The big picture(s)
Sunday, November 11, 2007
By INGRID REED
The message this year was not precise, not easily categorized. But voters are wary, and legislators better start listening.
Ingrid W. Reed directs the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, RutgersUniversity.
ON THE WEEKEND after a New Jersey election, a reflective mood sets in, a contrast to the frantic day after the election, when results come tumbling in and we take a first stab at figuring out what it means.
By Sunday, the expectation is that a picture will emerge that neatly wraps it all up. Then the voters are forgotten and attention shifts back to the State House in Trenton.
But this year there is not just one picture. This year I see three: a flat screen, a mosaic and a huge abstract painting of two large, unformed shapes.
The first one is a giant flat screen shot of a scoreboard with a flashing headline: "New Jersey Dems Stay in Control. Ballot questions: 2 Up, 2 Down."
No subtlety and no depth with this approach. We know there was much more going on. In fact, the Democrats gained a seat in the Senate, but they lost two to the Republicans in the Assembly.
Each seat has a little drama of its own. Millions of dollars spent in some, hardly any in others. Few competitive races. Personalities dominated the races as much as money, while the political leanings of the districts in most cases determined the outcome.
My picture of the legislative contests shows each district as unique, like the pieces in a mosaic. They can be arranged in many ways to form a pleasing pattern, but there is no single way to create it.
The same is true of what you make of the legislative races, particularly the competitive ones. Each one needs to be examined separately as a very locally oriented phenomenon. A generalization will not capture the legislative picture. Only viewing it as a collection of distinct entities makes sense.
An example is the 39th District, where Sen. Gerald Cardinale was challenged by Democratic lawyer Joseph Ariyan. Basically, the district votes for Republicans, and its voters have become very familiar with their senator of 25 years.
While Ariyan organized an impressive, well-funded campaign, he only had about five months to become known to the faithful voters who come to the polls in off-year elections, and he needed to give them good reasons to turn from someone of their own party they knew well and embrace a newcomer. Maybe Ariyan needs to continue his campaign for another two years to build the connections that campaign funds can't buy.
Another Bergen County piece in the mosaic demonstrates the pattern of combining voter familiarity with candidates and strong party affinity. In District 37, after a bruising primary contest, Democrats Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson were predicted to win reelection easily. And they did.
However, with only weeks to go, Johnson was found to have made substantial contributions to the controversial perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, information that could have damaged his chances of returning to Legislature.
But Johnson was well-known, so injecting new, complicated information into the race was difficult. However, there could be questions within his party about his electability before the next election, in two years.
In other parts of the state, three Senate incumbents were turned out in tumultuous campaigns involving lots of money, personal charges and heated issue discussions.
The common characteristic among those pieces in the legislative mosaic was the fact that the successful challengers were all incumbents themselves – in the Assembly. They had run and won districtwide before and were starting out their quest for the upper house well-known. They had a record to run on and the support of party leaders.
In District 12 (Monmouth and Mercer counties), Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck is the one Republican challenger who prevailed over a Democrat, Sen. Ellen Karcher. She, like Cardinale, was the target of seemingly boundless Democratic campaign funds. Still, she prevailed with much less money but a smart campaign – in a district that basically votes for Republicans.
Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew in District 1 (Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties) and Assemblyman Jim Whelan in District 2 (Atlantic County) each was supported generously by campaign funds from Democrats around the state, making the most of their own distinctive personal advantages to overcome popular Republican incumbents.
While the focus is on the winners, the fact is that this new Legislature has some unique pieces that may shape it more than individual legislators.
Specifically, many of the new faces who have been elected to take the place of 39 departing members are much younger than their predecessors, but clearly experienced and ambitious and ready to challenge the leadership.
There will be a phenomenal increase in the number of women – 11 in all, bringing the total to 34. They will want to be a force in an institution dominated for centuries by men.
And nine legislators have run as Clean Elections candidates, successfully using this new form of campaign finance to gain legislative seats without the need to raise money during their campaign. One of the them, Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein in District 14 (Mercer and Middlesex counties) survived with the help of Clean Election rescue money to beat the challenge of a national group coming in to campaign against her.
The big story that will influence the next two years of Trenton activity is characterized by the abstract painting of two unformed but colorful shapes. They represent the voices of New Jersey defeating two of four ballot questions.
What were the voters thinking when they turned down dedicated taxes for property tax relief and the opportunity for New Jersey to become a leader in stem cell research?
Like someone viewing an abstract painting, you can always guess what it means. Maybe voters now understand very well the serious financial conditions of the state, so they said no more borrowing, no more spending, no matter what.
Maybe voters were also expressing their distrust of elected officials to act in the public interest rather than their self-interest, so they felt, Why give them what they asked for?
Or, maybe they were just saying no – enough piecemeal, short-term approaches. Whatever their motives, it is up to the governor and the Legislature to try to figure what those defeats mean and respect the voters for their decisions.
They deserve full explanations from their own legislators of how the financial crisis in the state will be addressed. If not asset monetization, then what?
Isn't that what the legislators campaigned about in their home territory? Now that they made it to the State House, however you interpret the picture of this election, it is time for the winners to act for the well-being of their constituents and the state.