Gizzi On Politics February 9, 2009

Jersey Jolt

Although New Jersey Republicans are primarily known as a moderate lot, they do send a jolt every few years by overturning the table and nominating a conservative for statewide office.

In 1973, for example, stalwart conservative Rep. Charles Sandman unseated moderate, one-term Gov. William Cahill in the Republican primary. Five years later, conservative idea man Jeff Bell came out of nowhere to deny renomination to four-term liberal Sen. Clifford Case. In ’01, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, another idea man known for his advocacy of smaller government and vouchers, handily won the GOP nod for governor over moderate former Rep. Bob Franks.

True, as my liberal friends love to remind me, all three went down to defeat in November. But none of the three was running in a year like this. Amid economic turbulence, the Garden State has its highest-ever sales tax and is among the states with the highest insurance rates. Unsurprisingly, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine is in very weak condition as he seeks re-election. A just-completed Rasmussen poll shows the former Goldman-Sachs chief executive with 44% approval statewide and 54% disapproval. Among voters with strong feelings about Corzine, 12% approve of his performance and 32% disapprove.
Coming on the heels of the Rasmussen survey was a Quinnipiac Poll showing former U.S. Attorney and moderate GOPer Chris Christie actually defeating Corzine by a margin of 44% to 38% statewide. The same survey showed the leading conservative Republican, Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, trailing Corzine by 42% to 36% statewide.

“And I’m here to tell you we’re going to win because the conservative movement is re-energized in Jersey,” the 52-year-old Lonegan told me during a recent breakfast in Washington. “Look at the increase in people attending conservative events in our state and the increase in Jerseyans registering for the Conservative Political Action Conference [in Washington February 28]. The election in November sent us back to Siberia but it also gave us the opportunity to take a look at ourselves and re-energize.”

As a three-term mayor and head of Americans for Prosperity in his state (in which capacity he hosts a daily one-minute radio spot heard statewide), the hard-charging Lonegan has been doing just that. He has even written a book entitled Putting Taxpayers First in which he spells out precisely what he would do as governor of New Jersey.

“Corzine is basically a Socialist and we have Swedish-style economics here,” Lonegan told me. “Look, when I grew up here, we were among the three lowest-tax states in the country. Then in 1966, we had a 3% sales tax that was supposed to be temporary but wasn’t. They made it permanent in 1970 and raised it to 5%. And then we passed an income tax in 1976. We have become a magnet state for welfare and our outward migration includes the most creative of business folks. And we now have 60,000 state employees or 25% more than Pennsylvania has. Gimme a break!”

Beating Adversity

Lonegan’s solution, he told me, is threefold: first, hire competent people; second, cut the size of government by 20% and third, cut the corporate and personal income tax by 10%.”

A high school football star, Lonegan later contracted the same rare eye disease that inflicted onetime Tammany Hall boss Carmine DeSapio and led the New York Democrat to wear his signature sunglasses. But Lonegan was undeterred, launched a now very successful furniture business, and was elected mayor. He lost a bid for Congress in 1998 and placed third in the GOP ’05 gubernatorial primary with 8% of the vote.

This year, Christie is wrapping up endorsements from party leaders and many pundits write as though he is already the nominee. Among registered Republicans, the Quinnipiac poll showed Christie with 44% of the vote, Lonegan 17%, Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine at 5%, and State Assemblyman Rick Merkt 2%.

Not so fast on Christie’s being the nominee, advises Lonegan. Supporters of the Bogota man point out that Christie is pro-abortion and was a supporter of the controversial gun control bill backed by former Democratic Gov. (1989-93) James Florio. He notes that “there are 563 small towns and villages in our state compared to three big cities — Jersey City, Trenton, and Newark. Someone who can mobilize homeschoolers, fiscal conservatives, gun-owners, and pro-lifers can do pretty well among these towns. Just watch me!”

Missed It By That Much

For all of the bad times Virginia Republicans have been going through recently, they actually had two near-wins in special elections in the last two weeks. Had a handful of votes changed, the outcomes would have been considered dramatic. To use Secret Agent Maxwell Smart’s phrase on TV’s hit series “Get Smart,” “Missed it by that much!”

In the overwhelmingly Democratic House of Delegates district in Alexandria that incumbent Brian Moran gave up to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, Republican Joe Murray, a Capitol Hill staffer, came within 16 votes of a dramatic upset. Murray got 1,328 votes to 1,344 for Charniele Herring. For a few days, the Republican leadership in the state House of Delegates refused to seat Herring until the recount was completed.

Last week, Republicans lost another squeaker, this time for a more significant office. With the election of Democrat Gerald Connolly to Congress from Northern Virginia last fall, a special election was held to replace him as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The chairmanship (which was held by both Connolly and his predecessor in Congress Tom Davis) is the equivalent of a big-city mayor’s office. Fairfax County is the most populous jurisdiction between Charlotte, N.C., and Philadelphia, Pa.

The new chairman is liberal Democrat Sharon Bulova, a 21-year veteran of the ten-member Board of Supervisors. By about 1% of the vote (1,217 votes of out more than 107,000 cast) the 61-year-old Bulova edged out conservative Republican fellow Supervisor Pat Herrity.

“The service employee unions and [Democratic National Chairman and Virginia Gov.] Tim Kaine poured in big bucks for Bulova at the end,” Herrity strategist Ken Klinge told me. “But we had a lot of volunteers out there working the polls and making calls. For the first time since [Republican] George Allen was elected governor in ’93, we had folks out there doing the get-out-the-vote work and doing it because they were enthusiastic about their candidate.” Herrity is the son of the late Jack Herrity, who was board chairman in the 1970s and oversaw much of the major development in the suburban Washington county.

A Test for Obama?

What the national media are sure to bill as the first true electoral test for Barack Obama and the almost-trillion-dollar stimulus package is likely to be the special election to fill the now vacant House seat of just-named Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gildebrand in New York’s 20th District (Hudson Valley).

Two weeks ago, the GOP chairmen from the ten counties in the district met behind closed doors at state party headquarters on State Street in Albany and named Assembly Minority Leader James N. Tedisco as their nominee. The highest-scoring basketball player Union College (Schenectedy) ever had, the 58-year-old Tedisco is generally considered a conservative on most issues and will also carry the ballot line of the New York Conservative Party.

But there is one concern on the right and that is the support veteran lawmaker Tedisco has received in the past from state employee unions. As one former colleague told me, “You can pretty much count on Jim for anything, but I worry he might go over to labor on ‘cardcheck’ [the union-backed measure that would end the secret ballot in union elections].”

Last week, 20th District Democrats met at the back of the Gateway Diner in Albany and chose venture capitalist Scott Murphy as their candidate to run in the election. Most of Murphy’s views on issues are unknown, but the Glen Falls resident and first-time candidate is expected to have no trouble funding his own campaign.

Democratic Gov. David Paterson is expected call the election for sometime in April.