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Gloves Off in the Garden State | The Nation

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Gloves Off in the Garden State

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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.

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Doug Ireland
Doug Ireland, a longtime Nation contributor who lived in France for a decade, can be reached through his blog, Direland.

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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."

Cementing Whitman's reputation as a Robin Hood in reverse is an extraordinary chain of giveaways to big business. The most widely publicized of these dips into the taxpayers' pockets benefited Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas-based casino czar. An equal-opportunity influence-buyer from both major parties through millions in political donations, Wynn demanded that the state build a road and tunnel linking his Atlantic City casino to the Atlantic City Expressway. The Whitman administration complied, allowing Wynn to control the design of the road, which led right to the door of his casino--taking business away from a competing casino owned by Donald Trump. Wynn got his custom-built road for only $55 million, while the taxpayers' tab was $275 million. Meanwhile, because the roadway was being built over a 150-acre former municipal dump--which Wynn, with the quiet help of the Whitman people, acquired for one dollar--a major cleanup was necessary. But Wynn didn't want to pay for the cleanup, so in 1996 Whitman shepherded through the Republican legislature a deal that allowed him to keep $30 million of sales taxes collected at his casino to finance it. The first fundraiser for Whitman's Senate campaign was a $1,000-a-head affair at the home of Joe Jingoli, one of the major business subcontractors on the road's construction.

The Wynn deal is only the tip of the iceberg. In 1996, after a ten-month investigation, the Record of Bergen County published a superb sixteen-part series, "Open for Business," that detailed dozens of cases in which Whitman's corporate-coddling policies had hurt New Jerseyans through giveaways and lax enforcement of laws designed to protect consumers and the environment. For example, the Beneficial Corporation, the nation's largest independent consumer-loan company, got more than $182 million in taxpayer subsidies in the form of road construction designed to ease traffic around Beneficial's lavish office complex in Peapack--improvements that also increased the value of an open 700-acre tract that Beneficial owned nearby. While all this was going on in 1994-95, Beneficial chairman Finn Casperson, his family and their political action committee gave state Republicans $143,250.

In a more recent sweetheart deal, against which the environmental movement, led by the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, waged a desperate antisprawl fight, Whitman offered $291.3 million to Merrill Lynch to help it build a 3.5-million-square-foot office complex on 450 acres of open fields and woodlands in Hopewell Township in 1998. Whitman's Economic Development Authority proposed to buy the office furniture, computers and wiring for the project and lease them back to Merrill Lynch so the company would not have to pay the 6 percent sales tax, saving the company $13.5 million. All this was to be paid for by state-floated bonds totaling $225 million. Added to this gift were $30 million in road improvements and $11.3 million more in state aid for job creation and training.

Whitman this year unveiled a $1 billion "open space" program that she claims will purchase and safeguard a million acres, or roughly 50 percent of the state's undeveloped land. But the plan is a fraud. "Her numbers are inflated," says Sierra Club policy director Bill Wolfe. "Her plan will save 350,000 acres at most. You simply can't buy a million acres with a billion dollars. The math doesn't work." Moreover, the program is another example of Whitman's borrow-and-spend prestidigitation, paid for by floating up to $200 million a year in bonds--so for the next twenty years, the interest on the bonds will cost a lot of money that won't go to land. Meanwhile, the environmental movement is fighting tooth and nail against her giveaway of 300 acres of pristine wetlands to the cranberry industry (even though last year the industry had a 2-million-barrel surplus). Principal beneficiary: Ocean Spray Cranberries, which gave over $1.3 million in campaign contributions to both parties in the nineties. "Ocean Spray let loose a spray of political contributions, which appear to be overwhelming the opposition," says New Jersey Common Cause chairman Harry Pozycki.

Whitman's environmental record is in sharp contrast to Florio's. As a Congressman, Florio wrote and passed the toxic cleanup Superfund program, and as governor he passed two major state laws--the New Jersey Pollution Prevention Act and the Clean Water Enforcement Act--that were among the toughest in the nation. Whitman, however, downsized the state Department of Environmental Protection by one-third, and under her administration, enforcement fines and penalties are down a whopping 80 percent. Any state limits on pollution that exceed federal standards are now subject to a cost-benefit analysis, an antiregulatory approach. Whitman has favored a "voluntary compliance" program, under which polluters are allowed a "grace period" to negotiate with state agencies before fines and penalties are imposed. "I call it 'Let's Make a Deal,'" says the Sierra Club's Wolfe. "Whitman is no moderate on the environment. This administration has done nothing on environmental quality--air, water and waste issues--but starve the bureaucracy and put enforcement on a short leash."

Florio, eager to avenge his narrow loss to Whitman six years ago, announced his Senate candidacy as soon as Lautenberg said he was retiring, and a gaggle of other Democrats followed suit. But most of them were frightened out of the race by the unexpected arrival of a candidate whose huge personal fortune--estimated at more than $300 million--makes him the primary's 800-pound gorilla: Jon Corzine, the former co-chairman of Goldman, Sachs. A political neophyte who didn't even bother to vote in Democratic primaries for ten years, Corzine has bought himself pricey image-makers like political and media consultant Bob Shrum and Clinton pollster Doug Schoen. Corzine's wealth made him attractive to the big-county North Jersey Democratic bosses, who blame Florio for losing the legislature and see the Wall Streeter as a major source of funds for their local candidates. Most of these old-line organization bosses are supporting Corzine, including the county leaders in Union, Middlesex, Bergen and Hudson counties.

Florio's significant base in his native Camden and the seven southern counties provides about 30 percent of the primary vote. "He needs to take 40 percent of the vote in the northern counties to win," says a Democratic analyst. To that end, Florio is threatening to put up his own full slate of candidates for county offices, corralling anti-organization dissidents, according to the weekly Politifax New Jersey, a must-read newsletter for insiders edited by former political operative Nick Acocella.

Thus, the Democratic primary is shaping up as a vicious dogfight between the blunt and sometimes arrogant former boxer Florio--whose years in government allow him to sound off in detail on almost any issue--and the soft-spoken political tyro Corzine, whose positions on most issues are a mystery both to active Democrats and to the state's press corps. While Corzine has been making the handshaking rounds of party functions and black churches, he has so far failed to give a single speech and has ducked numerous multicandidate forums. "He's like Monica Lewinsky before the Barbara Walters interview: We haven't heard the sound of his voice," cracks one Democratic pol.

Corzine's wealth is clearly going to be a big issue in the primary. "If there's a major focus of my attention," Florio says, "it's going to be the corrupting influence of money in the political process. I'm going to Washington to wreck that process--the McCain-Feingold bill is embarrassingly modest, and even that can't get passed. All the other things I want to do will get stymied if we can't get around the power of money." Ask him about Corzine and he fumes: "He's just one more example--if it weren't for his checkbook, nobody would take him seriously. Why don't we forget the primary and just conduct an auction?" An eight-page exegesis of press quotes being circulated by Florio's supporters charges that Goldman, Sachs' role in mergers and acquisitions cost the jobs of 79,000 workers, and a leaflet aimed at trade unionists headlined Fight Corporate Greed! Boycott Corzine! says Corzine is "a man who's made his fortune off the backs of working families" and has the "profit-making and downsizing record of one of corporate greed's biggest advocates."

Shrum, Corzine's media gun-for-hire, claims that his candidate is "remarkably progressive"--even though Corzine's official biography boasts that he is a supporter of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council and a board member of its Washington think tank. In a truncated interview, Corzine says that his priority issue is education: He wants to "lead a fundamental and unique debate" on the issue and on "how to spend the surplus" but provides no specifics, adding, "I'm studying how that should work." Corzine asserts he's against the privatization of Social Security but argues for investing a major portion of Social Security funds in Wall Street. (He can't use the borrow-and-spend pension fund raid against Whitman, since Goldman, Sachs made a handsome profit handling the bond deal.)

If Corzine turns out to be another Al Checchi--a wealthy newcomer to Democratic politics whose lavish primary campaign for governor of California failed miserably--it will be one in the eye not only for the North Jersey bosses but for Senator Robert Torricelli, said to be a prime mover behind Corzine's candidacy and whom the Florio camp accuses of drying up money for their man. "With Corzine as Senator, Torricelli solidifies his position as the state's top Democrat and can lead this guy with no experience around by the nose," says a top Hudson County pol. "With Florio he's got competition."

If Florio survives the primary, one constituency in the general election over which there'll be a major battle is the black vote. In 1993 Whitman got 20 percent of the African-American vote against Florio, and in 1997 she got 17 percent against Jim McGreevey. That's unlikely to happen again, in part because Whitman has found herself engulfed in bitter controversy over the use of racial profiling by the state police to stop and search motorists on the New Jersey Turnpike and over the firing of state police superintendent Col. Carl Williams for making racially insensitive remarks. The racial profiling scandal, which has provided Whitman with weeks of bad press, has hurt the governor's 2000 prospects doubly. On the one hand, her firing of Williams alienated conservatives (polls show that 84 percent of white New Jerseyans don't buy the criticisms of the state police). On the other, she has turned off black voters by failing to deal with the racial profiling issue until late in her administration and by bungling the cleanup of the state cops, as well as by backing down on the appointment of the state's first black police superintendent.

Black leaders are already disenchanted with Whitman's failure to provide a coherent program for jobs and economic development for the central cities. Says Henry Johnson, publisher of the Plainfield-based City News, which serves North Jersey black communities, "If you ask the Whitman people, 'What's the plan?' I don't think anyone can give you an answer."

Depressed black turnout helped Whitman win her squeaker victories in '93 and '97, but turnout's always higher in a presidential year, which should help the Democratic Senate candidate. However, it's the Bob Grant candidacy that knocks the biggest hole in the Florio-can't-win argument. The increase in the state's indebtedness under Whitman has been "devastating" to conservative voters, says Harry Hurley, a conservative morning talk-show host on Atlantic City's WFPG who is promoting the Grant candidacy. "She's betrayed her base--they feel like they were played for suckers. My callers say, 'I don't want to vote for Whitman, and I can't vote for Florio'--that's why there's so much interest in the grassroots movement for Bob Grant."

As Whitman flip-flops to protect her right flank against Grant, she also risks losing any gender-gap advantage. On abortion, Whitman's pro-choice stance has always been a matter more of convenience than gut principle. At the GOP presidential convention in 1996, when pro-choice pols William Weld, Pete Wilson and Olympia Snowe grabbed headlines with a convention-floor press conference, Whitman absented herself. And now she's endorsed the ban on late-term abortion, while also taking the NRA position opposing protective "smart gun" legislation. These maneuvers are not enough to satisfy conservatives who, as Hurley puts it, consider her "the Antichrist," while at the same time they undercut her support with moderates.

"Look," says Roger Stone--already talking like a campaign manager--"with just half a million dollars on radio ads, building on the fact that Bob Grant will be cutting her up on his mike until next June's primary, when he has to announce, he can make a serious showing. The same people who are pooh-poohing him now are the same people who dismissed Jesse Ventura." Or, as Grant himself recently put it in an appearance on Hurley's program, "It's time to cut off the head of the Wicked Queen."

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