Down to the Wire in New Jersey

Off-year elections rarely make headlines, especially in the United States, where just over half of all eligible voters cast ballots in presidential elections and barely one-third vote in state and congressional elections. But as American voters prepare to go to the polls on November 3, Democratic and Republican eyes alike are focused on one race that might in other years seem insignificant on a national scale: The gubernatorial race in New Jersey.

At first glance, it is hard to see just why the New Jersey race has grabbed national headlines. In many ways, there is little unique about the state – with a huge budget deficit ($ 8 billion), surging unemployment (currently at 9.7 percent) and some of the highest taxes in the country, it bears striking resemblance to New York, California and several more states around the country.

And yet New Jersey is in the news. Even Virginia, the only other gubernatorial election being held this year, has failed to garner the same national attention as the Garden State: An internet search for “Virginia governor election” returned a fraction of the same search with the words “New Jersey.” How come?

One reason is Chris Christie, the Republican challenger and a former US prosecutor. Christie, a native New Jerseyan and life-time resident of the state, has enjoyed a large lead in state polls since beating Steven M. Lonegan for the Republican nomination last summer. Even though Governor Jon Corzine has narrowed that gap (as Mishpacha went to press the two candidates were virtually tied in the polls), the fact that Christie held a large lead for so many months is no small feat for a solidly “blue” statethat Barak Obama won by more than 500,000 votes over John McCain last year. It is no exaggeration to say that at the end of 2008, many people left the GOP for dead.

One analyst, Michael Fragin, said the resurrection of the Republican Party in New Jersey has as much to do with Democratic infighting as it does with Republican comeback. 

“You’ve got an interesting undercurrent amongst Democrats in New Jersey,” said Fragin a veteran political observer a former aide to ex-New York Governor George Pataki. “There are a number of ugly leadership fights, including a nasty one between State Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, Jr. and Senate President Richard J. Codey, as well as some tension between upstate – downstate regions of the party. There’s a lot of disarray there. 

Referendum on Obama?

Beyond issues of local politics, some national observers have debated the possibility that the New Jersey election could be a preview next year’s mid-term elections, when nationwide 36 governors, 37 senators and all 435 members of the House of Representatives will face re-election. Mid-term elections are generally believed to be a referendum on the president’s job performance, but it is unclear whether this off-year (as opposed to ‘mid term’) election has any national significance. Michael Fragin says “yes,” but only if Corzine wins.

“State elections are usually about state issues, not national ones. But I’d have to say, if Christie can pull this one out, it’s a comment on Obama. But if Corzine is re-elected, it’s a statement about Corzine, not about Obama.

Predictably, some Republicans disagree. One senior GOP official dismissed the “referendum” out-of-hand: “If Jon Corzine can’t win here after spending more than $40 million, I think it is hard to blame it on Barack Obama,” he said.

Bi-partisan support

For New Jersey’s 100,000 Orthodox Jews, the result of the election has clear implications. Orthodox leaders across the board agree that Governor Corzine has “generously” tried to accommodate the unique needs of the frum community, in a variety of areas.

“As governor, Jon Corzine has pushed for and signed some of the most progressive  legislation to benefit our community,” said Josh Pruzansky, the head of Agudath Israel – New Jersey. “Today, thing such as kashrus, shabbos and yom tov observance and other critical issues are enshrined in law. State employees cannot be fired or penalized for taking time off for weekday holidays, teachers and university professors must accommodate students that refuse to take Saturday morning exams, state elections cannot be scheduled on Jewish holidays, and more. If a person is hospitalised on Shabbos, he cannot be compelled to sign anything. Nursing homes must provide kosher food for their residents. Obviously, these are very important issues to us.”

Meir Lichtenstein, a Democratic member of the Lakewood Township Committee and a former mayor of Lakewood, agrees.

“There is a general feeling in our community of gratitude towards the governor,” he told Mishpacha. “I’ve personally had opportunity to work with Jon many times on a great number of issues, and he has always been there to help our community obtain funding for medical issues, helped us navigate planning red-tape when the Lakewood Township was planning to deal with growth in the city and helped us approach the commissioner of health to approve a pilot program for Hatzolah in Lakewood.  It’s the first private paramedic outfit in the state.”

Still, it is far from clear cut that Corzine will win the Orthodox vote come Election Day. His support for the “pro-life” movement and some socially liberal ballot issues such as single-gender “marriage,” and the governor has emphasized his close relationship with President Obama – a positive in most New Jersey eyes, but a definite negative for a large portion of the Orthodox community.

More importantly, Corzine he has made clear that be does not support one of the most important issues facing the largest frum community in the country outside New York: public funding for yeshivos and Jewish day schools, something that Christie supports (but has failed to outline plans that would satisfy the US constitutional separation of religion and state). With more than 27,000 children enrolled in private Jewish education in New Jersey, at an average cost of $10,000 per child, school vouchers and or tuition tax credits for private education  is a burning issue for many people.

Then again, many voters are simply itching for change, especially in a state that many people believe has become synonymous with “corruption.” Andrew Schwartz, a tax accountant from Clifton and a 15 year resident of New Jersey, said many or even most New Jerseyans are simply fed up with politics as usual in the state.

 “People are so cynical about politics and the corruption in the state at this point that they don’t trust anyone,” he said. “To me Corzine is just another executive who can buy elections and then raise taxes on everyone. It’s your standard limousine liberal fare. ‘I can afford my tax bill to subsidize the morass of state programs and municipal pensions, why can’t everyone else?”

Spoiler

At the end of the day, the final piece of the puzzle may rest in the hands of Chris Daggett, a 59-year-old independent candidate who is not expected to win the race but who has set both the Corzine and Christie campaigns on edge. As Mishpacha went to press, some polls suggested Daggett could win as much as 17 percent of the vote on Election Day, a number that makes it unlikely that he could achieve an upset victory but could position him to play the role of spoiler for one of the main candidates. Again, analysts disagree which major candidate is likely to suffer because of Daggett.

But Daggett rejects the notion that a vote for an independent candidate might be wasted, telling CBS News, “I am beginning to convince people that the only wasted vote this year is the vote for politics as usual.”

© Mishpacha magzine 2009

 

 

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