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Filling Small Shoes

Christine Todd Whitman's legacy of few bold moves leaves her successor with a weak act to follow.

By S. A. Paolantonio
New Jersey Monthly, June, 2001

Right now, as you're reading this, you're probably just beginning to clear the cobwebs, shake loose the apathy that seems to have mummified New Jersey's body politic for pretty much the last seven years. Christine Todd Whitman, who left the governor's office in January to join the Bush administration, left behind a sleepy legacy that was succinctly described by the curt but powerful title of the final Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll assessing her tenure: Governor Whitman Waves Farewell to New Jersey: State Shrugs.

After the eight-year love affair with Governor Tom Kean and four years of snarling discontent with Governor Jim Florio, a shrug would seem to be the perfectly appropriate middle ground--except we're talking about the leading public figure in a state where the governor's office wields unusually sweeping power. Nonetheless, "Christine Whitman's legacy is of silence," says Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton-based think tank. "And now people want to know what's next."

So with the 2001 gubernatorial primary fast approaching, it's time to start the process of picking the next governor--time, New Jersey voters, to lower your shoulders and de-shrug. Begin the process of caring again. With apologies to MTV's long-running acoustic concert series, let's call the 2001 campaign to find Whitman's successor New Jersey Unshrugged. "

This is a great opportunity for someone to sell some big ideas," says Frederick Busch, the Republican mayor of the small South Jersey town of Clementon.

After the Whitman years, it seems that the one big question being asked is: Can I, as a voter in this state--one of the most prosperous in the nation--have a reasonable expectation that the next governor will have anything bold to say, any long- range vision of the future?

Whitman left a small footprint on New Jersey—a 30 percent personal income tax reduction, a commitment to open-space preservation. The Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll found that just 31 percent of the state residents canvassed credit Whitman with some major accomplishment during her seven years in the Statehouse. A staggering one-fifth of respondents see no accomplishments at all.

That's left the candidates in the 2001 gubernatorial campaign without much of a role model. But the most damaging bequest of the Whitman years may be that her administration lowered expectations so much that she has made the political environment unsafe for any bold gestures of policy or politics. Left on the table by Whitman were the great issues confronting the state--property tax reform and reduction, easing traffic congestion, and, of course, addressing state debt. According to a New Jersey Policy Perspective study, the state's bonded debt at the end of the year 2000 was $15.7 billion; in 1990, it was $4 billion.

Contrast that record of red ink with that of New York State, where Republican governor George Pataki reduced the debt. Moreover, in Washington, the Clinton years were marked by record federal-budget surpluses and debt reduction. Both achievements resulted from record economic growth and tax collections. "In New Jersey, a precious opportunity has been shamefully squandered," says Woodbridge mayor James E. McGreevey, who narrowly lost to Whitman four years ago and is running unopposed in the June 5th Democratic gubernatorial primary.

"There is a leadership vacuum," says Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler, who is running against former U.S. congressman Bob Franks in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Franks joined the race after acting governor DiFrancesco abruptly pulled out in late April. Along with running with the advantage of incumbency, DiFrancesco was easily associated with Whitman's shortcomings. He also faced obstacles allegedly of his own making. Almost immediately after he took over from Whitman in January, he was embarrassed by charges, heavily reported in local and national media, of using his political influence to avoid bank foreclosure and of conflict of interest while in a previous post as solicitor for his hometown of Scotch Plains. Just days after he formally kicked off his primary campaign, he announced he was exiting the race, in a dramatic, surprise press conference at the governor's mansion. Franks soon followed with a formal announcement of his own candidacy.

Last fall Franks ran for the U.S. Senate as an underdog candidate against Democrat Jon Corzine, who vastly outspent Franks on the campaign trail. Despite the odds and owing to a backlash against Corzine's spending, Franks nearly beat the Democrat on Election Day, and his run from behind earned him recognition and respect statewide.

As a Republican, Franks, too, must emerge from the Whitman cocoon. The former governor left the office in a state of inertia while she helped Bush get elected and waited for him to finally reward her with an appointment to head the Environmental Protection Agency. When DiFrancesco took over, he was somewhat hamstrung by the passive tone Whitman had set in her final six months in office. While Franks has more clearly cut a separate path, he'll inherit the mistakes of the former administration as well as the political apathy left behind.

Making the campaign environment even more treacherous this year is the fact that all 120 members of the Assembly and Senate are up for reelection. "It's a difficult time to have to communicate with voters," says Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers. "The political environment is dangerous. It's an election year. New Jersey, historically, because of the big-city media markets on both ends, is a difficult place in which to get your message across on a statewide basis. It's going to be tough to break through." How did we get here? In the 1980s, Kean, a Republican, sold a Reaganesque brand of feel-good politics. He appeared in wildly popular TV ads promoting New Jersey as a tourist destination and helped erase a generation's worth of bad Jersey jokes. And we all know what happened after that. Kean left his successor, Florio, a Democrat, with a huge budgetary and policy problem: finding a fair way to fund the state's overburdened public schools. With the help of the Democratic legislature, Florio rammed through a $2.8 billion tax increase, and the subsequent torrent of public protest swept him out of office.

As a matter of policy, history may be kinder to Florio. He was trying to fix an intractable statewide problem. But as a matter of politics, Florio has since acknowledged that he could have done a much better job of using the enormous powers of the governor's office to sell his tax increase. During the 1989 governor's race, he said he saw no need for new taxes; then, when he got into office, he lacked a smooth sales pitch.

Enter Whitman and the Republican Legislature, which enacted its 30 percent income tax cut, a perfect political antidote to the Florio years. That raises two questions: Did Florio's brief flameout make it impossible for Whitman to try anything that might have been unpopular? And did Whitman's political pandering create an atmosphere that will have her prospective successors tiptoeing around major public policy problems?

"I don't think so, because the office of the governor in New Jersey is so powerful," says Zukin. "Florio did make it much tougher for his successor to have an activist agenda. And it is tough to rally public opinion in this state. But Whitman failed to touch a nerve with people. If the next governor can make a connection, I think there is no long-term damage to the office. Not at all."

McGreevey says, "Citizens want advocacy. They want a governor who is an effective CEO but who is also an advocate for middle-class families in New Jersey." Shure, who served as Florio's press secretary before joining New Jersey Policy Perspective, contends, however, that the level of debate about the bigger issues confronting the state has languished for so long, it will take a real spark to get it going again.

"I like to talk about a whole-state philosophy," says Shure. "We can't afford to be parochial anymore. We have to have a real honest discussion of tax reform. But the problem is that the debate has been stunted for so long."

Tax reform. Debt reduction. Those are code words for "tax increase." Utter those two words during the gubernatorial campaign and a candidate would be signing his political death sentence. Create the impression that that's where you're headed in the first year or two in the governor's office and you could be committing a Florio. "Everybody knows that's the climate we live in," says a consultant who advises statewide Republican candidates. "And that's why this may be the blandest gubernatorial campaign in a generation."

In this precarious political landscape, the gubernatorial candidates have been trying to pick and choose the right agenda and the right words to sell a statewide vision—in short, to elicit a public reaction that is slightly more engaging than a shrug.

Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City for nine years, rented John McCain's bus, "the Straight-Talk Express," and took a three-day ride across the state to explain how his reform policies kick-started a renaissance in what was one of the state's real trouble spots. "People aren't looking for somebody who wants to take the easy way," Schundler says in an interview. "I think people are looking for someone with the courage to do the right thing."

The conservative Schundler has done radical things in Jersey City. He privatized the management of the city's library. He raised more than $1 million in scholarship money to give low-income families greater school choice for their children. But he also cracked down on tax evaders, increased the police force, and lowered the tax rate. His problems are twofold: convincing the mostly suburban state electorate that what was good for Jersey City will work in Summit and Upper Saddle River, and persuading Republican voters to ignore the wishes of GOP leaders who haven't lined up behind him.

In DiFrancesco's brief term as both acting governor and gubernatorial candidate, he took the high road, if not the safe one. He said he would do what he could to end racial profiling by the state police. He quickly expressed support for the state's rehabilitation of polluted industrial sites. "Brownfields development is critically important to the future of this state," he said. "It revitalizes our cities, adding new businesses and jobs. It helps us save farmland...and it attacks suburban sprawl....Knowing what you want and where you're going is the stuff of vision."

But DiFrancesco's property tax relief proposals were criticized. He said he wanted to double the New Jersey Saver Rebate for the elderly and disabled. "It's too little, too late," says McGreevey, who has been out there alone in the Democratic contest, hosting town meetings in each of the state's 21 counties and sniping at his Republican opponents and the Whitman legacy. Why? Because he can't allow the Republican nominee to dictate the terms of the gubernatorial campaign.

McGreevey may try to make political hay out of the biggest embarrassments of the Whitman administration: the problems with the start of the auto emissions testing program, the snafus with the E-ZPass system, the racial profiling, and, of course, the myriad financial issues concerning property tax reform and debt relief. "In the end, it comes down to leadership," says McGreevey. "All over the state, people are telling me exactly what the Star-Ledger/Eagleton Poll said: Where has state government been? Where has the governor been? The Legislature?" But, after the Whitman years and the Florio experience, is New Jersey's electorate ready for an activist governor who is willing to go out on a limb? "Yes, it is," says McGreevey, "providing the next governor is open, accessible, inclusive, and willing to engage the public."

Contributing editor S. A. Paolantonio wrote about former senator Frank Lautenberg in the January issue.


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