the greater good of the state. The bipartisan respect and cooperation that enabled us to achieve so much in the past year must continue.” He went on to talk about the need to “…have the courage to take on the decisions,…to challenge the status quo and reach across the aisle for new ideas…confident that the public can handle the truth.” Earlier in his speech Codey praised the people of New Jersey because “…they understand the problems New Jersey faces…, the trade-offs, the moral dilemmas, the political difficulties of every issue we confront…They expect straight talk…They expect us to be realistic about what can be achieved…and at what cost.”: This is good stuff, powerful in its candor and call for legislators from both parties to rise to the occasion, give the public credit for understanding what’s needed, and to do the right things no matter how painful. Frankly, this is the advice that the gubernatorial and assembly candidates needed to hear before last year’s campaigns started. But when considering Codey’s comments, two other matters come to mind when One has already been mentioned. The Democrats can do what they want in 2006, and they could have done so in 2005 as well. They don’t need the Republicans to pass property tax or ethics reform, to balance the budget and solve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, or to enact the “affordability agenda.” But help from the Republicans can make it easier to sell painful policies and can provide Corzine and the Democrats in the legislature with some political cover. However, the question is, why would the Republican want to help the Democrats? Yes, being civil, offering their own points of view on policies, and coming up with constructive proposals should all be part of the GOP’s game-plan in 2006. But New Jersey’s Republicans are in need of a clear identity, and that means being critics of the opposition party when criticism is called for, being advocates of their own constituents, and developing their own policy agenda and solutions to the state’s problems. If the Republicans do not define who they are and act accordingly, the Democrats won’t need to call for bipartisanship. New Jersey w
ill be essentially a one party state. 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 monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS magazine.

ALL POWERFUL DEMOCRATS CALL FOR BI-PARTISANSHIP