Graft, Property Taxes Drive N.J. Gov's Race
By Herb Jackson, Special to Stateline
Property taxes and corruption are dominating the campaign for New Jersey governor, as Republicans led by millionaire businessman Douglas Forrester try to capitalize on the scandals and failures of the administration of former Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey.
Democrats have pinned their hopes to U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, another millionaire who set campaign spending records in 2000 by putting up $60 million of his own money to win his Senate seat. So far, he's put more than $19 million of his own cash into the race for governor, much of it for television ads that try to dent Forrester's image as a reformer, tie the Republican to unpopular conservative positions of President Bush, and disparage his property-tax relief plan.
Through much of the summer, polls showed Corzine comfortably ahead and Forrester's percentage stuck in the low 30s, but recently the race has tightened significantly. Corzine's lead in polls taken over the past week ranged from 2 to 8 percentage points, a sharp drop from his lead of 49 percent to Forrester's 31 percent measured by a Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll a month ago.
New Jersey and Virginia are the only states that will elect new governors this year.
Per capita, New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation, and both candidates have competing plans to boost state subsidies to taxpayers.
Forrester has dubbed his plan "30 in 3" and promises within three years to cover 30 percent of a homeowner's county, municipal and school tax bill, which in 2004 averaged more than $5,500.
Corzine has a more modest plan to increase existing state rebates designed to offset property taxes by 10 percent a year. He also wants to push for a constitutional convention to overhaul the funding of public schools and shift the burden away from local property taxes.
Corzine and Democratic surrogates have savaged Forrester's plan, arguing it would break the state budget by removing the cap that bars state rebates from going to homeowners making more than $200,000 a year. Corzine has argued before senior citizen groups that the state doesn't need to provide subsidies to millionaires like him and Forrester.
Still lingering is the specter of McGreevey, who stunned the nation in August 2004 by announcing he was gay and would resign because a former lover he had named to be his homeland security adviser was threatening to sue him. The sex scandal was the final straw in a troubled administration marked by a series of federal investigations and convictions of top McGreevey aides and fund-raisers.
State Senate President Richard J. Codey (D) has been serving in that job and as acting governor since McGreevey left in November because New Jersey has no lieutenant governor, although it may get one through a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year. Codey has received generally high marks from the public for trying to remedy some of the McGreevey excesses, instituting an office of inspector general, for example, that excoriated the state's handling of a massive school construction program.
But Forrester has played on public distaste with McGreevey by repeatedly pointing out that Corzine had given generous campaign contributions to the same party bosses that propped up McGreevey and profited from his administration. Corzine acquired his wealth when he rose to be chairman of the Goldman Sach investment house before entering politics.
In a recent debate, Corzine defended having supported party bosses by arguing it gave him more influence, not them.
"It's different to give a contribution than to get a contribution," he said. Corzine also noted that he demonstrated he would stand up to the bosses by fighting the party chairman in the state's most populous county, Bergen County, over who would fill a vacancy for a state Senate seat.
In truth, both Forrester and Corzine have similar ethics reform proposals. Both have called for tighter restrictions on government officials becoming lobbyists, a strengthened state ethics board, and a comprehensive ban on government contracts going to firms or individuals who give campaign contributions, a practice known as "pay to play."
But polls show Forrester remains ahead on the corruption issue. His television ads have included a testimonial in which his wife says he never let their family down and would not let voters down either. It's a subtle reminder to voters that Corzine divorced his wife of 33 years shortly after winning the Senate seat in 2000 and gave a former girlfriend, who is also president of a state employee union local, a $470,000 loan that was subsequently forgiven.
Corzine is responding with ads designed to excite New Jersey's Democratic voters, who outnumber Republicans by about 8 percentage points, while also turning independents away from Forrester.
One recent ad calls Forrester "extreme" and "George Bush's choice" because the Republican opposes expanding embryonic stem cell research and supports Bush's tax cuts. Another ad accuses Forrester, a former state treasury department official who owns a company that manages employee pharmacy benefit programs, of becoming rich at the expense of sick people who need prescriptions.