With candidates for New Jersey's Legislature focused on topics like abortion and offshore wind, activists say issues like NJ Transit and racial justice are largely ignored. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
But progressive activists say those seeking to win election to the Legislature on Tuesday missed an opportunity to discuss a wide range of topics they say are on voters’ minds, from NJ Transit to auto insurance prices to racial justice to policing.
Dan Cassino, professor of politics and government at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said it’s not an accident that would-be members of the state Senate and Assembly avoid some of these more nuanced topics. When it comes to Statehouse elections, many candidates have low name recognition, and stick instead with broader topics highlighted by their parties, he said.
“It’s hard to get a personalized message out, so you’re stuck with the sort of widespread, large-scale party messaging,” he said.
Legislative elections in an off-year generally have lower turnout, and voters who do cast ballots in them typically already have their mind made up before the election, Cassino added. And with hundreds of candidates running in the state’s 40 legislative districts, there’s very little opportunity for candidates to set themselves apart from other people within their party, he added.
The last time the Legislature was on the ballot in 2021, only about 40% of registered voters cast their ballots, and that was with a gubernatorial race at the top of the ticket. This year, the Legislature’s 120 seats lead the ballot.
So campaigns turn to topics that mobilize their party’s base of existing voters instead of trying to lure new voters to the polls, Cassino said.
“It’s cynical, but unfortunately, that’s the way that the electoral campaigns work, at least in New Jersey, at this time,” he said.
Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said the lack of engagement with voters, which includes newly naturalized citizens and young voters on the topics they care about, contributes to low turnout.
“There’s an enthusiasm gap because people aren’t seeing themselves, aren’t seeing their families, aren’t seeing their communities reflected in policies,” she said. “Parties and campaigns are following an outdated political playbook.”
Advocates from different groups that often lobby Trenton lawmakers agreed that the lack of conversation on the campaign trail about racial justice is a “glaring omission.”
“We have one of the worst racial wealth gaps in the country … where’s that discussion? We’ve talked a lot about how inflation has made things more expensive, which is true, and then what about our Black and brown communities, given the wealth gap?” said Henal Patel, director of law and policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
A 2022 study from the institute found the median household wealth for white families in New Jersey is $322,500, while the median for Black families is $17,700, and for Latino families, $26,100. The study says the state’s racial wealth gap is nearly double what it is nationally.
Patel would have wanted to see candidates discuss legislation like a bill to combat home appraisal discrimination. She also wondered why the governor didn’t use this election to gain support for his 2021 baby bonds proposal, which would have provided $1,000 for babies born into households with less than 500% of the federal poverty level.
Patel also pointed to a slew of bills stalled in the Legislature aimed at addressing policing problems, like ending qualified immunity and creating civilian review boards with subpoena power. Voters are supportive of more transparency from police, she said, but she hasn’t seen any candidates make it a focal point of their campaign this year.
Democrats have campaigned on their pledges to make New Jersey more affordable, citing the Anchor tax rebate program and the planned StayNJ tax cut for seniors. But left unmentioned on the campaign trail, according to Maura Collinsgru of consumer advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, is a stalled bill that would prohibit insurers from using factors like education, occupation, and credit scores to set drivers’ insurance rates.
“Why are we still allowing this kind of discrimination to continue in New Jersey in 2023? Why are we not codifying the Voting Rights Act? All these issues matter to New Jerseyans, and we need candidates to turn their attention to it,” she said.
The state’s struggling public transit system should have been a major talking point for candidates, according to Alex Ambrose of progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. This is the biggest issue for many everyday riders of NJ Transit, Ambrose said.
NJ Transit is facing a $1 billion deficit in two years, which Ambrose called an “existential crisis.” She called on lawmakers to renew the corporate business tax surcharge — which is set to expire this year — to help fund NJ Transit and avoid its coming fiscal cliff.
“We need to make sure electeds are continually paying attention to racial and economic justice issues like public transportation,” she said. “It’s surprising to not hear officials talk about this essential service that so many of their voters rely on to get to their jobs, school, health care, their families, and economic development.”
Torres pointed to the lack of engagement from both sides of the aisle with New Jersey’s booming immigrant population. The state is expected to become majority-minority within the decade, district demographics will change, and immigrants will have even more voting power, she noted.
The candidates who are talking about immigrants this cycle are “dangerous and contrary to our state values,” she said, citing comments about asylum seekers in New York City, a Plainfield official who joked about calling federal immigration authorities at a protest, and Atlantic County commissioners urging New Jersey not to be a sanctuary state for immigrants. Lawmakers who represent diverse districts and have the support of voters of color don’t rebuke these statements as loudly as they should, Torres said.
“The voters who really have an opportunity to change our elections aren’t being spoken to by our parties. They’re not being spoken to in policy priorities,” Torres said.
Cassino said candidates are comfortable with the electorate they are familiar with, their base that votes for them based on their stances on issues like abortion or green energy. In order to widen the conversation on the campaign trail, he said, our voting system would need a complete overhaul, like adding ranked-choice voting or abolishing the county line.
“Our system is very closed and pretty tightly constrained. You’re not going to get a lot of innovation as long as you’re operating in that system,” he said. “That’s not the politician’s fault. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
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