Takeaways from NJ’s 2021 Election

Takeaways from NJ’s 2021 Election

Being a political and policy junkie, I always find Election Day exciting, but when it comes to drama and intrigue, 2021’s legislative contests in New Jersey far exceeded my expectations.

Now that we’ve had a week to let the dust settle, here are few of my thoughts and takeaways from this year:

You Can’t Pay Attention to Polls Anymore

It’s time to face the truth: in the age of Caller ID and phone settings that automatically screen Robocalls, traditional cold-call polling methods no longer yield accurate results. For example, the Oct. 28th FDU poll that showed Murphy up by 9 points over Ciattarelli was based on a sample of just 829 people, with nearly a third of those respondents answering a landline, and the remainder responding on cell phones. How many unidentified phone calls do you bother picking up on any given day? Yeah, me neither. While Election results still haven’t been certified yet, Governor Murphy’s victory appears certain. His vote lead over Ciattarelli has grown to just under 3%–nearly 73,000 votes. With election workers taking Thursday off for Veteran’s Day, ballot counting won’t resume until Friday, so New Jerseyans will have to wait for the final results a bit longer.

Vote-By-Mail Ballots Were Game-Changers

In the state’s most populous County of Bergen, Election Night proved to be a roller coaster ride for local candidates, several of whom posted losses with in-person Election Day voters at the polls, only to emerge victorious after some 41,000 mail-in ballots were counted. Early Voting numbers proved lackluster, but GOTV efforts in 2022 and onward are sure to include a tremendous push for VBMs.

Lame Duck May Be Different This Year

I typically dread this time of the election cycle, known as “Lame Duck”: the weeks that follow Election Day, extending through the December holiday season and into early January, when the State Legislature has their Reorganization. Political insiders know this to be the time when legislators are most inclined to play Santa Claus for their loyal donors, with deep-pocketed special interest groups expecting a return on their campaign-season investments. This is also when NJ residents, already overwhelmed with election fatigue, look forward to tuning out all things politics in order to celebrate the holiday season with their families. Legislators know this, and inevitably choose this time of year to put forth some of the worst, most controversial bills they’ve been saving for just such an occasion, when they think no one is watching.

I know that sounds jaded, so here’s a ray of optimism for you: I suspect things will be a little different this year than in previous cycles, thanks to a too-close-for-comfort gubernatorial contest, Sweeney’s surprise departure, and skittish legislators already looking ahead to re-election in 2023. 

For context, let’s talk about what happened during the previous Lame Duck session in November 2019, versus what’s been happening so far this week.

Just days after Election Day 2019, Senate President Sweeney fast-tracked a bill reportedly written for him by the AFL-CIO, the union powerhouse organization that openly brags about financing pro-Union candidates who will advance legislation that aligns with their agenda. The bill sought to enact stricter guidelines for employee classification—a model that was poised to take effect in California, thanks to Assembly Bill 5, a bill that became the subject of numerous lawsuits and injunctions due to its heavy-handed approach. Like AB5, Sweeney’s bill would have eliminated the ability to work as an independent contractor in NJ, putting thousands of freelance contractor careers at risk–including 77% of the truck drivers who keep the supply chain moving at the Port of NY/NJ. (Supply chain crisis, anyone?) At the same time, he and his caucus pushed for legislation to remove the religious exemption for vaccinations.

Both measures received strong pushback from the public, and opponents for both bills began protesting in large numbers. Freelance writers (including myself), with our independent careers at stake, took to the mainstream media to spread the word to the masses. At the same time, concerned vaccine choice advocates (many of them parents whose children experienced bad reactions to vaccinations, but were unable to qualify for NJ’s medical exemption) braved frigid temperatures and converged on Trenton in the thousands. They protested en masse outside the Statehouse during the Senate voting session, their impassioned chants so loud and persistent, the Voting chamber windows rattled.

Ultimately, the bills did not receive enough support to pass, which, until very recently, was Sweeney’s most embarrassing defeat. The protestors said at the time, “We Will Remember in November”, and boy, did they ever! Fast forward two years to November 2021, and Senate President Sweeney has been ousted by largely-unknown Ed Durr, a political newcomer who just happens to be a non-union truck driver. #KARMA

What I’ll be watching for is the effect that Sweeney’s imminent departure will have on this year’s Lame Duck session. As the sun sets on his tenure in the state legislature, will he and his Democrat colleagues be even more inclined to ram through controversial bills, or will there be a chilling effect, with skittish legislators fearful of alienating voters and facing the same fate as Sweeney two years from now taking a more measured approach?

Based on what happened this week, I’m inclined to think the latter. On Monday, the Senate Transportation Committee was scheduled to hear a fast-tracked bill—S4064, listed on the agenda as  “pending introduction and referral.” That means the bill wasn’t officially filed with the Clerk yet, so the text of the bill was not available ahead of the hearing. This is a big pet peeve of mine: how is the public expected to weigh in and provide testimony on a bill that they haven’t read? 

According to those with advanced knowledge of the bill, S4064 would have established automatic annual 3% toll increases on the NJ Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, and Atlantic City Expressway, each and every year, with no end date indicated. It’s a bill that was destined to face public opposition, but historically, bills aren’t put on the agenda unless the Committee chair is confident they will be released—especially when the Prime Sponsor is the Senate President, as was the case with S4064. I’ve been to many Committee hearings over the last 12 years, and even if every single person who shows up to testify opposes the bill, it inevitably gets released anyway (often with the caveat from lock-step Committee members voting Yes that they “expect the sponsor to do further work on the bill to address the concerns raised here today.”) 

But that’s not what happened this week. Instead, S4064 was pulled at the last minute because it didn’t have enough support to clear the Committee. Will this year’s Lame Duck see legislators acting more circumspect on controversial, fast-tracked bills? Let’s hope so!

Leadership Changes in Both Chambers

Sweeney’s shocking defeat—which became official yesterday when he finally heeded calls to concede—has created a mad scramble to find a new Senate President. Senator Nick Scutari of Union County is widely expected to get the nod, but Senator Nia Gill of Montclair is making her case for the position, pointing out the need for diversity in Legislative leadership. I’ve been told by party insiders that Scutari is a lock.

Craig Coughlin will retain his role as Assembly Speaker, but there will be changes on the GOP side of the aisle. Assemblyman John DiMaio will succeed Senator-elect Jon Bramnick as Assembly Minority Leader, and Senator Steve Oroho has been chosen to take on the role of Senate Minority Leader with the departure of Senator Tom Kean Jr., who is leaving the State legislature in order to focus on renewing his challenge to unseat Congressman Tom Malinowski. Kean Jr. came close to defeating Malinowski in 2020, and given trend for the sitting President’s party to lose ground during midterm elections, he’s got a good shot of taking back the seat lost by Rep. Leonard Lance in 2018.

Redistricting Decisions & Sweeney’s Next Move

Now that the 2021 election is over, New Jersey will turn its attention to the delayed, once-every-10-years task of redrawing NJ’s legislative and congressional districts to align with the latest Census numbers. The new Legislative and Congressional District maps will be in place for the next decade, and spooked state legislators who faced surprisingly close races this year will be putting on added pressure to get a district that favors their re-election in 2023.  InsiderNJ ran an interesting article back in September, providing prescient insights into the possible ramifications of Senator Sweeney’s role in the redistricting process. Although the article—read it HERE—did not see Sweeney’s stunning election night loss coming, they did foreshadow the end of his reign as Senate President if Jean Stanfield bested Dawn Addiego for the District 8 Senate seat (she did) and if Vince Polistina beat Vince Mazzeo in District 2 (he did).  InsiderNJ predicted that, if those losses occurred for the Democrats, and Sweeney lost his leadership position, he would push for the districts to be revised in a way that would put him in a position to run for Congress (i.e. move West Deptford into CD2) and capture the seat currently held by Democrat-turned-Republican Jeff Van Drew. An interesting proposition, and one that is looking even more plausible now that Sweeney is going to have some extra time on his hands come January 2022.

In his concession speech last night, Sweeney already sounded like a man running for higher office, declaring: “I plan to remain fully involved in public affairs in New Jersey. I will keep speaking out for fiscal responsibility and reform. I will be a strong voice for unity, for economic opportunity, and for competitiveness and growth. Most of all, I will be a champion for the enactment of policies that make New Jersey affordable for young people to be able to live here, for young couples to buy homes, for working families to make ends meet with enough left over to go on vacation, and for retirees to be able to stay in their houses near their loved ones.” He ended his remarks with the assurance that he wasn’t planning to go quietly: “I will be speaking from a different podium” Sweeney said, “but I promise you: I will be just as loud and just as forceful a voice for change.”

Lessons Learned?

The Governor’s race and Sweeney’s loss weren’t the only surprises this year, and pundits are still trying to unpack what happened in contests across the state. Even though it appears that he won’t be successful in his bid for Governor, there’s no denying that the charismatic, plain-spoken, Jersey-born and raised Jack Ciattarelli provided coattails to Republican candidates across the state, firing up voters and helping to grow the number of GOP legislators in the Assembly.

Of course, Democrats must also shoulder some of the responsibility for these losses, many of which stemmed from complacency and, perhaps, downright arrogance that voters in typically-Blue districts would just show up automatically because of lingering angst and anger over Trump.

While it’s true that voters often come out in large numbers to vote against someone, I believe the electorate is far more likely to go that extra mile and show up at the polls when they’re inspired by a candidate. It feels good to vote FOR someone rather than against someone…it makes people feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Just as the “blue wave” washed over the NJ in 2017 & 2018, a “red wave” appears to have crash landed in the Garden State. Whether or not it continues into 2022 and beyond will depend upon how legislators adjust their outreach and communication with their constituents.  

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