by David P. Rebovich Polls show that the U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez and Republican State Senator Tom Kean, Jr. is a toss up. Political analysts and party officials in Washington, D.C. and across the country are calling New Jersey the Republican Party’s best chance of picking up a Senate seat on November 7th. The GOP may well need this seat to retain its majority in the upper chamber. And, Kean’s prospects of winning are being kept alive by more tales of ethical questions and alleged influence peddling that surround his opponent and make the latter vulnerable to charges that he is simply another member of the Democratic Party’s ethically-impaired leadership. It is thus no surprise that Kean is focusing on ethics and corruption as the key issues in this race and trying to drive home the point that Menendez is an inappropriate and ineffective representative of the state in Washington, D.C. Yes, this sounds like negative campaigning, especially when that message is packed into a 30 or 60 second ad. However, it is difficult to criticize a candidate for using his best argument to try to win an election. Indeed, for his part Menendez is spending lots of money and time attacking George W. Bush and Kean for being the unpopular president’s lackey, even though the State Senator has never served in federal office. There is, of course, more to Menendez’s point than that cheap shot. More on that later. But Kean’s complaint about corruption is also more than just a criticism of his opponent. For the State Senator, “corruption” – defined broadly as not just law-breaking but self-serving behavior, patronage, and political pay-offs – has two serious consequences. One is that it exacerbates people’s cynicism about politics and their distrust of government officials at the very time when this state and the United States need an active, engaged citizenry. The second is that corruption costs taxpayers a pretty penny on unnecessary appointed government personnel, bloated contracts with private firms, and ineffective programs. Kean made these points in a speech on political corruption at Rider University sponsored by the Institute for New Jersey Politics that I head. The GOP U.S. Senate candidate asked the audience of 225 students – most from Rider but some from the College of New Jersey and Rutgers -, faculty and staff, “Can we ever escape the clutch of corruption?” After a brief overview of the history of political corruption in the state, Kean lamented that the twenty-first century has brought even more scandals courtesy of some of the state’s highest ranking officials in both parties. Corruption has, he claimed, cost the state billions of dollars, busted budgets and caused big tax hikes and even tuition increases. The State Senator noted that last year over 57,000 New Jerseyans moved out of the state and that high taxes was a reason many cited for their departure. What does Kean believe that New Jersey should do about political corruption? He recommends that state government pass a comprehensive ban on pay to play and on dual office-holding. In Washington, he would fight for more transparency on donations, lawmakers’ relations with lobbyists, and on how federal funds are earmarked for particular projects and contracts. He wants a separate entity to monitor and police the behavior of members of Congress. Kean also wants vigorous prosecution of those charged with political corruption and lengthy jail sentences for the guilty. But the best protection against government corruption is a vigilant and reform-minded electorate and candidates who genuinely care about more than themselves, are committed to making life better for their constituents, and don’t believe that they are entitled to use their offices for material advance. After the Rider event, several students, faculty and staff members told me that they were impressed with Kean’s argument after the effects of corruption and with his passion for reform. However, immediately after his speech several people in the audience had questions about if and how the New Jersey Republican would stand up to leaders in his own party in Washington to reform unsuccessful policies and programs supported by the GOP. Yes, tales of John Lynch, Wayne Bryant, Sharpe James Jim McGreevey, and Bob Menendez, Democrats all, have dominated the news in recent weeks, and Kean is well-advised to contrast himself with ethically-impaired Democrats. However, polls also show that President Bush’s approval rating is down to thirty percent here, a record low for a president in the Garden State. New Jerseyans, including folks at the Rider event, wanted to know what Kean’s views are several policy issues, and whether he disagree with the President on some issues and is willing to admit it. In the question and answer session Kean was asked about the war in Iraq, stem cell research, abortion, tax cuts, homeland security, education, and the minimum wage. On Iraq, Kean unabashedly stated that “horrendous mistakes” have been made and that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should resign. But he added that it is ill-advised to issue a definite troop withdrawal date. He surprised many in the crowd by stating that he agreed with former President Bill Clinton that a quick withdrawal of American troops will likely result in a major humanitarian crisis, the further destabilization of Iraq, and the creation of a major haven for terrorists. Rather than serve as an apologist for the President of his own party, Kean advocates a bipartisan approach to foreign policy toward Iraq and other hot spots in the world. The State Senator also declared his support for stem cell research, a woman’s right to choose, full funding for the No Child Left Behind program, more access to higher education and financial aid for college students, and a higher minimum wage. While noting that America is a nation of both immigrants and laws, he accused his opponent of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants and billion of dollars in benefits that the nation cannot afford. Kean also was highly critical of Menendez’s support for higher taxes in New Jersey and opposition to federal tax cuts that have disproportionately benefited New Jerseyans. After confidently expressing and explaining his issue positions, many of which are consistent with majority sentiment in the state, Kean was asked an especially pertinent question. A Rider history professor politely queried how Kean could expect to succeed as a U.S. Senator given that his party’s leaders seem intent on drowning out the voices of moderation. Kean immediately responded that he believes his responsibility in the U.S. Senate will be to stand up for the people of New Jersey and, if necessary, reach across party lines to get things done. That means, he continued, fighting corruption wherever it exists, preventing drilling off the Jersey Shore, and seeking more funds for education and homeland security for the Garden State. What the 225 folks in a predictably skeptical university audience saw and heard was an intelligent, energetic U.S. Senate candidate who clearly explained his policy positions and stood up for them. He also demonstrated that he is willing to stand up to others in the opposing party, as well as his own, for causes and positions he believes will benefit his constituents. Tom Kean, Jr. scored several points at Rider University among voters whose support Republicans do not get easily but that they typically need to win a statewide race in New Jersey. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine. He also is member of CQPOltiics.com’s Board of Advisors that provides commentary on national political developments.