Since announcing a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 as early as 2021 last week, the question remains whether Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) will pursue the issue with a ballot question to amend the state constitution rather than letting a veto from Governor Chris Christie quash the increases. With that ballot question expected to go to voters in 2017 when Sweeney will likely run for the Democratic nomination for governor, the minimum wage issue could be a way for Sweeney to drum up his labor support for the primary and for his caucus to fall back on a dependable populist message.
“Look, if it’s for the purpose of having the governor veto a bill, we can do that,” Sweeney said of putting the increase to a vote in the legislature. “We’ve done it many times. Or is it the purpose of passing something so that the people of New Jersey, the workers of New Jersey, have real hope that they’ll see an increase in their minimum wage?”
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that Sweeney’s confrontational approach will be a lure for labor support during the primary. With Sweeney facing potential political fallout from renegotiated or terminated collective bargaining agreements as the result of his state takeover effort in Atlantic City, that appeal to the rank and file could serve him well.
“It’ll certainly bring in a lot of the union vote, which would certainly help him if he were the nominee, or whoever the Democratic nominee is,” Murray said of the increase. “Where he’s really looking to make inroads is with the unions themselves, trying to gain credibility, gain their trust in the primary battle for their support.”
With a tide of anti-Wall Street and anti-supply side sentiment bolstering would-be outliers like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in this year’s presidential primaries, Sweeney’s $15 push could give him a timely advantage over his two biggest rivals — though Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop and former ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy would be likely to support the measure, both have ties to Goldman Sachs.
Krista Jenkins, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said that while the numbers still aren’t in on popular support for Sweeney’s wage hike, the wide margin of victory for his 2013 ballot question raising the wage and constitutionally tying it to inflation suggests that Sweeney may have made the right choice for the times. She said that if underemployment in New Jersey proves to be consistent with national trends, that disparity between workers’ education and job prospects could compound Sweeney’s advantage.
“To the extent that he has his eyes on Governor Christie’s position, it’s certainly not an unsound move on his part,” Jenkins said. “I think he’s on solid ground. We know that the economic recovery has lagged behind other states who have kind of similar demographics and who have similar economic trends. People are feeling as if they’re being squeezed.”
But down the ballot, things get trickier. Since Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-36) unveiled the new plan, there has been a constant trickle of support from Democrats in areas that skew solidly blue.
“It’s time that New Jersey took a bold step to help improve the lives of residents, and bringing the minimum wage to $10.10 immediately and to $15 in the coming years will do that,” said state Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29). “I am proud to support this plan, which will give hard-working families in New Jersey a much-needed boost.”
But in competitive districts like the second, eleventh and sixteenth, Democrats have either kept their heads down or come out against the increase. Last year’s hard-fought Democratic victories in the eleventh and sixteenth depended on support from center-right independents.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2) said Tuesday that although he pays his own employees at his family’s grocery stores above the minimum wage already, he would oppose Sweeney’s ballot question. He allowed as how he and Republican opponent Chris Brown will most likely agree on the issue.
“I was in favor of the increase with the constitutional amendment a few years back,” Mazzeo said. “To go up so dramatically, it’s kind of tough, especially for my district in this economic environment, to bump up the minimum wage in such a drastic way.”
Brown supported the possibility of an increase but opposed the 2013 ballot question, writing in the Press of Atlantic City that Sweeney and his Democratic allies had “ignored a chance at a compromise and instead chose to move even further away from the common ground.”
Though 2015’s surprise Assembly winners Joann Downey (D-11) and Eric Houghtaling (D-11) have stayed mum on the subject, sitting Republican state Senator Jennifer Beck said Tuesday that she is opposed.
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16), who will face another close race against first-term assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16), came out in firm opposition to a hike.
“With this kind of government-mandate, watch what happens to the price of food and gas, for example,” Ciattarelli said. “Are we now saying that my 15-years old son who bags groceries at the local produce shop should be paid the equivalent of $30,000 a year?”