Saturday, November 13, 2021

Jersey Note


Phil Murphy and Steve Sweeney in September, just before the first gubernatorial debate. Via insidernj.

This, from Nancy Solomon at WNYC, is a take on the New Jersey election that may not make it beyond the local radio audience, which would be a shame, because it could be a very useful corrective on a misinterpretation of what actually happened to cause the unexpected closeness of Governor Phil Murphy's race and the cataclysmic loss of the state's most powerful politician (I mean more powerful than the governor), Senate President Steve Sweeney, to a commercial truck driver, Edward Durr, who claimed to have spent a total of $153 on his campaign.

The received take being, as Sweeney put it, that it was a part of the same "Red Wave" that hit Virginia, or in the terms set by the losing Republican gubernatorial candidate,

Mr. Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, has said that the election results are a rejection of the left-leaning policies championed by Mr. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who notched a raft of progressive victories during his first term.

“Every single time misguided politicians take this state too far off track, the great people of this state push, pull and prod it right back to where it belongs,” Mr. Ciattarelli said on Friday. “Right back to where it needs to be: the common-sense center.”

Which seems like a dubious interpretation of the fact that it was the centrist kingpin, not the progressive governor, who lost—not to mention Mr, Ciattarelli himself (that was from his concession speech, too, which it took him ten days to work himself up to).

What Solomon found, though, asking around Sweeney's district (a mass of little Jersey townships south of the Camden-Philadelphia matrix), was that the Democrats hadn't been doing any GOTV there, I mean any at all, not just Sweeney's own campaign but more importantly the machine run by insurance broker George Norcross, the old-school unelected party boss who's earned hundreds of millions of dollars for himself and his brothers Philip and Donald out of projects in Camden with tax breaks he helped push through the state legislature. The lack of campaigning looks like simple overconfidence, understandable given what an improbable opponent Sweeney had, but Solomon also heard that party insiders were expecting the race to be a lot closer than the polls were saying, and there's another idea going around, that there wasn't much GOTV coming out of the Norcross organization anywhere in the state, where the 37% turnout was the lowest recorded in a governor's race in a century, as Carl Golden wrote:

Whether the much-vaunted get-out-the-vote program ever truly existed or simply never left the paper on which it was written doesn’t matter a great deal now that the outcome has been decided.

Either way, it was a ballyhooed flop.

And behind that a hypothesis that Sweeney, or Norcross, or both didn't necessarily want Murphy to get a lot of votes—not that they wanted him actually to lose, maybe, but that they wanted him weakened, by a poor showing, which might tie in with the conflict between Murphy and Norcross early in the governor's first term, when Murphy set up a task force to investigate New Jersey's program of tax incentives to prevent local businesses from moving out of state under the terms of the Economic Opportunity Act passed in 2013, when Donald Norcross was a state senator (he's now in the US House of Representatives):

The use of tax breaks – passed by Democrats and used heavily by Republican former Gov. Chris Christie –  have come under fire following a comptroller’s report in January that said the state had loose oversight programs and lacked an “adequate process” to determine whether the state realized the economic benefits of the incentives. Nearly $11 billion was awarded by the state through Grow NJ and other programs, much of it under Christie. Based on the report, Murphy, a Democrat, created the task force, which has subpoena power and has already made one criminal referral.

And in their first report, in June 2019, the task force found a lot of problems with Norcross businesses filing faulty applications, as well as three cases in which they had

“committed to move to Camden more than a year before submitting their applications for tax incentives, in which they claimed they were considering relocating to Pennsylvania as a potential alternative,” the Murphy investigators said.

“Had the [Economic Development Authority]’s employees found this information, the EDA may have found these applications materially misleading, and denied an award on that basis,” the report said.

A second report in January 2020 made the Norcrosses look worse still; George sued the administration that July and lost the suit in August, while Murphy froze some $578 million in tax breaks, but in the end, last December, he and Murphy appear to have come to an accommodation, replacing the 2013 program with a new one that Murphy could claim was an improvement—

“It’s got a lot that we should feel good about,” Murphy said. “It has caps. It’s got strong compliance standards. It does a lot for communities that have been hit hard by COVID.”

—but that also offered plenty of goodies to the Camden boss:

the new bill gives tax breaks for specific south Jersey projects with connections to Democratic Party boss George Norcross.  For example, there's a provision that a company can be eligible for a tax break if it works with a non-profit organization "with a mission dedicated to attracting investment and completing development and redevelopment projects in a Garden State Growth Zone."   That description fits a handful of organizations in New Jersey, including Cooper's Ferry Partnership, an organization that Norcross took over in 2014. 

Another passage in the bill gives a tax credit to vendors in the film industry in south Jersey. The chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, is an ally of Norcross and owns a company that contracts with the film industry in south Jersey.

Meanwhile, Sweeney had his own history of conflict with Murphy, over his "centrist" objections to the governor's plans for more equitable school funding, a millionaires' tax, and marijuana legalization, most of which also seemed to be resolved by early this year.

But was it? If Solomon's rumor is true, and Norcross and Sweeney really did hold back on the campaigning in the hope of damaging Murphy, the last laugh is certainly on them, with Sweeney out of office and Murphy holding firmer control than before the election, with a Senate president more or less of his choosing (Nicholas Scutari, a longtime champion of legal weed). It was a pretty good day for progressives in New Jersey after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment