THE NEW JERSEY BATTLEGROUND
OCTOBER 31, 1997
Betty Ann Bowser reports on the New Jersey governor's race between incumbent Republican Christie Todd Whitman and two strong competitors.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Incumbent Republican Christie Todd Whitman will need more than a cheer if she is to win re-election next week as governor of New Jersey. In what was once considered an easy victory Whitman now finds herself locked in a race which polls show as a dead heat, with 1/3 of the voters saying they could change their mind before election day. Whitman's major rival is 40-year-old Democratic State Senator and Woodbridge Township Mayor Jim McGreevey, until recently a political unknown. There is also a third party Libertarian candidate, Ramapo College Professor Murray Sabrin, who did well enough in the primary to quality for matching funds and for a spot in the three gubernatorial debates. Whitman was elected four years ago as a protest candidate, campaigning against incumbent Democratic Governor James Florio's tax increases. She narrowly defeated him on a promise to cut state income taxes. And in the early days of her administration she delivered.
GOV. CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, New Jersey: (1996 State of State Address) As of 10 days ago income tax rates for most New Jerseyians are now a full 30 percent lower than they were just two years ago.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Whitman's tax cut, along with her support for abortion rights and other liberal social issues brought her national attention as the leading party moderate.
HALEY BARBOUR, RNC Chairman: She not only promised to reduce taxes; she actually did it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: At the 1996 Republican National Convention Whitman had a leading role. It was even rumored that she might be on Bob Dole's short list for a vice presidential running mate. But three and a half years later into her administration the 51-year-old Republican star is no longer rising. Whitman is in trouble with suburban homeowners whose property taxes pay for public schools. And, ironically, they're mad at Whitman for the very thing that propelled her into office--the tax cut. John Worobetz is a schoolteacher who got several hundred dollars back.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The 30 percent tax cut--did that mean anything to you?
JOHN WOROBETZ: Absolutely nothing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It meant nothing? You didn't have a few extra dollars.
JOHN WOROBETZ: Not that was eaten up in some other area.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although Worobetz's daughter cheered mightily, the Summit High School Hilltoppers ended the night battered. It's the same way some of their parents say they feel. While Whitman's been governor property taxes have increased an average of 13 percent, making them the highest in the nation. Homes like these in largely Republican affluent Summit can easily cost over $300,000. Jim and Linda Baratte, who are independents, pay more than $12,000 in property taxes on their home and they blame Whitman.
LINDA BARATTE: The 30 percent drop in the income tax rate, I think that was a little smoke and mirrors. I now our property taxes have really gone through the roof since that was implemented. I'm upset how that was financed with the borrowing for the pension fund.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The tax cut meant 369 extra dollars for an average family of four. But Eagleton Institute Pollster Janice Ballou says increases in property taxes have offset its benefits in the minds of many voters.
JANICE BALLOU, Eagleton Institute: When she first went into office in February, we asked about it, and 48 percent of the people thought they would benefit from this. It's now dropped now to less than 38 percent, so there's been more than a 10 percent decline in people who see this as benefit.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Democrat McGreevey aggressively attacks the governor's tax cut.
STATE SEN. JIM McGREEVEY, Democratic Candidate: The governor basically undertook the 30 percent reduction and sat down. State spending increased by $2 billion in Trenton. The governor raided the pension fund for $2.75 billion, went to the market to borrow it, now with $7 1/2 billion of interest. So this governor's legacy is $10 billion worth of borrowing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The governor's staff said she was too busy for an on-camera interview, but during the third gubernatorial debate Whitman defended herself, saying the state had to borrow money because legislators like McGreevey voted to expand pension benefits.
GOV. CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: It's important to understand that almost 90 percent of the depth that we had to deal with, the unfunded liability, was caused with four votes that my opponent cast extending pension benefits with no way to pay for them. We came into that situation. We have now secured our pension fund, so it's the most secure in the nation, and we have saved today's taxpayers, our children, and our grandchildren $47 billion.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the issue that has caught fire most with voters is the centerpiece of McGreevey's campaign, an all-out assault on automobile insurance rates.
STATE SEN. JIM McGREEVEY: This governor isn't on our side. She's on the side of the insurance companies. We're spending a billion dollars more in auto insurance.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Jersey is a commuter state. Thousands of residents have to drive their cars to and from New York City every day. The average premium is over $1100, and McGreevey has promised to roll back insurance rates by 10 percent, if elected. The governor tried and failed to get insurance reform through the legislature. Martin Perez and his wife voted for Whitman four years ago. But now they're leaning toward McGreevey because of the more than $3,000 in premiums they pay for their two cars.
MARTIN PEREZ: New Jersey is the highest insurance car insurance state in the United States. And I ask myself why.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eagleton Institute Professor Henry Raimondo says Whitman must convince the huge number of undecided voters that she has done more than cut state income taxes to win.
HENRY RAIMONDO, Eagleton Institute: And this is an administration with one act. The act was carried out; taxes were cut; and people are having a hard time figuring out exactly what she has to offer to the state. So I think the problem for her and the message for the Republican Party is there's got to be more than something as simple as a tax cut. American voters and New Jersey voters are more sophisticated than just saying the tax cut does it for us.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It's not just pocketbook issues that will decide the raise. Whitman's stance on social issues has driven hard-core conservative voters away. Earlier this year she angered anti-abortion rights advocates when she vetoed a bill banning late-term abortions. Now, leaders of the New Jersey Right to Life Organization are urging all 60,000 of its members to vote for the Libertarian.
MARIE TASY, New Jersey Right to Life: It's time for pro-life conservative voters to unite and send a strong and clear message: We do have somewhere else to go. This election is about integrity, about allowing pro-life voters to cast a vote that they can make with integrity. The two major party candidates are unacceptable because they support infanticide.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Whitman shrugs at such a notion and says Tasy's people are throwing their votes away.
GOV. CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: There's so much more that we agree on than what we disagree on that if we want to keep moving this state forward, the place to vote, it's not to waste it on someone who isn't going to win but to be with someone who has been there for you and committed to moving the state ahead.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Libertarian college professor Sabrin says a vote for him will make a difference. He would abolish most of what is now known as state government, except for law enforcement functions.
MURRAY SABRIN, Libertarian Candidate: All this social agenda they believe in, there's not really any difference between the two, and so, therefore, I'm coming in, saying, listen, what are the limitations of government? What is the proper role of government? And that's why they feel uneasy with mein the race, because I'm challenging them on their basic premises that the government has to manage people's affairs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Republicans are spending millions of dollars to convince voters that Whitman deserves another four years.
GOV. CHRISTIE WHITMAN: (Ad) You've sent me a message: Auto insurance and property taxes cost too much, and people are hurting.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in the final days she's reaching out to her base, and some, like these people at Giants Stadium, seem to be listening.
DOUG BULL: The property taxes are controlled on the local level. And it's more the politicians at the local level that control the spending on that, and you need to get the spending that she's gotten under control on the state level on the local level.
IRENE GORAJEK: They need a scapegoat and why not her? You know, she doesn't--she has some control, but she's not what decides everything. She has to run things through an assembly and also get approval for things, so I don't blame her. I think that she's done a good job.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Meanwhile, McGreevey is working the blue collar traditionally Democratic neighborhoods of Northern New Jersey, hoping the same grassroots organization that gave Bill Clinton the state in 1996 can do it for him this time around.