CALLING FOR REVOLUTION, REPUBLICANS GOT RETIREMENTS

There have a been a few times since last July when it seemed that 2007 might bring a taxpayers revolution or at least a revolt against incumbent Democrats reminiscent of what happened in 1991 in reaction to Governor Jim Florio's unpopular policies.

Florio came into office promising no new taxes. But, he raised income and sales tax rates, as he put it, to put the state on firm financial footing, to provide more education funding for needy and other school districts, and to provide property tax relief generally. Many New Jerseyans did not like the trade-off, and more objected to being misled. In the 1991 midterm elections, they made the Governor pay by ousting scads of Democratic legislators and giving the Republicans veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and General Assembly.

In 2006 New Jerseyans had another governor, Jon Corzine who, after dismissing the topics of tax hikes during the campaign, surprisingly called for a sales tax increase. Like Florio, Corzine promised meaningful property tax reform and called a special session of the legislature to work on it. However, the best the Democratic-controlled legislature and the Governor could agree on was a property tax relief plan, one that the state can barely afford this year and probably can't next year.

In the meantime, the legislature is being investigated for possible illegal behavior by some members during last year's budget process. While Corzine's approval rating is a respectable 50 percent, the legislature's is only 30 percent. And a paltry 20 percent of residents think the legislature has done a good job providing property tax relief.

All of this would seem to mean that we can expect some changes in the Democratic-controlled legislature after this November's midterms. We will, but at this point not the ones that the performance of the party in power and the poll results above would suggest. In fact, the Democrats are favored to retain their majorities in both chambers of the legislature and to pick up a seat or two in each.

Nonetheless, there will be new faces in the legislature next year, and most of them will be Republicans. That's because eight GOP state senators have announced that they will retire (one, Bill Gormley, already has) when their terms expire. Two Democratic senators – Wayne Bryant and Joe Doria – will do the same, and three of their colleagues in the upper chamber – Bernie Kenny, Sharpe James and Ron Rice – may be out of job by choice or because they have lost their party's support.

While the voluntary and possible involuntary retirements of these ranking Democrats is indeed a big story, the fact that eight of eighteen GOP senators – a whopping 44 percent – are calling it quits in the same year is unprecedented. And surprising, at least on first glance. Isn't the political environment supposed to be one in which Republicans, led by veteran incumbents, can make a spirited run at gaining a majority in the state senate by showing that their party does have meaningful alternatives to the Democrats' tax hikes, temporary property tax relief, and irresponsible spending? Many GOP assemblyman and senators who will seek reelection certainly think so.

Those Republican senators who are retiring may be thinking about other things. One is age. Six are over seventy. Another is the rigors of campaigning, even in a safe district, since other candidates down the slate expect the person at the top of the ticket to make a spirited effort to help them. Raising money is not fun either, no matter what your age Then there's all the media scrutiny and the concern that what once passed for old-fashioned political patronage may now draw the attention of not only reporters by prosecutors. In addition, some of these Republicans have admitted that it is no fun being in the minority party which frankly can't accomplish much in the legislature.

In addition, veteran Republicans, as well as Democrats, have lamented what they regard as the decline in civility in the legislature and in politics generally. Like the U.S. Senate, the upper chamber in the New Jersey legislature has long been regarded as a special club where members are cordial, think about big picture and the long-term impact of policies, and practice bipartisanship when discussing issues. But all of this has declined given the enormous pressures to balance state budgets, the Democrats' desire to win legislative seats in traditional Republican districts, and the importance of the Democrats, with their slim 22-18 majority in the Senate, keeping their own caucus united to get bills passed.

But other Republicans in the ranks -read the comments of some of the visitors to this web site – and, yes, in the General Assembly, are understandably impatient with the GOP's inability to distinguish itself from the Democrats. They believe that Republicans are in the minority because t
he party in the legislature has not been united or aggressive enough in promoting workable policy alternatives to those posed by members of the opposition party. On these terms, the time for senior statesmen in the legislature, at least passive ones, is over. What the GOP needs are more firebrands who will stand up to the Governor and to Democratic legislative leaders and who will take on sacred cows like Abbott funding, the current civil service system, and the amount of government spending in several policy areas.

Some Republican firebrands in the Assembly, e.g. Kevin O'Toole, Joe Pennacchio, Guy Gregg, Kip Bateman, hope to move into the senate seats being vacated this year. That creates a problem. These bright, hard-working assemblymen will have to be replaced by equally dedicated individuals to keep the party's Assembly caucus strong. But there's another matter that the state's Republicans face as they plan for this fall's campaigns and try to make themselves more relevant to New Jersey voters. That is, will the retiring state senators help their colleagues who are trying to rebuild the party and define its issue positions more clearly and forcefully in the media and among citizens in their districts? Or, will they just coast until their terms expire? Party loyalty and good politics advise going out in a ball of fire.

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.
CALLING FOR REVOLUTION, REPUBLICANS GOT RETIREMENTS