Tea Party activists who are ambitious to sustain their movement between election cycles should carefully consider some of the key lessons drawn from the experiences of Hands Across New Jersey (HANJ), a highly successful anti-tax revolt that took hold in the early 1990s. Top strategists and elected officials familiar with the campaign’s history agree that HANJ became too complacent after Republicans obtained a veto-proof majority in the statehouse in the 1991 elections.
Although they secured some early and important legislative victories in the form of a reduced sales tax and restraints on state spending, HANJ did not maintain pressure on elected officials, Richard LaRossa, a former state senator, recalled in an interview.
“Looking back now I would have to say Hands Across New Jersey withered and died because activists largely got their way early on,” he observed. “After the state legislature switched over to the Republicans, we took some initial steps like rolling back the sales tax from seven percent to six percent and this turned out to be very positive. The Democrats were screaming that there was going to be a huge revenue loss and that there would be layoffs. But this never materialized. In fact, not only did we make up the revenue, but we actually had a surplus the following year. We also took some initial steps to control spending. But people did not stay active and there is a lesson in that for today’s Tea Party movement.”
Hands Across New Jersey erupted in response to the record $2.8 billion tax hikes Democratic Gov. Jim Florio imposed after taking office in 1990. John Budzash, a postal worker from Howell Township, was instrumental in founding and organizing the movement. Bumper Stickers such as “Impeach Florio” and “Florio Free in 93” were widely circulated in connection with HANJ activism.
“What prompted Hands Across New Jersey was everything being taxed from heavy trucks, toilet paper and paper towels, there was just no limit and people were outraged,” LaRossa said. “There was one monster rally in particular that brought out thousands of people who put rolls of toilet paper on the radio rails and the antennas on their cars. It really was remarkable and I think in the end you have to say the movement did a lot of good. But the lesson for today is that people need to remain active and they should not be complacent under either party.”
There’s no question HANJ yielded significant political dividends for the state Republican Party, which had been locked out of power. The electorate’s growing antipathy toward Florio’s tax hikes found expression in the 1990 elections when Christine Todd Whitman, a former Somerset County Republican freeholder, came within a whisker of upsetting U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, a popular Democrat, who was previously re-elected by comfortable margins. A year later, LaRossa scored one of the biggest upsets in recent political memory when he unseated Gerald Stockman, the Democratic state senator in the 15th district, which includes Trenton. It was LaRossa’s 1991 victory that provided the Republican Party with its veto proof majority in the state legislature.
However, by the time 1993 rolled around, Florio, to his enormous credit, had regained his political footing and went on the offense against Whitman, who emerged as the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Florio, for instance, very shrewdly moved to Whitman’s right on welfare reform, which was a hot topic at the time. Right up until Election Day just about every poll, except for the Asbury Park Press, showed Florio with a clear lead. The national ramifications associated with the gubernatorial contest became clear when James Carville, who had served as a top strategist to President Bill Clinton, interjected himself into the race and helped orchestrate political attack ads built around Whitman’s financial portfolio.
Ultimately, the class warfare tactics backfired. Whitman turned in a very adroit debate performance against Florio and told voters exactly how much she paid in taxes, which in turn helped stir memories. Florio ran for office saying he saw “no need for new taxes” but quickly discovered a $2.8 billion need after moving into the governor’s mansion. The Whitman campaign, which had been extremely disorganized and overly defensive in the early going, clearly benefited from arrival of Ed Rollins, the Republican strategist who helped orchestrate Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide re-election. Another key turning point came when Whitman embraced the very Reaganesque tax-cut package businessman Steve Forbes crafted; the plan called for a 30 percent across the board income tax reduction. Voters could finally see that Whitman was serious about reversing Florio’s policies.
The other factor that deserves mention here is the emergence of the alternative media, which helped give life to HANJ and later the Whitman campaign. While the Internet had not yet gone mainstream, the “John and Ken” show on N.J. 101.5 provided Florio’s critics with a strong platform that helped counterbalance the overt liberalism of the Star Ledger, the Trenton Times and the Bergen Record. The print media has historically assumed a heightened profile in New Jersey in the absence of a major television network.
The other major player here was Bob Grant, a prominent radio personality, who dominated the New York market. In many respects, it was Grant who pioneered the conservative talk radio industry and opened the way for other right-leaning figures locked out of the mainstream media. The “omniscience” of Bob Grant was apparent to anyone else entering the broadcast business at that time another talk show host named Rush Limbaugh acknowledged in his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be.
An articulate, forceful, and often combative, proponent of constitutional limited government, Grant resonated with millions of listeners who resented the elite media’s transparent hostility to long-standing American ideals. Grant was also a persistent critic of political correctness, confiscatory tax policies, racial quotas and open immigration. However, it should be noted he was not purely conservative. Grant, for instance, was pro-choice on abortion, supported some gun control measures and backed euthanasia. These deviations notwithstanding, the talk show host vigorously challenged the left-leaning political establishment in his home state of N.J. and typically supported Republican candidates each election cycle.
Unfortunately for Grant, those same Republicans who benefitted from multiple appearances on his program would later return the favor by capitulating to his critics. In response to complaints from black ministers who accused the radio host of making racially charged comments, Whitman agreed to stop making appearances on Grant’s program after she became governor in 1994. “I felt like a pair of old shoes on a rainy day, the kind that are discarded when one has no further use for them,” Grant was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
During an address to reporters shortly after Whitman’s victory over Florio, Rollins the Republican campaign strategist, made bizarre claims about “walking around money” in the amount of $500,000 that was supposedly used to discourage black voter turnout. Rollins later backpedaled on these remarks. But they could help explain why Whitman felt it is necessary to rebuke Grant at the behest of black ministers. She later reversed herself and went back on the program, but lectured Grant about some of his content. That same year Sen. Frank Lautenberg used Grant as a foil in his successful re-election effort against Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, who was the Republican state assembly speaker. Haytaian had long association with Grant but maintained his distance during the campaign. From that point forward, Grant was understandably less embracing of the Republican establishment; so were N.J. voters. The party gradually lost ground as it accommodated higher levels of spending.
Budzash, the HANJ founder, was never shy about appearing on Grant’s program where he advanced the group’s anti-tax message. To say that he maintained a healthy separation from the Republican Party would be an understatement. In fact, Budzash actually came around and supported Florio over Whitman in 1993. The move caused no small amount of confusing and consternation at N.J. 101.5, which had built its programming around opposition to Florio and frequently featured Budzash as a guest. His actions may have been unconventional, but they are instructive. HANJ was effective because it was constitutionally motivated and united average citizens who had ideological differences in some areas, Budzash has observed in retrospect.
“We were simply overtaxed average people who were fed up with out of control government, we bonded together and yelled loudly,” he wrote in response to an earlier blog post. “We changed politics in NJ and we fought successfully to repeal taxes, defeat new taxes and stopped new bonded debt proposals. HANJ did not ‘coalesce with the financial and political support of more established entities’ I personally turned down offers of funds from the NRA, the Republican Party and others. We operated on our personal money and small donations. We had members and supporters who were pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-life, pro- abortion, Democrat and Republican. We even had a few liberals and conservatives mixed in with mostly moderate supporters. Our issues were taxes and better government period!”
Tea Party activists who view HANJ as a localized precedent for their own efforts might then reasonably conclude that should maintain a mostly libertarian outlook that connects with widespread concerns about government overreach and excessive federal spending in particular. This way they can attract more Americans into the fold who have very different ideas on social and cultural issues.
Budzash does see a historical connection between HANJ and the Tea Party.
“Politicians seem to forget we are a nation born from a Tax Revolt,” he wrote. “They spend, tax, bond, and waste money with no thought to the future of the USA. HANJ members were fed up with high taxes just as most Tea Party members are today. I was born on Dec. 16, the date of the original Tea Party, and I see the membership of today’s Tea Party as very similar to our own in HANJ. We were over taxed, over regulated U.S. citizens from all walks of live. You cannot easily define the Tea Party or HANJ because in both instances you had a blend of people from all walks of life. We just want to be able to afford to live and we want government under control and to do its job without bankrupting us. We want politicians to represent us NOT banks or big business or any interest group. They are employed by the taxpayers NOT a foreign government or a business to do what we want, NOT what you are bribed to do.”
Although he remains a committed Republican, LaRossa, the former state senator, also sees flaws in both major parties and advises office holders to remain mindful of constituent concerns that will sometimes diverge from the preferences of legislative leaders.
“I think the worst government takes place when you have one party in control of everything,” LaRossa said. “We had Republicans in control of the governor’s office, the assembly and the state senate. We had some solid achievements in those first few years and I think we can be proud of those initial policy changes. But you do lose a critical element with one party control, which I refer to as positive friction. You lose that dissenting voice and everyone is expected to salute when something gets run up the flag pole by your party. I use to get a lot of criticism when I would oppose the Whitman administration. People would ask why I was against my own governor and I would say the last time I checked she doesn’t live in my district and my responsibility is to the 250,000 people who put me into office.”
After a long run of “bozo governors” in N.J., Budzash does see potential in Chris Christie and even presidential possibilities if he addresses property taxes. Rick Manning, a Second Amendment activist, who now serves as the communications director for Americans for Limited Government in Washington, D.C., also sees cause for encouragement in the early actions Gov. Christie has taken. But he cautions against the idea that a narrow focus on fiscal questions will enable the Tea Party to persist without the involvement of other small government activists. Manning served as the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist/liaison in N.J. when HANJ was active. The Coalition of New Jersey Sportsman made common cause with HANJ and helped fuel the anti-tax revolt, Manning explained. While economic concerns may be front and center at the moment, libertarians should be receptive to the contributions of other activists who prioritize specific constitutional matters and are just as committed to the idea of restraining federal power.
“The key lesson out of the successful HANJ fight is that everyone who supports limited government can win when we all band together, but when we fight, everyone loses,” he said.
As Gov. Christie’s reform efforts continue to gain the attention of Tea Party activists across the nation, they should remain mindful of fact that his support extends well beyond the boundaries of his own party. Beleaguered taxpayers are revolting against entrenched teachers unions and a highly activist state Supreme Court because they admire Christie personally and recognize N.J. is out of money. They are not suddenly in love with Republicans. Grant, the radio pioneer who became too close to the GOP, would likely agree.