NEW YORK — GARDEN State politics has been topsy-turvy ever since political consultant Ed Rollins said Republicans had set aside $500,000 to pay urban black ministers for their silence and Democratic campaign workers not to work in the New Jersey governor's race.
Federal and state investigations are now under way, and Mr. Rollins, who has recanted his statements, will be interviewed in Washington tomorrow by a lawyer for the state Democratic Party.
All of this has made for anything but a smooth transition for Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman (R), who has had difficulty getting down to the task of forming a government. She has tried to mend fences with black ministers and has met with such black leaders as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. And she has steadfastly denied Rollins's allegations, which were made last week at a Monitor breakfast.
``She is always trying to put out the fires; they are always behind the curve, not ahead of the curve,'' says Stephen Salmore, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a Republican consultant. Ironically, this was the image Rollins was brought in to dispel.
Some Garden State political analysts are concerned that the flap, if it continues, might distract Ms. Whitman from her job once she takes office Jan. 18. ``The state has horrendous problems, and this might take some options off the table, like withdrawing some aid from urban areas,'' says Cliff Zukin, a political scientist at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute. However, Whitman spokesman Carl Golden denies that there will be an effect and says there are no plans to take away urban aid.
While the investigations begin, Democrats are starting to look in the mirror as well. What they are seeing is that Gov. Jim Florio's defeat was not due to any vote-suppression efforts by the Whitman camp, but rather to the governor's unwillingness to do the things necessary to win a large number of minority votes.
According to Thomas Giblin, Essex County Democratic Party chairman, the Florio defeat was presaged this summer when strategists from outside New Jersey failed to mount an effective voter-registration drive. Mr. Giblin says he couldn't convince ``the Chicago people'' to ``listen to the people who knew the area.''
What Giblin knew was that voter registration in Newark and other urban areas had dropped since Florio's 1989 victory. In Newark's case, registration was down 17,000 people from 1989. Because new voters tend to vote Democratic, Giblin pressed for a drive. ``But there was no strong regular effort by Campaign '93 [Florio's campaign] in Newark or other parts of the state,'' he says.
But while registration was down in these areas, minority-voter turnout rose slightly, with Whitman picking up many of the votes. In an analysis of five key urban areas, Mr. Zukin found that Florio won 63 percent compared with 37 percent for Whitman. This is down considerably from 1989 when Florio won 81 percent.
``Florio did not direct his campaign to the needs of the urban voters,'' Zukin says.
In Newark, Whitman got 3,558 more votes than Jim Courter, the 1989 GOP candidate. Florio's vote, meanwhile, fell by 6,810 compared with 1989. Again, Giblin blames Democratic strategists: ``Florio didn't spend enough time in the city,'' he says.
Florio needed to court more voters because he had upset many by saying he'd take over Newark schools. ``The Newark school system provides patronage - about 1 out of 6 jobs in Newark,'' Mr. Salmore says. ``It had been painted as a racially motivated takeover.''
Florio also lost black votes because of his stand on welfare. He had taken a hard line, maintaining that welfare mothers had to identify the fathers of their children to continue to get support. ``Blacks saw that as punitive, not positive,'' Giblin says.
As part of a national trend, Republicans also decided not to run candidates in Democratic strongholds as a way to keep voter enthusiasm down. ``If someone is going to win, why put up a candidate to force the other candidate to work?'' Salmore asks. ``It's not an insidious plot, it's called maximizing your resources.''
The Florio campaign may have also found itself outbid for ``get out the vote'' workers, who get ``walk-around money.'' However, it is not clear that the higher bidders were Republicans. Salmore says Rutgers students were offered $25 in walk-around money by Florio's campaign, but $40 to work for a local Democratic candidate running in Edison Township. (Campaign officials there could not be reached for confirmation.) As an indication of Florio's difficulties, the local candidate won election by 400 votes, but Florio lost the normally Democratic community by 1,133 votes.
The use of walk-around money may change in the state. On Monday, Republicans introduced legislation requiring that all campaign payments be made by check to ensure there is a ``paper trail.'' Ironically, this might affect Democrats more than Republicans since it is a widely used tool to get out the vote in urban areas.