New Jersey's Topsy-Turvy Race for Governor

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For a lot of national political operatives, the New Jersey governor's race, which wraps up next Tuesday, is a high-stakes game of poker, a test of Pres. Barack Obama's coattails, and a possible foreshadowing of the 2010 Congressional campaigns. For this New Jersey voter, and, I suspect, many others, it's a welcome end to a largely uninspiring partisan snipefest. The mudslinging between incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican nominee Chris Christie has so tedious that an upstart independent bid by veteran policy wonk Chris Daggett has got some folks thinking he could be the Brooks-Brothers version of Ross Perot.

The White House is sufficiently nervous about losing this reliable blue state that Pres. Obama is stumping for Corzine today as I write this. Both he and Vice President Biden have been here quite a bit. Live streaming video by Ustream

Politico.com reports that one of Obama's senior political advisorsrecently took over Corzine's campaign. It's telling that after nearly four years in the Governor's office, Corzine's campaign looks as if Barack Obama's at the top of the ticket. Crowds hold "Obama Corzine" signs aloft, and the video slide show on the campaign website features the president and governor side-by-side, touting their partnership.

President Obama Campaigns With NJ Senator Corzine

I don't think too many people thought Jon Corzine would have been in this position when he was first elected in 2005. The multimillionaire former CEO of Goldman-Sachs had been successful in the US Senate, and his self-funded campaign seemed to lift him above the usual questions surrounding candidates' campaign donors. Like his Republican opponent, Doug Forrester, he promised to raise ethics standards, cut taxes and create jobs. I endorsed Corzine in 2005, but not because I believed anything that he or his opponent claimed they were going to do:

"I think that Washington's budget woes, made worse by the cost of hurricane cleanup and the ever-rising price tag for the Iraq War, mean that less federal money will be coming to the states for the forseeable future. That means less state aid to municipalities, and the money has to be made up somehow. I have already watched taxpayers in my own community cut off their noses to spite their faces by voting down increases for public education. I expect the quality of life in New Jersey to further deteriorate as the impact of federal cuts trickle down....
"So for me, the question is not, which candidate will spur growth by reducing taxes, but which candidate will make an effort to ensure that we do the best job that we can to protect the most vulnerable during the inevitable belt-tightening of the next few years...."

The economic downturn turned out to be worse than I could have anticipated. The northern part of the state is full of suburban bedroom communities for New York commuters, so Wall Street's losses hit New Jersey hard. People who've never seen a pink slip before are scrambling for jobs. Corzine argues that he has been a fiscally responsible progressive:

Because of Jon Corzine’s strong leadership, New Jersey is already gaining thousands of new private sector jobs; our median family income leads the nation; and, our public school students rank at the top of the country in reading and math. Governor Corzine reshaped and resized state government.
He eliminated and consolidated departments, sold state cars, tore up gas cards and closed office buildings. He reduced the state workforce by 7,000 employees and achieved additional savings by increasing the retirement age from 55 to 62, capping pensions, and asking state workers to contribute for the first time toward the cost of their health care. This year, he even negotiated a 7.5 percent wage cut for public employees.

These aren't exactly the kinds of accomplishments that get folks jazzed up about campaigning for you. And Corzine's opponents, Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett, only have to point to the state's employment picture to support their contention that Corzine's stewardship of the economy has failed:

Christie, a former US attorney who touts his record for putting corrupt politicians behind bars, says his program of tax and spending cuts will improve the state's business climate and create jobs:

New Jersey has the highest tax burden in the country, the highest property taxes in the nation and our highest unemployment in 33 years. Last year alone, nearly 200,000 jobs were lost, we have the highest home foreclosure rate in the region and Jon Corzine eliminated property tax rebates from 1.2 million New Jerseyans. New Jerseyans are at a breaking point. Our families are suffocating as each day gets harder and harder.

At the same time, Christie promises to protect vulnerable programs such as the Educational Opportunity Fund, which provides scholarships and mentoring to college students who are academically underprepared and financially disadvantaged. Christie has some big Republican guns on his side - most notably, former New York City mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. The Republican Governors' Association has been ponied up the cash for last-minute attack ads.

Chris Christie countdown to change get out and vote bus tour

 

Independent Chris Daggett faults Corzine's leadership, but insists that Christie's numbers don't add up. His signature idea is a tax reform plan that would cap local spending and limit property taxes to a maximum of $2500 annually:

Under the plan, the $1.6 billion spent in this year’s budget for property tax relief programs—including homestead rebates, the senior citizen property tax freeze and the income tax write-off for property taxes—would be folded into a property tax cut that would be deducted directly from homeowners’ property tax bills, as proposed by the Legislature’s Property Tax Study Commission three years ago.
Daggett’s tax reform plan would extend the existing 7 percent sales tax to a wide range of personal, professional and household services, including services provided to individuals by professionals such as lawyers, accountants and architects. The sales tax extension would not include business-to-business services. The expansion would add $3.9 billion in tax revenue.
The $3.9 billion in new sales tax revenue would be combined with the $1.6 billion from existing property relief programs to fund the $4 billion property tax cut, a $620 million reduction in the income tax surcharge, a $750 million drop in corporate income taxes and a permanent source of funding for open space to cut future debt.

Daggett's needling of Corzine and Christie is mild compared to what the two leading candidates have spent most of the campaign doing to each other. Neither side is exactly smelling like roses:

Carla Katz, the state's former head of the Communications Workers of America and Corzine's controversial ex-girlfriend. has a brilliant commentary for PolitickerNJ likening the candidates' fear-mongering to the latest popular horror flicks:

Maybe the candidates are holding a dusty mirror to the emotions of a recession-weary electorate suffering actual dread as family members and friends lose jobs, go bankrupt, and fall prey to health care crises or foreclosures. It can be no mistake that two of this year' top-grossing and frightening films are set in and about suburban, middle class America. In the terrifying "Paranormal Activity", a young couple buys a ‘starter home' only to find it terrifyingly possessed by a demonic presence.  We are no longer safe in our own homes (foreclosures, predatory lenders). Meanwhile, in "Stepfather", a young man returns from military school to find that his single mother is happily in love with a seemingly all-too-perfect boyfriend-a husband and father wannabe who turns out to be--spoiler alert--a vicious killer.  We cannot trust strangers with our family.

Pollsters see a close race. Rasmussen says its telephone polls have showed Christie with a slight but persistent lead. Their latest poll, released October 30, breaks 46-43 % for Christie, with Daggett at 8 percent. Quinnipiac College's October 28 survey of likely voters give Corzine the edge over Christie at 41-36 %, but with a 2.8 % margin of error, that means it's a toss-up. Quinnipiac pegs support for Daggett at 13 %. FiveThirtyEight.com notes an interesting discrepancy in the poll results based on whether a person or machine is asking the questions.

Meanwhile, Daggett snagged an endorsement from the state's largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger. He's also got uber-blogger Jeff Jarvis on his side:

Daggett is the one candidate making the tough decisions about the budget and taxation. He has a plan to reduce property taxes while also holding down local spending, which will force municipalities to find new efficiencies through collaboration. He holds a doctorate in education and I trust him to work to improve the schools. Daggett is an experienced manager and a good man. So he has my vote.

NARAL is urging support for Corzine because he's pro-choice. Fausta's not happy about it, but she expects Corzine to win:

After living here in this state for over twenty years, I don’t expect that anyone other than Corzine will win. The unions will come through for him in the end and put him over the top.

No matter who wins,I still don't expect life to get any easier in the Garden State any time soon. New Jersey's economy will turn around when the national economy does. Right now, I'm one of the state employees whose dealing with furloughs and benefit cuts, but at least I have a job. Whoever the next Governor is, we're all going to have to have our work cut out for us.

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As for me, 

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