What to watch in New Jersey politics in 2021 as pandemic settles in for second year | Stile

Charles Stile

The political landscape in this New Year will depend on how swiftly and successfully New Jersey and the nation emerges from the nightmare that was 2020.

Hovering over the New Jersey governor’s race and contests for all 120 seats in the Legislature in 2021 is the expectation that the distribution of a vaccine will finally bring the deadly coronavirus to heel. And with that, the hope that a weary and heartbroken public can reclaim some semblance of normalcy.

Also fueling a modicum of optimism is the coming installation of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who have promised a more focused, science-based pivot from the dismissive, disordered Trump administration’s management of the pandemic.

15 December 2020 - 

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, right, watches as Maritza Beniquez, RN, reacts after receiving a vaccination for COVID-19 at University Hospital in Newark, NJ. Beniquez was the first person in New Jersey to receive the vaccination.

Hope here is the operative word, for already a number of unforeseen threats to that rosy scenario have emerged — a slower-than-expected level of vaccinations and the emergence of a fast-spreading mutant strain of the virus, for example.

Those developments could also shape the contours of what is going to be a bitterly fought governor’s race.

For Gov. Phil Murphy, it means shaking off the curse that has plagued his most recent Democratic successors. No Democrat has won a second term for governor since Brendan Byrne in 1977.

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But Murphy, who begins the race favored to win, is also facing another peculiar New Jersey trend. Since 1989, New Jersey voters picked a governor from the party that lost the presidential election the previous year. If the pattern holds, 2021 may be a good year for New Jersey’s embattled Republican Party.

Here is a look at some of political questions and issues to watch as 2021 takes shape:

New Jersey's long-term care facilities

Republicans vying for a shot to run against Murphy have already seized on his administration's failure early in the pandemic to halt a wildfire spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, where nearly 45% of the state's more than 19,000 COVID-19 related deaths occurred.

The Republican plan is to sow doubts about Murphy's managerial competence while tapping a vein of discord over his lockdown orders, which they portray as authoritarian and reckless.

The Republican candidates so far — former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, R-Somerset, former state GOP chairman Douglas Steinhardt and Hirsh Singh, an Atlantic County businessman — will have plenty of material to work with.

There is, for example, Murphy's controversial triage decision to free up hospital beds early in the pandemic by ordering long-term care facilities to admit patients who had tested positive as long as they were deemed "medically stable."

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A months-long investigation by The Record and NorthJersey.com  also showed how managers of the three state-run homes for veterans were so adamantly opposed to staff wearing masks in the first month of the pandemic that they devised penalties with help from Murphy's office. The virus claimed 196 patients and two caregivers at all three of the state facilities.

But the GOP plan will face its own set of challenges, namely the good will Murphy earned for his overall handling of the crisis. Additionally, Murphy's intra-party foes who threatened to raise a ruckus in the Legislature are now less likely to do so now that Murphy has made peace with George E. Norcross III, the south Jersey Democratic Party power broker who is closely aligned with Senate President Stephen Sweeney. Republicans will certainly prosecute the case against Murphy, but they'll be doing it alone.

Rebranding New Jersey's Republican party

Jack Ciattarelli

Trump got close to 42% of the vote against Biden in New Jersey last year, but still produced 280,000 more votes than 2016, which means the party's Republican base is a Trump base — at least for the time being. It is already shaping the contours of the Republican primary, with Steinhardt casting himself as the devout Trumpian, who didn't "cut and run" from the president during his moments of high turbulence. Ciattarelli, who once derided Trump a "charlatan,'' is most likely to benefit if the Trump fever subsides and party regulars believe that a moderate offers the party the best hope of defeating Murphy.

'Amtrak Joe' and the promise of Gateway

Biden's election has raised expectations of fast-tracking the Gateway tunnel and bridge project, a $30 billion revamping of the commuting infrastructure that stalled during the Trump administration.

The North River Tunnel seen from a train traveling to New York's Penn Station Feb. 26, 2020.

Politically speaking, the project is a top priority for House Democrats from north and central Jersey, who represent hundreds of thousands of Manhattan-based commuters. Democrats will be on the ballot during Biden's midterm in 2022, when the party of the president typically loses seats in Congress. Launching the project over the next year could neutralize some the expected backlash.

The promise of vaccination distribution

The arrival of the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna last month elevated hopes of a spring renewal and possibly a mid-year rekindling of the economy. That scenario still looms but the steadily deflating news in recent weeks of smaller-than-expected vaccine allocations to each state — and Biden's sober warning that it's "going to take years, not months" to vaccinate the nation — could likely limit the political advantage for the incumbent Murphy.

There will be cash from Trenton

Murphy, with the help of Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, agreed to send out checks of up to $500 this summer to middle- and lower-income residents. It's an election gimmick with roots in Byrne's Homestead Rebate vote-buying maneuver in 1977, but it might take out some of the sting of a sluggish economy and Republican attacks just as the general election race heats up.

Jared and Ivanka's likely exile to Bedminster

Trump's trusted son-in-law and his daughter are planning to turn the Trump National Golf course into a compound, with five new "cottages" and expanding an existing one, complete with a "mud room." There's always a chance that the compound will be where Trump could end up plotting his return to power — especially since his Palm Beach neighbors might not give him the zoning variance he'll need to take up permanent residence at Mar-A-Lago.

Will Murphy run 'off the line' in 2021?

The governor has dodged questions as to whether he intends to run for reelection bracketed "on the line" with the legislative and local candidates blessed by the county organizations, or whether he might run independently. Reformers and progressives who have coalesced around Murphy view the system as an anti-democratic anachronism that protects bossism. But Murphy is likely to disappoint them. His recent détente with Norcross signals an embrace, not a distancing from the party machinery.

Cory Booker's push for reparations

The U.S. Senator and former mayor of Newark cruised to an easy reelection last year. Granted a lease for another six years, one of the state's most popular politicians will continue pushing for some form of redress or compensation for Black Americans for the legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

Senator Cory Booker thanks supporters for attending a rally to kick off the Cory Booker campaign for president that was held at Military Park in Newark on April 13, 2019.

In late November, Booker introduced The Justice for Black Farmers Act that would allow Black farmers to reclaim up to 160 acres each, at no charge, through a Department of Agriculture system of land grants. Booker, who co-sponsored the bill with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is banking on finding a sympathetic audience from the Biden White House.

"I’m now some years in the Senate,” Booker told Mother Jones magazine. “When I got here, a lot of folks indicated to me that issues of racial justice could not get done.” 

Will Senate Republican leader Thomas H. Kean step down?

Kean is pondering the possibility of stepping down to prepare for a 2020 rematch with U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, the 7th Congressional District Democrat. Kean lost by a mere 5,000 votes (after trailing behind by 28,000 votes on election night.) Stepping down will allow Kean to husband his resources and raise more money rather than spend it on a state Senate reelection. If Kean withdraws, Assembly Minority leader Jon Bramnick, R-Westfield, will likely seek the promotion to Kean’s seat.

Could Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg retire?

The liberal firebrand from Teaneck says she will declare her plans early in the New Year. At 83, Weinberg has maintained a protean pace, championing everything from tougher laws on sexual harassment to transit issues, and she emerged in recent years as the trusted lieutenant of Sweeney. Yet in an interview in October, Weinberg cited the difficulties of legislating amid the pandemic as a key reason for a possible retirement. Expect a Bergen County scramble for her seat. Veteran Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson, both of Englewood, said they would vie for the seat if Weinberg steps down. Attorney Michael Wildes, the Englewood mayor, is also someone who might make a run.

Charlie Stile is New Jersey’s preeminent political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com 

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