Politicians take the highways most traveled

September 25, 1997|By George F. Will

WOODBRIDGE TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- New Jersey, the nation's ninth most populous state, is home to 8 million people of diverse races, colors, creeds, national origins and sexual preferences, all united by a shared fury about automobile insurance rates.

Which is one reason Gov. Christine Whitman, who was supposed to cruise through re-election and continue her role as a pinup for ''moderate'' Republicans, finds herself in an embarrassingly close race with James McGreevey, a Democrat who is barely a rumor in much of the state.

This green and pleasant town is his wee kingdom, where he reigns as mayor and from which he travels to Trenton to serve as a state senator. He has cast two votes in Trenton that will blunt possible attacks on Ms. Whitman.

He voted for the 1990 tax increase proposed by Ms. Whitman's predecessor, Jim Florio. That increase was advertised by some national Democratic operatives as presaging a populist, redistributive tax policy from some Democratic president. Instead, it presaged Ms. Whitman's narrow (1 percent of the vote) 1993 victory over Mr. Florio, achieved by proposing a 30 percent cut in state income taxes.

She kept her promise and the state's spurred economy has generated sufficient revenues to pay for the tax cut. But state spending has increased considerably, and she has kept the books more or less balanced by using fiscal maneuvers, including one involving pension fund assets, that made even some Republicans queasy.

Higher taxes

And many local authorities, claiming they are compelled by tax cuts at the state level, have raised other levies, particularly property taxes, which have just become the nation's highest. Thus many people feel that for every $100 they gained from Trenton, they lost $120 in their communities. However, Mr. McGreevey's Florio connection limits his ability to tap into anti-tax feelings.

The second McGreevey vote that partially immunizes Governor Whitman against him is his vote against a bill outlawing partial-birth abortion. The bill passed and she vetoed it.

However, this constitutes only partial immunization for Ms. Whitman. Republican social conservatives say: It is better to have a reprehensible Democrat in power than a reprehensible Republican in our parlor. They just want Ms. Whitman to go away and take her Lesbian and Gay Pride Month and Coming Out Week with her.

A poll her campaign takes seriously shows her support among Republicans in the 60s, among self-identified conservatives in the 50s and among all voters in the 40s. Mr. McGreevey barely has 40 percent name recognition, but New Jersey has two Democratic U.S. senators and President Clinton carried the state by 18 points in 1996.

The Libertarian candidate has state matching funds and a place in the debates. The Conservative Party's candidate ran in last year's U.S. Senate race, spent less than $4,000 and got 50,971 votes -- almost twice Ms. Whitman's winning margin against Mr. Florio.

One issue rousing his audiences is a promise to abolish High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on highways. He says New Jerseyites generally have long commutes, the patterns of which make it difficult to find car-pool partners, so people are paying for highways and only getting to use part of them.

Fighting matter

So to the list of great American political slogans such as ''54-40 or Fight!'' add: ''Give us all four lanes or give us death!'' What is it about New Jersey and its cars?

To outsiders, New Jersey is a turnpike the way Egypt is a river: A concrete ribbon is what outsiders see. New Jerseyites have demanding commutes (nationwide, most commutes are not from suburb to central city but from one suburb to another) and when they arrive home, feeling frazzled and homicidal, they find in their mail the nation's highest auto insurance bills.

Seventy percent of New Jerseyites disapprove of Ms. Whitman's handling of this problem.

Cars. Virginia's gubernatorial race is, in part, a hot competition to see which candidate most convincingly promises mayhem against the personal property tax on cars, which costs some residents $1,000 a year and generates more than $1 billion annually.

In Congress, steam is gathering behind ''auto choice'' legislation that proponents say could save up to $45 billion a year for those who choose to forswear ''pain and suffering'' settlements arising from accidents.

Mr. McGreevey, a bouncy 40-year-old, knows the election will be largely a referendum on Ms. Whitman, and New Jersey almost always re-elects incumbents. But the better the times are, and the broader the basic social consensus is (no one is suggesting tax increases), the greaterimportance attached to micro-issues, such as car insurance.

Perhaps political turbulence is a price we pay for -- actually, an ancillary benefit from -- prosperity and domestic tranquility.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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