New Jersey is a tough place. It’s congested. It’s split between Giants (and some Jets) fans in the North and Eagles (ugh!) fans in the South. Jersey’s 8.5 million residents live in 566 towns and cities; their kids attend schools in over 600 districts. In short, it’s fragmented and decentralized. It has no commercial television station, no statewide newspaper, no really big city. Even its state university uses a different first name.
Enter the governor. Any New Jersey governor starts with the fact that state’s constitution makes him/her the most powerful governor in the nation. No attorney general or secretary of state runs statewide. We hold the election in a year when national issues will not intrude. The governor appoints everyone – judges, prosecutors, the cabinet, and almost all the boards and commissions. The governor owns the airwaves, even New York and Philadelphia broadcasters know his or her name.
Enter Governor Chris Christie. No modern governor has understood better how to use the enormous powers of the office to set the public agenda and influence public opinion and the legislature. His people are top-notch messaging folks who are as savvy with social media (they regularly feed YouTube videos some of which get a million+ hits) as they are with Statehouse reporters. He has the opposition party buffaloed. After only a year in office, his name was floated by serious players as a potential presidential candidate, then vice-presidential candidate, then keynote speaker.
So, let’s agree that Governor Christie is a great communicator. He knows how to make an argument in plain, simple, and memorable ways. He uses town hall meetings to make his case for whatever is high on his list (“Comeback,” “Get the hell off the beach,” and, of course, tax cuts). His appetite for town hall meetings is great (he’s coming up on number 100). Now the banner behind him reads “Middle Class Reform Agenda.”
Since Labor Day, his town hall meeting schedule has picked up. He seems to emphasize tax cuts (again) and punishes the Democratic legislative majority for not going along. However, even though only six weeks stand between now and the November ballot, the governor gives no marquee attention to a key issue he supports: the bond issue on the ballot that would improve facilities at New Jersey’s colleges and universities. Not only did he sign the bill to put the issue on the ballot, but explained why it is so important that it pass. That was to a small audience gathered for the bill-signing for the law re-organizing health professions education in the public universities.
There’s been a lot of talk in Washington about deficits and debt. Most middle-class families feel stressed by the economic downturn and the threat to their security. A $750 million bond issue sounds like a lot of money. In the absence of the governor taking charge of the public dialogue about the bond issue, there is a good chance that it may not pass – though it should.
So, here’s something to kick off his next town hall:
“If you care about the state’s future, your family’s future, support the higher education bond issue this November. Tell your friends and relatives. Nothing is more important at having a shot at a secure middle-class life than a college education. And no college education opportunity beats public colleges and universities in New Jersey for an affordable, quality degree.”
“We all know what happens to houses in our neighborhoods when the owner doesn’t maintain it, doesn’t fix the leaky roof, repair the broken window or paint it when necessary. The same lesson applies here, since New Jersey has been ignoring the maintenance of, and investment in, its public colleges. It’s been 23 years since the public was asked to approve a bond issue, then for $350 million (that’s $680 million in today’s dollars). We need to fix up buildings that are decades old, catch up with new technologies, and build the expensive labs that will attract the world’s best researchers and scholars.”
“Other states are passing us by. We can’t afford to have prime pharmaceutical jobs move to New York, Massachusetts or California. We need to make investments in facilities and institutions that can partner with corporations and other research centers to bring grant dollars and jobs to New Jersey – the economic opportunities of future generations depend on it. We’ve taken a big step by rationalizing our public health professions educational institutions. The next step is to approve the bond issue.”
“Finally, with the prolonged slowdown in the national and state economy, with the costs of a college education spiraling upward, the need for accessible public higher education has never been greater. Private colleges that were affordable just a decade ago are out of reach for most middle-class families. New Jersey’s public colleges and universities, from community colleges to research universities, have seen a surge in applications. Folks who thought their kids would attend Lehigh or Middlebury are now looking to Rutgers. The pressure on public college facilities has never been greater.”
“So, if you have a ten year old child or grandchild, or if you hope that New Jersey will see a more prosperous future (or both!), vote ‘yes’ on the bond issue.”
Or something like that.
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