Monday, January 24, 2011

Has Chris Christie Touched the Third Rail?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Today, Governor Chris Christie inserted himself into the national political debate. It wasn’t on repeal of President Obama’s health care plan or immigration reform. It was on the issue of abortion.

At a public event marking the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision that legalized abortion, the governor said that “every life is precious and a gift from God” and that “we need to … encourage everyone to understand why this cause is so important.”

Make no mistake. This was not simply an expression of personal feelings. The governor spoke at a political rally in the state capital organized by New Jersey Right to Life. The rally was part of a series of events being held around the country to coincide with the March for Life in Washington, DC.

Chris Christie did not explicitly call for overturning Roe v. Wade in his remarks, but he clearly threw his political lot in with groups who do, promising – his word – that they have an “ally” in the New Jersey governor’s office.

Christie’s personal opinion on abortion has been well-established. Today was not the first time he told how hearing his child’s heartbeat in utero was a turning point for him on this issue.

It has not been clear, though whether this would play a role in his policy decisions. Last July, critics charged that Christie vetoed $7.5 million in family planning funding because of his views on abortion. The governor countered that his veto was based on fiscal concerns only – the money simply was not available in the recently passed, austere budget.

The argument was very effective. After all, the governor also vetoed two other bills (charity care funding and a homebuyers tax credit) on the same day for the same stated reason.

However, the governor’s appearance at today’s rally has provided ammunition for those who saw the family planning veto as being driven more by ideology than fiscal prudence. Further, they have started to claim that the other two vetoes were done purely for political cover.

There is no evidence that this is the case. But if his opponents can make their charges stick, it could hurt Christie in the court of public opinion.

It’s not so much that his views are out of step with a good number of his constituents. The bigger danger lies in the fact that he has taken on a nationally charged social issue in a place where most voters prefer their statewide officials to avoid such matters

Abortion is not considered a hot topic in New Jersey state politics. This is born out by the fact that most pollsters covering the Garden State – myself included – rarely ask about it. The most recent poll on the issue I could find was conducted seven years ago by the Eagleton Institute.

That poll found that supporters of unlimited access to abortion outnumbered opponents by nearly 2 to 1 (28% to 15% to be precise). However, the majority of New Jerseyans (53%) took a more moderate view that there are certain circumstances where abortion should be legal and circumstances where it should not.

We don’t know for sure what the results would be today, but those 2004 poll numbers illustrate a fairly common phenomenon in New Jersey public opinion. Hard-core liberals outnumber hard-core conservatives on social issues, but the vast majority of the public believes these issues should not lead to a charged debate in the context of state policy. [The New Jersey “live and let live” attitude is one of the reasons why the state’s abolition of the death penalty in 2007 wasn’t a campaign issue two years later, even though most New Jerseyans opposed the move.]

So, while the governor’s strong alliance with the pro-life movement puts him in the minority among New Jersey residents, his personal position is not itself a problem for most voters. It could become a problem, though, if it leads the public to view his policy decisions on other issues as being driven more by ideology than pragmatism.

In his remarks on the State House steps, the governor said that supporters of the pro-life movement need to speak in a way “that leaves no ambiguity in how we feel about this issue.” And true to form, Chris Christie did just that.

[Click here for Gallup national polling trends on abortion opinion.]

Monday, January 3, 2011

Public Merits Voice in Redistricting Plan

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger.

UPDATE: Commission public hearings announced: 1/12-Rutgers Law School in Newark; 1/13-Hudson County Community College in Jersey City; 1/18-Rowan University in Glassboro; and 1/20-Ocean County Administration Building in Toms River. The hearings will begin at 6 p.m.

One of the most politically important events in the state will occur early this year. Most New Jerseyans are unlikely to hear much about it, though, as it will occur behind closed doors. That is, the meeting of the decennial Legislative Apportionment Commission.

Why is this important? The legislative districts of each state are supposed to afford equal representation to all residents. To accomplish this, the boundaries of these districts are redrawn every 10 years to account for population shifts determined by the U.S. Census. These legislative maps can have significant consequences.

Just look at the outcomes of the past two redistricting processes in New Jersey: In 1991, the Republicans took advantage of both anti-Democratic sentiment and a newly drawn map to take control of both chambers of the state Legislature. They did not give up that power until 2001, when a new map was largely responsible for swinging the Assembly — and, two years later, the Senate — back under Democratic rule. How the 2011 districts are drawn will have considerable policy implications for the coming decade.

The municipal level results of this year’s Census will be released in February or March. Most states will take about a year to digest those numbers and draw their new maps. New Jersey is different. Because we hold state elections in odd-numbered years and legislative candidates must file their intention to run well before the June primary, our commission has only about a month to design a “fair” map.

New Jersey is different in another regard, as well. Most states design their maps through the normal legislative bill-making process. The party that controls the Legislature has the advantage when drawing the map. New Jersey, though, uses a bipartisan commission. The Democratic and Republican state party chairs each appoint five members to the Legislative Apportionment Commission.

Technically, these 10 commissioners can come to an agreement on the map. In reality, they won’t. So the chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints an 11th member. The New Jersey Constitution establishes no particular qualifications for this member. He or she can be Democrat, Republican or independent. The person doesn’t even need to be registered to vote, as was the case in 2001. The role of this 11th member can be as an arbitrator or mediator, moving the two parties’ maps closer to some middle ground. But in the end, the 11th member usually has to side with one party or the other.

There are a number of problems with this structure. While nearly 3 million New Jerseyans are registered as a Democrat or Republican, in reality, the commissioners are directed to look out for the interests of incumbent legislators, county and local committee members, and other party activists. These folks number in the tens of thousands. However, the new legislative map will have consequences for every one of the Garden State’s 8 million-plus residents. Who represents their interests in the process?

This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the process was open to public scrutiny. Unfortunately, it is not.

That’s why the 11th member is so important. This constitutional obligation to represent everyone in our legislative districts should be coupled with giving the public some voice in the process.

This places a huge responsibility in Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s hands. He can change the dynamic from past commissions by appointing an 11th member who is charged to serve not just as a tie-breaker, but as an advocate for the interests of the New Jersey public. While this will not result in a wholesale change in the partisan nature of the process, it will at least go some way toward giving all state residents a greater say in how they will be governed for the next 10 years.