Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman's marathon of "Second Chance" hearings across the state is widely seen first and foremost as an initiative brought about by a personal struggle: watching her two sons return from 5 1/2 year prison stints for robbing a clothing store at gun point.
But with Watson Coleman's name widely assumed to be on Governor Corzine's shortlist of potential running mates, some insiders see it as an audition as well.
While not doubting her personal connection and passion for the cause, some observers see Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) as building name ID across the state and taking ownership of an issue that appeals to the inner city, minority base whose large turnout Corzine may need to win reelection.
"In a state where there are not many well-known candidates for any statewide office at this point beyond Gov. Corzine and Chris Christie, she would certainly be an attractive candidate who can go out there and get her name better known," said Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards. "It's logical that she do this kind of thing, and she has a message. Unlike officials who represent a single geographic area, it goes beyond her constituency and it's attractive."
Watson Coleman hosted seven hearings all over the state, most recently in Camden, and has a roundtable discussion planned on juvenile issues. She said that Lieutenant Governor prospects were far from her mind when setting them up.
"There was never any, at least in my mind, relationship between Lieutenant Governor and any other position and conducting these hearings. I would think that if I was out there trying to do that it would be with another type of issue or set of issues. This is not the kind of issue that makes you popular," she said. "The hearings came out of a series of calls that were coming to my office, letters and complaints, and even my own personal experience recognizing things needed to be addressed."
Nobody thinks crime will be a major issue in the gubernatorial campaign, but the soft-on-crime charge is one that could resonate with revolting suburbanites. And it just so happens that the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, has a seven year law enforcement background.
Still, pollsters and analysts think that suburban voters will by sympathetic to the argument that higher recidivism rates affect the suburbs as well as the inner city.
"There may be people who will try to spin any kind of effort to reduce recidivism as quote unquote coddling inmates," said Ben Dworkin, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "I think it's the 21st Century. The facts are we face a high recidivism rate, and if a marginal increase in education so that prisoners that leave and are less likely to return to prison, that saves taxpayers money."
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that he doubts Watson Coleman put any political stock in her crusade, or does he think it's going to be a hot button issue this year. He's polled on issues related to prisoner reentry before, and said it doesn't tend to stir outrage.
"The research on public opinion about these reentry issues has shown that the public isn't too much up in arms about what moves forward," he said. "A lot of things that they're pushing, such as reinstatement of driver's licenses, and those types of things, the public is okay with."
Watson Coleman, for her part, remains non-committal on the question of whether or not she's even interested in being Lieutenant Governor, and insists that she is enjoying her work as a legislator.
"I haven't really thought about being anything other than a legislator, and I haven't had any conversations with the Governor about it. So we're all talking about the hypothetical, potential, theoretical," she said. "If the situation arose and I was asked to consider it, I'd have the obligation to consider it."