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Can New Jersey Be Saved?

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review Online

I lived in the Garden State for the first 18 years of my life, so it's strange to cover and read about the governor's race there today. The place names in the news articles are the same, but the descriptions are different, as if an H-bomb of gloom had detonated some years back and the fallout continued to plague the residents. To hear a lot of residents tell it, sometime between when I left and now the state stopped being a nice place to live, and its government deserves a lot of the blame.

There are a lot of people who used to live in New Jersey, and the number is increasing. In 2007, the Newark Star Ledger ran the headline "Jerseyans leave at alarming rate," citing a Rutgers University report that residents were leaving at three times the rate they were just five years earlier; the report calculated that in 2006, the loss of people cost the state economy about $10 billion in income and about $680 million in state budget revenue. Some noted that the Rutgers study didn't account for birth rates, death rates, and immigration from overseas - it counted only those who moved to or from other U.S. states - but the numbers still underlined a stark truth: Americans are more likely to leave New Jersey than to move there.

All anecdotal evidence suggests that the exodus has not slowed in the past two recession-plagued years. By one calculation, a net 300,000 people have left the Garden State in the past six years, with another 100,000 expected to flee in 2009.

In decades past, the state's reputation as a place one drives through on the way to New York or Philadelphia - "You're from New Jersey? What exit?" - was a bit like Seattle's reputation for rain: Outsiders could have their jokes; it ensured that a nice place to live wasn't too crowded. Even if the view of oil refineries from the Turnpike wasn't particularly scenic, it was a symbol of New Jersey's promise of long-term economic prosperity. The northern counties were home to hundreds of thousands New York City's most prosperous workers. Elizabeth was one of the largest ports on the east coast, and Newark International Airport was always guaranteed to be one of the nation's busiest. The middle of the state teemed with high-paying jobs in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and telecommunications industries. The shore and Atlantic City were guaranteed tourism destinations. Princeton had established itself as one of the world's greatest universities. And it was easy to forget how much of the state's economy, particularly in the southern counties, was driven by agriculture - blueberries, corn, tomatoes, cranberries, and dairies.

The state had always had a high cost of living, but it paled in comparison to New York City and most of Connecticut. The cities of Newark, Jersey City, and Camden may have had their crime and urban blight, but the state was packed with charming small towns, often with tree-lined neighborhoods and old-fashioned downtown commercial cores - Westfield, Lambertville, Cape May, Flemington, Plainfield, Clinton, Toms River, Teaneck. Proximity to everything good about Manhattan and Philadelphia without the hassles of living there, coupled with hot summers, snowy winters, pretty fall foliage, diners, the legend of the Jersey Devil, the horror of Rutgers football - the package deal of life in New Jersey seemed pretty sweet, all things considered. Residents could easily conclude they were getting a good life for all that cost of living.

These days, the cost is higher, and life tastes bitter.

And that's the backdrop to so much of this year's governor's race. According to Republican Chris Christie, his supporters often tell him, "If you don't win, I'm moving out." A Christie web video about big-name Democrats who rush into New Jersey to tout Jon Corzine, then go back to their homes somewhere else, used Queen's "Save Me" as the theme. A National Federation of Independent Businesses video, popping up on political sites like PolitickerNJ, used the slogan, "Save New Jersey's Jobs"; a popular blog covering state politics is titled Save Jersey. Among the backers of both Christie and independent Chris Daggett, there's a sense that this year's election is the last chance to turn things around before they become unfixable.

It's hard to believe, but there was a time when "New Jersey politician" wasn't a synonym for blatant corruption. Looking back a few decades, the state seemed to have its share of elected officials who were decent or better. Democrat Brendan Byrne may not have been to everyone's tastes, but during his time - a little before mine - you could see signs of growth and activity in the state: the legalizing of casino gambling, the opening of casinos in Atlantic City, the debut of the Meadowlands Sports Complex (home of the New York Giants and New York Jets). Republican Tom Kean presided over prosperity and won reelection by a wide margin, a popular and respected statesman later selected to chair the 9/11 Commission. The state sent the U.S. Senate the world's most cerebral ex-jock in Bill Bradley, a diligent, dedicated Democrat easy to like and respect.

Did New Jersey have corruption scandals in the '80s and '90s? Sure - Sen. Harrison Williams's role in AbScam particularly stands out. But there seemed to be enough admirable, decent, or straight-shooting folk in the political system to balance out the crooks.

Today, New Jersey's politicians are best known for their misdeeds: Former senator Bob Torricelli and his unreported gifts. Former governor Jim McGreevey and his "I am a gay American" bombshell. As mayor of Newark, Sharpe James sold city land to his former mistress at a cut-rate price. Former state Sen. Joe Coniglio was convicted of extortion. The man who ruled the Bergen County Democratic organization was just convicted on counts of conspiracy and mail fraud. The former chairman of the Senate budget committee convicted of fraud and bribery charges. A July FBI sting that arrested 44, including three New Jersey mayors, two state assemblymen, and five rabbis, literally brought in the corrupt politicians by the busload. U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra Jr. described a political environment where "corruption was a way of life" and said the defendants "existed in an ethics-free zone." Astoundingly, the state has no law banning donations from lawmakers convicted of crimes. In 2001, 54 percent of residents told Qunnipiac that they felt their state had "quality government"; this year it's at 27 percent.

For much of the past two decades, the average New Jersey voter's mood swung between two negative emotions - rage and cynical hopelessness. All year long, Christie has been trying to harness the "How dare they!" fury and overcome the "What's the use? They're all the same" resignation.

The corruption might be a bit more palatable if New Jersey were more affordable. It's a bit simplistic to say that tax burden has driven New Jerseyans away, but it's clearly a factor. Since 1993, the per capita state-and-local tax burden has more than doubled. It went up $1,200 from 2005 to 2008 alone (Corzine's watch). In 1988, New Jersey was the 12th worst state for state-and-local tax burden. As recently as 2001, the state was the fifth-worst. In Jim McGreevey's first year as governor, the state jumped to number three; it jumped to number one in Corzine's first year and has reclaimed the title often.

In the state's capital city, a large bridge over the Delaware River declares in giant neon, "Trenton Makes, The World Takes." The slogan goes back to 1910, when the city's primary exports were industrial products instead of regulations and demands. Today, the slogan seems inverted; the city takes from the residents; they're expected to make their money elsewhere.

Egregious corruption is bad, high taxes are bad, but the two together prompt residents to conclude they're suckers, and that they'd be better off almost anywhere else. Politics is often messy, but it ought not to be this tragic.

This election day, the entire nation will see if one of the states still has the capacity to save itself.

By Jim Geraghty:
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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