SOME SPRING FEVER ON NEW JERSEY’S POLITICAL SCENE

by David P. Rebovich Spring is often a slow period, or at least a predictable one, in New Jersey politics. After the Governor proposes his budget, legislators commit to studying the document seriously, asserting themselves as member of a “co-equal” branch of government, and amending the document to protect taxpayers and help constituents. Interest and advocacy groups will hit the budget committee hearings in full force, insisting that the state is doomed unless some levy is rescinded or appropriation increased. Average citizens will complain about any about tax and fee hikes, calls for more state aid for their own preferred programs, and have no clue about where to find funds except by cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Wonder where they learned that? But this spring promises to be more eventful, or at least more entertaining, than most. State lawmakers are indeed wrestling with the budget. Local politicians are battling over the right to govern some of New Jersey’s hard to govern cities. And candidates for the United States Senate and House of Representatives are firing shots across their opponents bows, making citizens wonder what kind of fireworks they will be exposed to as this November’s Election Day approaches. On the budget, Governor Jon Corzine has decided that New Jersey needs common sense, not gimmickry, to put its fiscal house in order. But in politics common sense rarely carries the day. Democratic legislators, who helped create the current budget mess in the McGreevey years, are looking for ways to avoid a sales tax hike. They are hoping for higher than anticipated revenues and finding hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. The minority Republicans, who bequeathed McGreevey a big budget deficit, are also decrying the sales tax increases and Corzine’s other tax hikes. But where will they find the two billion dollars to avoid any tax increases? Assemblymen Guy Gregg has suggested ending urban enterprise zones and dropping a dozen districts from the list of “distressed” school systems. The latter is easier said than done, legally or politically. In the meantime the Fairness Alliance, a coalition of advocacy groups and unions, including the NJEA and CWA, are calling for an increase in state income tax rates on folks making $200,000 to $500,000, higher tax rates on businesses, and an end to some tax incentives. The Alliance’s plan would produce $800 million in revenue that could be used for health care, property tax relief and aid to higher education. The group’s position seems to be based on three assumptions. Well-off residents and companies can afford to pay more. Governor Corzine is under-funding many important programs. And, lawmakers have little incentive or inclination to make other cuts in spending to free up more funds for these programs. While the Alliance deserves credit for candor, its views rest on a curious precept. That is, the same state government officials who do not spend taxpayer money effectively now need to increase taxes so that they could spend even more money. Speaking strongly against the need for higher taxes is none other than State Senator Tom Kean, Jr. He, of course, wants to be U.S. Senator Kean which will be difficult given the unpopularity of the Bush Administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, especially in New Jersey. Kean inadvertently admitted as much when he arrived late to a fundraiser featuring Vice President Dick Cheney. Rush hour traffic was the reason cited for Kean’s delay. Many political observers opined that the more likely explanation was that Kean did not want to photographed with the controversial Vice President. Whatever the case, Kean tried to change the subject last week by borrowing a tactic that Christie Whitman used in her 1990 U.S. Senate race against Bill Bradley. Whitman challenged Bradley, then at the height of his popularity, to tell New Jerseyans what he thought about then-Governor Jim Florio’s big tax hikes. Bradley refused, claiming that the campaign should focus on national issues, not state ones. This response did not go over well with citizens who were mad not only about tax hikes but about politicians who did not level with them. Bradley eked out a three point victory but his political star waned. So now Kean has challenged Menendez to sign a pledge to oppose Governor Corzine’s proposed tax increases. Menendez’s response was that the new Governor faces difficult fiscal challenges that require difficult choices. When Kean was asked by reporters to identify specific cuts to balance the new state budget without tax hikes, he had no real response. If Menendez feels pressured by Kean on this topic, he can always remind the State Senator that his father, Governor Tom Kean, Sr., found himself supporting tax hikes in 1982 after a campaign season in which he claimed that the state budget could be balanced without them. Surprised about Sharpe James’ decision not run for reelection as Newark’s mayor? Not a lot of Newark residents are, even after James’ theatrical, last minute delivery of his election petitions a few weeks ago. State Senator Ron Rice, a James ally, promises a spirited race against now heavily favored Cory Booker in the battle to succeed James. But several questions remain. If James knew that he would not seek reelection, why didn’t he work harder to help position a hand-picked successor? Now it seems that he has surrendered the city to his arch-enemy. As a State Senator, will James continue to be an uncompromising advocate for Newark, or will he sit back and force Booker to come to Trenton with hat in hand? As for Booker, if he is Newark’s next mayor, he has to show that he can translate his electoral majority into a governing one. He will have a hard time trying to satisfy constituents eager for assistance while Newark struggles with fiscal problems. He will also have to find a way to work with a City Council that will still be controlled by his adversaries. There are also calls for change in the air in the City of Trenton, if not a strong likelihood that Doug Palmer will be replaced as Mayor. The veteran Palmer is still optimistic about the state’s capital city despite having to battle state lawmakers from both parties over the years for more funding. Palmer has long been a bridge figure between Trenton’s large African-American community, its growing Latino one, and a decreasing number of whites. He points with pride to such projects as Waterfront Park and Sovereign Bank Arena (both built with support from Mercer County), a Marriott Hotel, and some new commercial and residential development. But the last few years have been tough on Trentonians and their public officials. A major redevelopment project that was expected to bring hundreds of good paying jobs has apparently fallen through. Last year there were a record setting number of homicides, many gang-related. Restaurant owners claim their businesses are suffering because of the city’s crime problems. In the meantime, residents continue to complain about uneven redevelopment throughout the city. Palmer is being challenged by four candidates. If he does not get 50 percent of the vote – a possibility -, there will be a runoff election. While Trentonians’ frustrations are understandable, it’s not clear that anyone can do a better job unless the state makes a major commitment to help the City. The House races are also heating up at a surprisingly early date. Linda Stender, who is challenging Republican incumbent Mike Ferguson in the 7th district, has already shown that she will not pull any punches. Reportedly she has called for President Bush’s impeachment, a pretentious demand from a state official whose own party and government face many problems of their own. Joe Vas is running against former Speaker of the Assembly Albio Sires in the 13th district Democratic primary. Sires is the heavy favorite, which Vas attributes to Sires’ connection to Democratic Party bosses. One wonder if Vas means the same bosses who chose him to replace well-respected Assemblywoman Arline Friscia on the slate a few years back. Then there is Paul Aronsohn, Jim McGreevey’s one-time communications director, who has the support of lots of high-profile Democrats in his race against 5th district incumbent Republican Scott Garrett. Aronsohn will need his friends help to raise lots of money to run ads in the New York media market. He may get some free publicity when his former boss’s tell-all book hits the stores this September. However, like a lot of folks on the state’s political scene, Aronsohn may hope that McGreevey has forgotten all about him. 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 writes monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

SOME SPRING FEVER ON NEW JERSEY’S POLITICAL SCENE