New Jersey Senate Survivor

This week’s Monmouth University poll showed Mayor Cory Booker with a daunting lead in the U.S. Senate Democratic nomination contest.  It also found few avenues of opportunity for his rivals to peel away that support. 

Can this contest become more competitive?  Probably not by using traditional attack strategies, such as:

“Booker lacks the experience to be effective in Washington.”  Democratic primary voters disagree.

“Booker’s support of policies like school vouchers shows that he’s out of step with core Democratic values.”  Who says?  Many Democratic voters themselves support vouchers.

“Booker is more show horse than work horse.”  He may be a celebrity, but voters believe that he brings both style and substance to the table.

There is no question that Cory Booker’s national fame is key to his formidable lead in both the polls and fundraising.  This is unusual.  Candidates in a typical contested New Jersey primary do not start out with significant statewide name recognition.  Each candidate tries to increase support in his or her base and garner the endorsement of power brokers from other areas of the state without a horse in the race.

This contest has completely destroyed those rules of engagement.  Booker has almost universal statewide name recognition, due solely to the fact that he has national name recognition. None of the other candidates can compete with that.

It is perhaps a sad irony, then, that this happens to be one of the strongest fields of Democrats to run for statewide office in a long time.  In addition to the two term mayor of the state’s largest city, we have 24-year and 14-year congressional veterans and a 9-year state legislator who currently heads the lower chamber.

The last time New Jersey saw a Democratic field this wide and deep – i.e. with at least three seasoned officeholders – was the 1989 governor’s race, which featured Congressman Jim Florio (who was also the 1981 gubernatorial nominee), Princeton Mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund (scion of a Louisiana political powerhouse), and former Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher (author of the much-read but unfortunately oft-ignored New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness). 

In fact, the 1970s and 1980s frequently brought out a slew of established New Jersey office-holders in closely fought contests for statewide office.  In any other year, Frank Pallone, Rush Holt, and Sheila Oliver would be in a dogfight for this nomination. 

It hardly seems fair that Cory Booker can waltz away with this thing based on name recognition.  There has to be a way to give all these candidates a decent shot at the nomination.

I pondered this as I watched all four candidates huddled together at a union-sponsored press conference to highlight the foreclosure crisis.  They were standing in front of the home of a Newark resident who has been dealing with a foreclosure nightmare.  Each of the candidates took their turn at the microphone to condemn the situation and point out that more needs to be done.  But there was very little in their rhetoric that differentiated how each candidate would tackle the matter as New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator.

Then it hit me.  Rather than decide this nomination based on what each candidate promises to do, let’s see them in action in a head-to-head set of tasks.  We can call it New Jersey Senate Survivor.

Task 1: Foreclosure Fever.  Each candidate is assigned a distressed homeowner currently in foreclosure proceedings.  Candidates must get the bank off the homeowner’s back and set up a revised mortgage repayment plan.  Whoever gets the best terms for their homeowner wins.

Task 2: Obamacare-O-Rama.  This one is simple.  The winner is the candidate who gets the most uninsured New Jerseyans to sign up for the Health Insurance Exchange Pool. 

Task 3:  Raise the Roof.  Recognizing the singular impact of Superstorm Sandy on New Jersey, candidates must cobble together enough federal, state and insurance funding to elevate 10 homes at least 4 feet above flood stage in newly-designated FEMA V-zones.

We can even award extra points to candidates who pitch in on the physical labor of raising those homes.  You may think this gives Booker an edge – with the leaping of tall buildings in a single bound and all that.  I wouldn’t be so sure.

If you have ever seen Frank Pallone glad-handing constituents in 90 degree heat without breaking a sweat, you’d know he has the stamina of an ox.  Rush Holt can be counted on to devise some practical application of quantum mechanics to raise the homes with the most efficient expenditure of energy.  And since Sheila Oliver was able to declare her candidacy without being torpedoed by Joe DiVincenzo, you shouldn’t underestimate her grit and resolve.

The winner of these tasks earns the Democratic nomination.  For one, this ensures that the nominee is a proven problem-solver.  Perhaps more importantly, a significant number of Garden State residents who the candidates say they want to help once in office will be able to get that help even before the election.

If this proposal isn’t a “win-win,” I don’t know what is!

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A note on Alan Rosenthal.  I was saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Rosenthal.  While he was never my professor, I certainly learned a lot from him during my days at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics.  I was honored to be asked to work with him, in a very small way, on the research for one of his state legislature books, Heavy Lifting.  Although we later disagreed, albeit amicably, about the 2011 redistricting map, I always knew that his decision was based on a clear set of principles about the efficient operation of state legislatures.  The thing I will remember most about Alan, though, is that he was simply a fun guy to be around.  He will be missed.

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"This meeting is entirely off the record. Until somebody leaks it."
—Michael Kempner, addressing a roomful of Democratic powerbrokers organizng for Hillary Clinton