Political Hay

Weird New Jersey

Garden State taxpayers revolt, but put their Democratic tormentors back in office.

By 11.7.07

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On October 22, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine presided over a much-publicized groundbreaking for the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, a state-of-the-art research laboratory that, according to the advanced billing, would attract a "world-class faculty" and "advance stem cell research worldwide."

Given that New Jersey voters had yet to approve the governor's plan to borrow $450 million in bonds over ten years to pay for both the world-class faculty and the "revolutionary" research, the ceremony seemed more than a little premature. But Corzine, armed with a spade and the impregnable self-assurance that has defined his tenure as governor, would brook no skepticism. Massive borrowing was justified, he lectured, because the institute would spur a "quantifiable payback" at some later date.

Such faith-based salesmanship may have wowed the governor's erstwhile colleagues at Goldman, Sachs & Co., but New Jersey voters were plainly unimpressed. In this week's statewide elections, they handed the governor a far more quantifiable version of payback, overwhelmingly rejecting the Corzine-backed ballot proposal to borrow millions for stem-cell research. In the process, they made history: The defeat of the proposal marked the first time the state's voters had rejected a statewide ballot measure since 1990.

UNQUESTIONABLY, THE BIGGEST LOSER in the election was the governor. As a longtime proponent of stem-cell research, he spared no effort to assure the passage of the ballot proposal. After signing the Stem Cell Research Bond Act in July, he defended the plan at every opportunity. Dipping into his own estimated $300 million-plus fortune, the governor gave $150,000 to New Jersey for Hope, a political action committee formed to advocate for the passage of the stem-cell ballot question. Cynics quipped that the governor might as well fund the entire project himself, but the gesture was symbolic of the political capital that Corzine had invested in the stem-cell ballot proposal.

His confidence in its passage was not entirely unfounded. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll found 57 percent supporting the stem-cell measure, with only 36 percent opposed. Similarly, another poll showed that liberals and Democrats supported the measure by a 2-1 margin, a favorable indicator in a state that has increasingly become a Democratic Party stronghold. It's no wonder that Corzine felt secure enough to celebrate the measure's presumed victory with a groundbreaking. The state seemed to be on his side.

A different set of calculations seems to have motivated his constituents. Not the least daunting among them is that New Jersey is the nation's fourth most indebted state -- this even as it boasts the nation's highest property taxes. Factor in a deficit that may exceed $3 billion this year and a $33.5 billion state budget that shows no signs of shrinking, and you get a good sense of the staggering fiscal irresponsibility of the state's Democratic-led legislature. In the end, this week's election was less a referendum on the merits of embryonic stem-cell research, which remains broadly popular, than a rebuke to the political powers-that-be.

AND YET IT WOULD BE A MISTAKE to view the defeat of the stem-cell proposal -- one of three budget-related proposals rejected by state residents this week -- as a vote for new leadership in New Jersey. Notwithstanding some unexpected defeats, Democrats easily retained control of the state senate and the state assembly. The result, then, was a mixed message. On the one hand, voters clearly want sounder stewardship of state finances. On the other hand, they are prepared to vote for the same politicians who landed them in the fiscal mess in which the state now finds itself.

How to account for the cognitive disconnect? Steve Lonegan, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a grassroots group that campaigned against the stem-cell proposal, has a ready answer: There is little in the way of a compelling alternative. Although Lonegan's group worked overtime to get out their message, planting some 15,000 lawn signs in 14 days, it found no support among state Republicans. "The Republican Party chose not to side with us on this issue," Lonegan told me. "They had every opportunity to step up and take a leadership role, but they were eerily silent."

Eerily is right. Fiscal mismanagement in the state has reached near-crisis proportions, yet there is little evidence that the Democratic leadership has paid the price. Possibly that is because, as some suggest, the state's demographics have changed to favor Democrats. According to another school of thought, the state Republican Party, battered so many times in recent years, has grown too timid. Whatever the explanation, the end result is that Democrats are the only choice around, if only by default. That may not be the kind of triumph Corzine had in mind when he hyped his stem-cell initiative, but in New Jersey's impoverished political climate it amounts to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.