Daggett, the Nonpopulist – Likely, a Nonfactor

I like Chris Daggett. Of all my predecessors in my former position as Regional Administrator of Region 2, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I feel he was the best. I actually think he has the leadership and managerial skills to be a good governor, although I think Chris Christie surpasses him in this regard.

I am at a loss, however, to understand the rationale for his candidacy. In order for an independent or third-party candidate to even remotely impact an election result, he or she must embrace a populist issue and use it as a basis for a protest vote against the two major party candidates. Daggett has no such populist message.

In fact, thus far in the campaign, Chris Daggett has inexplicably avoided specific proposals on what is by far the leading populist issue of Campaign 2009: property taxes. A visit to his campaign website, http://daggettforgovernor.com/wordpress/, is instructive in this regard.

In a section of his website entitled “Rein in Property Taxes and the State Budget”, Daggett states the following, “Property taxes, not state taxes – local spending, not state spending – are the biggest problems. These are self-inflicted wounds, and we need a governor willing to start talking seriously about reducing the real cost drivers of ever-rising salary, health care benefit and pension costs and the price we all pay to fund 566 municipalities and more than 600 school districts in the name of home rule.”

This is all well and good in identifying a major cause of escalating property taxes, but nowhere on the website do I see specific proposals from Daggett to deal with the issue. There is no mention of cost control measures such as mandatory regional bargaining with teachers unions, moving the school district budget elections to November, tightening cap waivers, and amending the constitution to limit the jurisdiction of the courts to shift state education aid from suburban to urban school districts.

Thus, what Daggett gives the voters on property taxes is lofty rhetoric but no proposals. Without proposals, there is no Daggett populist message on the issue. If voters do not view Daggett’s candidacy as an effective vehicle with which to send a message of protest to Jon Corzine and Chris Christie on property taxes, they will view a vote for Chris Daggett as a wasted vote.

All this is actually very bad news for Jon Corzine. In view of his worsening negative job approval numbers, it is highly unlikely he will garner more than 45% to 46% of the gubernatorial election vote. He literally needs Chris Daggett to capture approximately 10% of the vote in order to deny Chris Christie a plurality on election day. If Daggett does not have an effective populist property tax message, he will not even remotely approach the magic 10% figure.

At this Labor Day traditional campaign starting date, the messages of both major party candidates are abundantly clear. Corzine’s message is “Chris Christie is a George W. Bush Devil Incarnate”, while Christie’s message is “I’m Not Jon Corzine”. Neither Corzine nor Christie is offering a property tax platform. The Governor knows that the electorate, as shown by polls, has judged him to be a failure on the issue, while Christie wants to avoid specific proposals on property taxes for fear that this will invite effective Democrat and media criticism.

As shown by the recent Quinnipiac Poll, the Corzine message is backfiring badly. In the absence of any positive message, the Governor’s negative thrust is resulting in his negative approval ratings rising at a more rapid rate than those of Chris Christie. Unless the Governor’s opposition research uncovers an absolute bombshell in the life and career of Chris Christie, the Corzine negative attack strategy is effectively at a dead end. Traffic accidents do not constitute a “bombshell” – Chris Christie is running for Governor and not for Director of New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles.

Yet Christie’s strategy of avoiding the property tax issue is fraught with peril also, as I have mentioned in numerous columns. Christie is leaving the door wide open for Daggett to capture the property tax issue as a basis for his own populist message. If Daggett captures a sizable portion of the anti-Corzine vote, this could result in Chris Christie finishing second to an unpopular Jon Corzine on Election Day.

Will Chris Daggett fashion an effective populist property tax message? I don’t think so. Populism is not Daggett’s style. He appeals well to the intellect, but I think he is unable to connect with the anger and frustration of New Jerseyans regarding the unaffordability of life in the Garden State. He is hardly New Jersey’s version of Jesse Ventura.

Instead, Chris Daggett is New Jersey’s version of Adlai Stevenson. A Stevenson supporter approached the former Governor of Illinois after his defeat by Dwight Eisenhower in the Presidential elections of 1952 and 1956 and said to him, “Governor Stevenson, every smart person I know voted for you”. The man from Libertyville responded in typical Stevensonian laconic fashion, “Yes, but I needed a majority”.

In the absence of any populist message, the electoral appeal of Chris Daggett, the Adlai Stevenson of New Jersey, will similarly be limited to the highbrow and the horsey set. Although Daggett may well outperform both Christie and Corzine in the gubernatorial debates, he will likely be a nonfactor on Election Day, November 3, 2009, capturing less than five percent of the vote. This is indeed very good news for Chris Christie.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

Daggett, the Nonpopulist – Likely, a Nonfactor