Gloves Off in the Garden State
The newly regilded dome of Trenton's state capitol may be shimmering under the intense summer sun, but if New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman's entourage is sweating bullets these days, it's not because of the weather. In the Front Office, as the term-limited GOP governor's executive suite is known, her staff is fretting that Whitman's ascension to the US Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Frank Lautenberg could be derailed by a high-decibel, right-wing radio shock-jock named Bob Grant.
The proprietor of an afternoon drive-time program on New York City-based WOR-AM--whose powerful signal reaches a huge audience in New Jersey--Grant is preparing his own race for the Senate as an independent. Whitman has never won a statewide election by more than 1 percent of the vote, and a poll of 600 New Jersey voters taken in late April by the Washington, DC, firm Schroth and Associates shows Grant drawing 14 percent in the general elections--more than enough to tip the scales in favor of the putative frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, former Congressman and Governor Jim Florio.
Because New Jersey is bereft of broadcast TV outlets of its own--and thus dependent on New York City and Philadelphia stations, which offer little coverage of New Jersey affairs--drive-time radio has played a hugely important role in the politics of the Garden State, where commuters avidly fuel their electoral road rage with daily doses of extremist rantings. When Whitman won her gubernatorial race in 1993 (defeating incumbent Florio by just 26,000 votes), it was thanks in part to a revolt against a Florio-imposed $2.8 billion tax increase sparked by Jim Gearhart, a neopopulist conservative morning talk-show host on Trenton's WKXW. Whitman publicly credited Grant--who relentlessly bashed "Flim-Flam Florio"--and the other talk-jocks for her victory (she even went so far as to fulfill a campaign promise to the odious Howard Stern by having a comfort station on the New Jersey Turnpike named after him).
A regional radio fixture for decades and a longtime Monmouth County resident, Grant is of Italian descent and has many fans among the state's sizable chunk of increasingly conservative Italian-American voters. Also fueling Grant's popularity in this racially tense state is his unabashed racism. He's called blacks "screaming savages," used to regularly refer to then-New York Mayor David Dinkins as "the men's room attendant," lamented that Magic Johnson was infected "only" with HIV and disparaged Martin Luther King Jr. in unprintable terms. In 1994, under heavy pressure from the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, Whitman pledged to halt her frequent appearances before Grant's microphone. (Grant recalls subsequently running into her at a political roast: "I told the crowd, 'The Governor really didn't recognize me without a white sheet.' She gave me a dirty look.")
Grant will say only that he's "heavily leaning" toward running (FCC equal-time regs oblige--he doesn't want to lose his microphone prematurely), but his campaign is already assured of top management in the person of Roger Stone, the echt-Reaganite political consultant from the GOP's hard right. On the record, Stone says that he's "likely" to take on the Grant campaign--in fact, he's the one who quietly set up the Draft Bob Grant for Senate exploratory committee to raise funds, recruited former Reagan operative Jim Zaimes to run it and is already planning Grant's no-frills media blitz--on radio, natch. Stone's reputation as a bare-knuckles brawler in politics has Republicans quaking. Told of Stone's involvement in Grant's campaign, one prominent GOP county executive who would like to succeed Whitman as governor let out a surprised "Wow!", adding (after requesting anonymity) that "with Grant in the race, no Republican can win, let alone Whitman."
Why are conservative voters so receptive to Grant's savage attacks on Whitman as an "ultra-country club Republican"? Because Whitman--first elected on a tax-and-budget-cutting program that was supposed to help the little guy--has financed those tax cuts with bonds whose expensively deferred payments will fall on the average taxpayer after she has left the State House. At the same time, she has been ladling out fortunes in subsidies to the corporate giants that finance the state's Republican Party.
The tax increase that defeated Florio in 1993 also cost Democrats the legislative control they'd maintained for nearly two decades. Flush with substantial GOP majorities in both houses, Whitman was able to impose a one-third cut in the state's income tax (a plan cooked up by billionaire Steve Forbes and his supply-siders). Whitman's principal tool for balancing her budgets was a raid on the state employees' pension fund, to which she failed to make $2.5 billion in contributions. To plug the projected hole in the pension system, Whitman turned to borrowing--floating a $2.8 billion bond issue with Wall Street's help, which not only financed the raid but netted her budget $600 million more. Her tax cuts saved New Jerseyans about $1.4 billion, but their property taxes rose by an equal amount, with the lion's share falling on those least able to afford it. As the New Jersey Reporter (the invaluable monthly put out by the Princeton-based Center for Analysis of Public Issues) noted, "As you climb the economic ladder, the tax scene shifts because richer residents generally pay a bigger chunk for income taxes than property taxes." No wonder that, at one of its annual musical skits, the New Jersey Legislative Correspondents Club lampooned the governor's tax plan with Fagin's song from Oliver!: "You've gotta pick a pocket or two."
Florio now says that "New Jersey in the last five years has tripled state indebtedness. When I left office the debt was $5 billion. Now it's $15 billion. By bonding everything instead of paying for it, she's mortgaged the future, and the bills for her borrowing are going to cost New Jerseyans an additional $1.3 billion in debt service."