NJ Gov. Race

New Jersey's Race for Governor in the HomestretchBy Amy EddingsAir Date: 1 November 2001

These are the last few days for the New Jersey governor's race. Roughly eleven percent of likely voters are undecided. That's important, because New Jersey voters typically make up their minds about a candidate at the last minute. WNYC's Amy Eddings has this report on where the campaign stands.

More than a month after the September eleventh terrorist attacks, New Jersey voters have safety on their minds. The issue topped their list of concerns in a recent Star-Ledger Eagleton Rutgers poll. Half say they've experienced fundamental disruptions in their lives since the attacks…and that's taken their attention away from local politics. Poll director Cliff Zukin.

Zukin: We asked a question about how closely people have been following the election. And I think in September we saw 19 percent who said they were following it very closely. That dropped to 9 percent of likely voters in October, which is the first time we've ever seen people pay less attention to a race as it grows near. So for many New Jerseyans, the gubernatorial race has been very invisible.

But among those paying attention, Mr. Zukin found that even though they're worried about safety, they don't expect help from Trenton. Instead, New Jerseyans want their governor to focus on education, and other homegrown concerns.

Woman: Car insurance. Definitely car insurance. Property tax, too high.Second Woman: Our insurance rates are exhorbitant. Man: Well, my issues are taxes. Primarily. Second Man: I'm indifferent, really. I'm just gonna go with McGreevey. For no reason. Just because he looks better, or whatever.Amy: What would you like to see McGreevey deal with?Second Man: Taxes. (laughs) Our property taxes are too high.

Democrat Jim McGreevey likes to remind voters these are familiar issues….as he did at a recent debate with Republican Bret Schundler at the College of New Jersey.

McGreevey: Four years ago, when I ran for governor, we had the highest auto insurance rates, and the highest property taxes. And I want everyone to be relieved -- we're still number one in auto insurance, and we're still number one in property taxes.

Mr. McGreevey says he'd create tougher penalties for fraudulent claims, and he'd go after the state's 600-thousand uninsured drivers. Mr. Schundler says the state's already trying these approaches; a system allowing police to check a driver's insurance status is in the works. As for property taxes, Mr. McGreevey would allow more senior citizens to qualify for a freeze. He'd cap the state's property tax rebate program and use the savings to pay down the state's debt. And he'd dedicate a portion of sales tax revenues toward local property tax relief. But he says his biggest concern is education.

Teacher: You put them in a neutron accelerator, you speed them up

At the recently-created Academy for Math and Science in the Morris County town of Rockaway, Mr. McGreevey said he wants to partner with businesses and create more career academies. His education plan would weed out failing teachers, and provide reading coaches for 800 elementary schools where students are struggling to read at grade level.

McGreevey: I'm committed to public education. Mr. Schundler takes a very different perspective. He wants to take $600 million from the public education system and finance a private system. So there's a clear, distinct contrast between our respective approaches.

Mr. McGreevey calls Bret Schundler's tax credit plan to move 80-thousand students to private schools a "risky scheme." On the campaign trail, Mr. Schundler presents it as one of several ways he'd re-think public education, including reforming tenure, expanding the state's charter school program, and moving school board elections from April to November. He told employees at Unilever Best Foods in Englewood Cliffs the Jim McGreevey's plans will mean tax increases.

Schundler: He's committed to every interest group out there. Just look at the endorsements. Why do all the groups say they're going to give him the endorsements, the groups whose primary request of the government is to give them more of your money? He's got their endorsements because he's agreed to give them more of your money. And I always say I will try to strike a balance.

Mr. Schundler is passionate about his plans, and seems to relish explaining them in great detail. But a Quinnipiac University poll showed voters know him more for his opposition to abortion, and his statements on gun control. That's not a surprise; Jim McGreevey has brought them up at every turn. The candidates' exchanges about concealed weapons have turned particularly bitter, with charges and countercharges about who said what. Here's what Mr. Schundler said in July about giving some people the right to carry concealed weapons.

Schundler: I'm not supportive of concealed weapons legislation. But if you saw New Jersey voters and newspaper polls supporting that kind of limited right, I would respect that, and I would sign the bill.

But, in debates in the last few weeks, Mr. Schundler has taken a different tack.

Schundler: I've said time and time and time again! I will not change any gun laws in the state of New Jersey. We'll just enforce what we have better. That's how we got violent crime down in my city, and again, I'll point out that violent crime rose in Jim McGreevey's Woodbridge, no matter what he says.Moderator: So you would not support any change that would make it easier for an honest person to own a gun?Schundler: We'll keep the laws we have….

Bret Schundler is trailing Jim McGreevey by seventeen percentage points. The Schundler campaign has responded by issuing a television ad with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and a letter from President George Bush. Pollster Cliff Zukin says observers should not rule Mr. Schundler out; especially if the election continues to fly under the radar of voters' attention. He says low turnout could give Mr. Schundler an edge. For WNYC, I'm Amy Eddings.