In a historic change of political gears, New Jersey voters last week shifted control of the governor’s office and one house of the state legislature from Republican to Democratic, revamping leadership at a time when lawmakers have their sights set on improving public schools.
In his victory speech, Gov.-elect James E. McGreevey vowed to forge a “government for all the people” and to work “day and night, with the full fiber of my being, with every measure of my strength” on persistent challenges such as those facing the state’s 1.3 million-student school system.
Mr. McGreevey, a three-term mayor of Woodbridge, took 56 percent of the vote, and Republican Bret D. Schundler, a former two-term mayor of Jersey City, garnered 42 percent in the Nov. 6 election, marking the first time a Democrat has been elected to the governor’s office since 1989.
Democrats, who lost control of the legislature in 1991, rebounded to power there as well last week, when all 120 seats in both houses were up for grabs.
The preliminary results, which will not be certified until Dec. 4, gave Democrats a 45-35 advantage in the Assembly and a 20-20 split in the Senate. One particularly close Senate race, won by a Republican, was being contested. The shift was aided by legislative redistricting that boosted Democrats’ strength and made it tough for Republicans to stay in power.
The impending leadership change brought optimism to some that Mr. McGreevey might improve quarrelsome relations among the state department of education, lawmakers, the governor’s office, and school districts.
Particularly, observers pinned hopes on the governor-elect’s promise to facilitate court-ordered spending in 30 poor districts. That spending, outlined in a series of decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the Abbott v. Burke school funding lawsuit, often has gotten bogged down by infighting, heel-dragging, and bureaucracy.
“There’s been a feeling in the districts that the supreme court decision hasn’t been implemented the way it should be,” said R. Thomas Jannarone, a consultant for urban affairs to the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “Mr. McGreevey has said he wants to end that kind of antagonism.”
The expense and massive governmental coordination required to carry out the court’s mandate are daunting. Not one new building has been built in the poorest districts with the $8.6 billion authorized by the legislature for school construction a year and a half ago, observers noted.
“Unless someone as high up as the governor says, ‘This must be a priority for all of you,’ then we’re hostage to the multiple agendas of all the different state agencies,” said Bari A. Erlichson, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “There was never the high-level mandate for everyone to get on the same page.”
Even a governor committed to realizing the court’s vision, however, could find the going difficult in today’s tough economic times.
Indeed, the morning after the election, Mr. McGreevey warned that a looming budget deficit will force an “agonizing reappraisal” of the state budget.
“The economy is not so great, and there is no question that will constrain the actions of whomever has the office,” Ms. Erlichson said. “It will be interesting to watch and see how aggressively the McGreevey folks pursue this. These programs are costly; ... it could be easier to stall and wait.”
Focusing on Teachers
Mr. McGreevey’s victory was fueled by a particularly aggressive Democratic effort to regain control of the state government, and by stressing strong fund raising and party unity. In contrast, Mr. Schundler—who is more conservative than most of the leadership of the state GOP—had difficulty raising money and securing sufficient support within the Republican Party.
Mr. McGreevey will replace acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, who took over for Gov. Christine Todd Whitman when she joined the Bush administration in January. He narrowly lost the governor’s office in his bid to oust the incumbent Ms. Whitman in 1997.
Mr. Schundler made school choice a cornerstone of his campaign, advocating more money for charter schools and a tax credit for low-income families to help finance private school tuition. Mr. McGreevey countered that his foe would turn his back on public education.
Mr. McGreevey stressed teacher quality in his campaign.
He advocates raising the passing score on teacher qualifying exams. He wants to improve teacher training and pair beginning teachers with mentors.
But he also hopes to weed out subpar teachers by giving them a year to improve, and streamline the process for their removal if they don’t improve.
To help focus on teaching, the governor-elect would provide incentives for districts that devote more resources to the classroom. He also seeks a 50 percent reduction in paperwork to give teachers more time with students, and proposed to hire a reading coach for every school that needs one.
The Democrat won the support of the New Jersey Education Association, which had not endorsed a gubernatorial candidate since 1989.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as McGreevey Leads Big Day For N.J. Democrats