Take yourself back to September 1991. The legislative midterm elections were less than two months away. New Jersey was in the second year of a Democrat Governor, following eight Republican years. The State Senate had not been in GOP hands for 18 years. The Assembly was last Republican in 1989.
1,032 delegates from across New Jersey attended the State Republican Convention that year. They were exhorted by former Governor Tom Kean, who reminded them “that they must do more than criticize Florio and Democratic lawmakers” to wrest control of the Statehouse in the November elections: “People want to know what you're for, not just what you're against,” he said. “Attacking the present administration is not enough.”
The delegates discussed and debated issues… adopted a state party platform… and defined who they were. In November, Republicans won a landslide victory and took control of both chambers of the Legislature. Two years later, they took the Governor’s office too.
In contrast to last month’s gathering of the GOP in Atlantic City, the 1991 convention at Rutgers University was about policy, message, and people – it had a grassroots feel to it. While the current state party operation is dominated by Trenton-centered professional operatives and consultants, in 1991 the party was still one of stakeholders – people with networks in their communities and districts.
New Jersey Republicans are suffering a crisis of identity. And it’s not just the old controversies over social issues. The current “favorite” for Governor in 2021 – former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli – called Donald Trump a “charlatan” who is “out of step with the Party of Lincoln” and an “embarrassment to the nation.”
The NJGOP can’t seem to make up its mind on something as basic as the tax restructuring package – championed by former Governor Chris Christie – that ended the Estate Tax, cut a bevy of other taxes, prevented a huge property tax hike, and provided enough property tax relief to enable places like Warren County to actually cut property taxes. Some Republicans seem determined to run against one of Governor Christie’s hallmark accomplishments. Let’s hash this thing out once and for all.
Legalizing the sale and use of recreational marijuana is another issue. Although both Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick have done admirable jobs of holding their delegations together on this – there are all these lobbyists occupying party office who are nibbling away at the resolve of individual legislators and there is no formal party position on this or any other issue of substance.
A convention could be just the thing to resolve these conflicts, to pull everyone together around what we agree on, our principles and objectives, to create a message, and build that message out with a platform of policies – which could then be fleshed out by people like Regina Egea and her Garden State Initiative. Thus far, the only prescriptions offered by the NJGOP have been which consultant a candidate should hire or new “game changing” technology to employ. These do not take the place of having an actual message to run on – as the past few election cycles have shown.
Once upon a time, New Jersey Republicans knew how to tell their story. Now it seems they’ve lost the art – or at least the plot. Nothing like a gathering to bring everyone together to remember who they are, put it down on paper… and then go out and sell it.