Filling Small Shoes
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
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?
a small footprint on New Jerseya 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.
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.
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
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
"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."
"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."
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 visionin short, to elicit a public reaction that
is slightly more engaging than a shrug.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
editor S. A. Paolantonio wrote about former senator Frank Lautenberg
in the January issue.