By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
The biggest story of 2016 is likely to be the presidential race, and possibly the election of the first woman president. Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers and a founder of its Center for the American Woman in Politics, hopes it’s Hillary.
“I don’t say it’s an easy ride, and I don’t say there’s no danger out there for her to lose this, but it is certainly the story for those of us who have been studying, care about, promoting women’s leadership and the inclusion of women in politics and policy making an the leadership of this country for so many years,” she said.
From a New Jersey perspective, the performance of Governor Chris Christie in the Republican presidential primary will be another big story.
“We can not afford to put some United States Senator, Democrat or Republican, in the White House for the next four years,” Christie said at a town hall in New Hampshire.
Jim Hughes, dean of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, has a concern about that.
“If Christie is still in the race going forward, that’s not going to help New Jersey. I think there’s some dissatisfaction within the business community that business is not being taken care of. Certainly the Lieutenant Governor is working hard at business retention, but there’s no sense that New Jersey has a vision for what its future is going to be,” he said.
“How long ago was it, a month or two, that people were saying, ‘Well, he doesn’t have a campaign anymore. When is he going to stop campaigning?’ So the governor continues to surprise and in other ways take him at his word: he’s on course,” Mandel said.
Republican State Senator Kevin O’Toole agrees regarding Christie.
“You can paper a wall, all of Yankee Stadium, with all of the editorials and the media folks who have said he’s dead in the water, he can’t survive. Now you look in the power standings and they say he’s fourth or fifth in the national polls, he’s second in third in New Hampshire. Nobody knows,” O’Toole said.
Another big New Jersey story will be the jockeying among potential candidates for the 2017 gubernatorial race. Former state Democratic chairman Tom Byrne has seen that story before.
“It won’t overshadow the presidential election, but it’ll be a big and growing story throughout 2016, no question about it,” he said.
“Last week we were in Trenton with our graduate fellows and I said to one of the legislators who came in to speak to them about something about politics, and he replied that none of his colleagues were talking about the national election. They were all talking about 2017 in New Jersey,” Mandel said.
“To see Phil Murphy out there with his Corzine staffers putting together his PAC and marching up and down the state and just doing a repeat out of the Corzine handbook is interesting. To see the jockeying with Sweeney and Fulop, certainly surrounded by this casino bill, is fascinating for those of who like the politics. The race is, you know, afoot,” O’Toole said.
The state faces a number of fiscal challenges, perhaps none more pressing than the Transportation Trust Fund running totally out of money in June. That will be a big story.
“After World War II we had the finest state highway system in the country rivaled only by California. Then in the 1950s we had nation-leading toll roads. Then, In the 70s and 80s we completed the interstate system, and in the 1980s we really developed New Jersey Transit. Eevery one of our periods of economic growth were based upon that investment in infrastructure which preceded the period of economic growth. As we look forward to 2016-17-18, where is the new transportation increment coming from? That’s a real problem for the state,” Hughes said.
“I think everybody, certainly everybody talking off the record, knows that this is something that has to get fixed. We’ve got to deal with our transportation infrastructure in general. We’ve got all kinds of traffic bottlenecks. We’re spewing unnecessary exhaust into the atmosphere because we’re sitting in traffic jams. We have to do something about the tunnel into New York,” Byrne said.
A new Assembly gets sworn in in January. It will have four more Democrats than the outgoing cohort. They and the Senate will grapple with not only the Transportation Trust Fund but the pension crisis and the future of Atlantic City.
Democrats are snarled in disagreement over a plan to put two new casinos in North Jersey, with a share of the tax revenue going to Atlantic City. Getting that onto the ballot as a constitutional amendment in November will be another big story in 2016, as will an effort by Democratic leaders to ask voters to approve a ballot measure that would fully fund the public employee pension system.
“This constitutional amendment about funding the pension may well wind up on the ballot. The effect of that will be a decision by New Jersey voters as to whether they want to freeze, or effectively reduce, all other areas of discretionary spending in the state government in order to finance the pensions. That’s what the math comes down to, simple as that. I don’t think the question should go on the ballot. I don’t think it should be decided on a constitutional basis. I think there are other ways to solve the pension issue, but again gubernatorial politics is playing a role in what’s happening here, and it may well go on the ballot, and once something is on the ballot, who knows what happens,” Byrne said.
Two big political trials are scheduled to start in 2016: the Senator Bob Menendez alleged misconduct case and the trial of the two Bridgegate defendants fighting to clear their names.
“Bridgegate will become a big story. I have absolutely no idea how it plays out. At some level it was just a terrible event for the state of New Jersey. I can’t help but say that I also see it as a personal tragedy for certain people, and it’s just the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen. People get in positions of power and do things that I just don’t think they’d do in other walks of life,” Byrne said.
O’Toole says both trials could be delayed by all the motions being filed.
“I’m not convinced that you’re going to see that played out in 2016, or certainly in the early part of 2016,” O’Toole said. When asked if he thinks it might be delayed, he said, “I think so. It seems there’s a lot of motion practice in play. I think Menendez and the Bridgegate trials are similar in many respects, that there’s a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of appellate work that has to get done before you go front and center before a judge and jury.”
Overlaying everything in 2016 will be the state’s continuing fiscal problems.
“Even if the economy picks up and job growth increases we’re still lagging behind the nation. For example, this year we might add 55,000 jobs. If we kept pace with the nation it really should have been 75,000. So there’s good news, bad news there,” Hughes said. “The good news is it was the best year post-recession. Bad news is we’re still lagging the nation.”
“People I respect and hear talking are very aware of how incredibly dangerous our situation is because of the history of, in a sense, pushing the decisions forward, pushing the hard choices forward,” Mandel said. “I don’t know if the population of the state is really even slightly aware. Some people are, they’re moving out of the state, they’re moving their money elsewhere.”
“If somebody from outer space just came here and read the newspaper for the last year, they’d want to go to the town square and commit hari kari. They’d be so depressed. I think the papers have gotten so sensational. Let’s talk about the state of New Jersey. When this governor came in six years ago, unemployment was at 9.7 percent. Do you know what it is today? Nobody talks about it. It’s 5.4 percent. There’s been more private sector job growth in the last six years than in the previous 20 years,” O’Toole said.
There will be other big stories in New Jersey in 2016. We just don’t know what they are yet. That’s what makes “news” news.