The ’11 legislative session surely was a milestone in New Jersey history. Lawmakers and the governor seized an opportunity to fundamentally reshape state government. At the heart of the debate, of course, was the politically charged issue of taxpayer-supported pensions and other benefits for public workers.
The state’s political bosses made their preferences clear: They supported reform, and the legislators they influenced acted accordingly. The sweeping changes in Trenton did not pass without notice. The governor became a much-discussed presidential prospect, even though, truth be told, the heavy lifting was carried out in the Legislature, a bastion of the sort of bossism and machine politics which the governor publicly disdained.
Yes, the legislative session of 1911 was an interesting time in Trenton.
The similarities, and contrasts, between the legislative session of 2011, which saw lawmakers and the governor cooperate on historic changes to the pension and health care benefits of state workers, and the session of a century ago, when lawmakers pressed for higher wages and the beginnings of a pension system for public employees, are remarkable and instructive.
In both cases, a high-profile governor — Woodrow Wilson in 1911, Chris Christie in 2011 — received most of the credit and attention for the changes. Wilson, of course, went on to win the presidency in 1912. Christie says he’s not interested in 2012, although the national media seem unconvinced.
But while Wilson and Christie basked in the national glow, it was their unlikely allies — the state’s top political bosses — who either set the stage for later reforms or who made reform possible.
Political bosses in New Jersey surely have wielded power without scruple, and often to their own benefit. The most legendary boss of all, Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, managed to secure an apartment on Park Avenue and a luxurious summer getaway during his three decades in office. Hague never was formally accused of corruption, but recent years have seen a parade of bosses hauled off to prison, including former state Sen. John Lynch and former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. It would be an almost laughable understatement to say that public integrity continues to be a concern. Reformers nearly a century ago described New Jersey as the “most-bossed state” in the nation. It probably remains so.
That said, it would be wrong to conclude that political bosses possess no redeeming qualities and have operated solely out of financial self-interest. Unlike many reformers, bosses have a working knowledge of the practical problems politicians face as they try to balance their books, serve their constituents and, yes, preserve their chances for re-election. Their insights into the pragmatic problems of their constituents and their colleagues have led many to champion a variety of political and social reforms, from safety regulations and social insurance programs a century ago to charter schools and pension reforms today.
For many bosses, reform is not an abstract ideology, as it was for Wilson and many other civic elites. Rather, it is a response to conditions they experienced first-hand on the streets of America’s growing cities. When New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith supported state pensions for widows, he did so not because he read Progressive Era texts about society’s obligations to the poor, but because his own father died young and he was forced to quit school at age 13 to support his mother and younger sister.
The same could be said about today’s bosses, who have become champions of public benefit reform and charter schools, issues that are rooted in practical experience rather than political ideology.
In 1911, Newark political boss James Nugent and Jersey City’s Bob Davis supported the controversial notion of taxpayer-supported pensions for public employees after 30 years of service. The measure passed the General Assembly that year, but failed in the Republican-controlled state Senate. (Obviously, it eventually passed.)
Yesterday’s bosses also supported a raft of other reforms, including workers’ compensation, tighter regulation of public utilities and minimum wages for county employees. What’s more, they moved Wilson away from his prissy progressivism, with its moralistic emphasis on political process, toward a more practical reform agenda that eventually led to greater protections for workers in both the private and public sectors.
More recently, the cuts in state support for public employee pensions and benefits might never have become law without the tacit support of today’s bosses, especially Camden County’s George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. The combined influence of these men — Norcross over South Jersey, DiVincenzo in his home base of Essex — helped deliver enough Democratic votes to ensure passage of the changes Christie demanded.
Nugent and DiVincenzo have more in common than a shared power base in Newark. They succeeded because of their ward-level knowledge of local conditions and their desire to ameliorate those conditions.
Two labor leaders also played key role in achieving reform. In 1911, the president of the state’s Federation of Labor, Cornelius Ford of Jersey City, lobbied furiously for measures such as workers compensation and greater regulation of workplace safety. This year, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the former business agent and treasurer of Local 399 of the ironworkers union, played the most-critical role in winning support for cuts to pension and health benefits for state workers.
AP Photo/Courier-Post, Tina Markoe KinslowA 2001 file photo of South Jersey political powerbroker Geroge Norcross.
Practical considerations, rather than abstract argument, are the great motivators of political change. So it is ironic that Wilson, a stuffy academic who had only contempt for his less-educated partners in government, and Christie, a onetime prosecutor whose lips curl when he refers to the maneuvers of mere politicians, depended on pragmatic, boss-driven politics to achieve reform.
Knowledge of how things actually work, rather than how theorists said they should work, led Steven Adubato Sr., the legendary boss of Newark’s North Ward, to take the lead in charter school reform, launching the Robert Treat Academy in reaction to the realities of public school failure in his city. Lately, Norcross has discussed the possibility of creating charter schools in Camden, another place where students are poorly served by the status quo.
Political bosses generally don’t show up among the nation’s most-admired characters. As Adubato once put it, “Nobody raises a child to become a political boss.” With good reason. But there have been times in New Jersey history when bosses have proven to be a reformer’s best friend.