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War of Words Over Rutgers-Rowan Plan Gets Ugly

Colleen O'Dea | March 29, 2012

Senate President Sweeney dismisses Lautenberg statement as 'uninformed and vengeful,' while Christie likens north Jersey Democrats to 'pigs at a trough' -- and that's for starters.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Senate President Stephen Sweeney

The proposed takeover of Rutgers' Camden campus by Rowan University has sparked off something of a Civil War in New Jersey -- and kicked off the 2014 campaign for one of the state's seats in the U.S. Senate.

In response to a request by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), that the federal education secretary review the potential merger, Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) -- a possible challenger to Lautenberg -- and the entire South Jersey Democratic delegation blasted the state's elder senator yesterday for making "uninformed and vengeful remarks" about the plan.

"They are utterly false, as well as offensive to the many people giving their time and effort to an initiative that would greatly improve higher education in our region," read the statement. It was signed by six Democratic senators and 12 Assembly members in the 1st through 7th legislative districts. Other signatories included Republican Sen. Diane Allen of the 7th and Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego of the 8th, as well as Camden Mayor Dana Redd and three other South Jersey mayors.

That statement prompted a North Jersey Democratic Assemblywoman to defend the 88-year-old Lautenberg, who has spent 28 of the past 30 years in the Senate, and bring Gov. Chris Christie into the fray.

"There are far too many questions swirling around the merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan for them not to be asked," said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen) and a member of the Joint Higher Education Committee that held hearings on the proposed restructuring of higher education that Christie is pushing.

"As a state," said Wagner, "we have not funded higher education to the level that it deserves. While South Jersey legislators fight for their schools, north Jersey legislators are called 'pigs' for stating the simple fact that we need more money for these institutions as well."

Christie likened Bergen County's three Democratic senators, who said they would not support the proposed merger without a $2 billion higher education bond issue, to "pigs at the trough." (The plan would give parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to Rutgers in exchange for Rutgers giving its Camden campus to Rowan.)

Not to be left out, George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Hospital and the South Jersey political power many believe to be behind the Rowan-Rutgers plan, issued a statement of his own, about an hour after Wagner's, criticizing Lautenberg.

"Rather than taking cheap shots like a typical Washington politician, "the Senator should be rolling up his sleeves and be part of a solution for a higher education model that strengthens Rutgers, Rowan, Newark, and our region," Norcross said. "Camden is not in the State of Maine, it's in New Jersey and desperately needs the Senator's help, not his hysteria. We should all be embarrassed that New Jersey ranks third to last in the United States on higher education funding."

That last zinger echoed a nearly identical complaint in the Sweeney statement -- issued seven hours earlier from the same email address -- that Lautenberg does not bring enough federal higher education money back to New Jersey.

Sweeney, whose friendship with Norcross dates back to their childhood days, has formed an exploratory committee for a possible challenge to Lautenberg.

Sweeney's statement was splashed across the top of PolitickerNJ's website yesterday as an advertisement paid for by the Leaders Fund, a Democratic political action committee chaired by Scott M. Goldberg, a politically connected South Jersey lawyer who got his law degree from Rutgers-Camden. That fund raised $200,000 and spent $504,000 last year, ending 2011 with $118,000 in the bank, according to its most recent report filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

"While Sen. Lautenberg has failed all of New Jersey on the issue of higher education, his callous disregard for South Jersey has been reprehensible," Sweeney's statement continued. "He seems to forget that he was elected to represent all the people of New Jersey, not just those who live north of Trenton. On issue after issue, Sen. Lautenberg has been missing in action when it comes to the problems and concerns of his constituents in this region."

Sweeney suggested Lautenberg was just trying to "settle old political scores" with his appeal to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to review the Rutgers-Rowan merger proposal. Norcross backed U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1st) in his unsuccessful primary battle against Lautenberg in the 2008 Senate primary.

Caley Gray, Lautenberg's spokesman, called the charges from Sweeney and Norcross "outrageous" and again, without naming him by name, struck back at Norcross.

"The Senator stands with the people of South Jersey who are questioning the wisdom of this backroom deal, not a political boss seeking to expand his influence," Gray said. "It's sad that elected officials will simply fall in line on orders from their political benefactor when so many South Jerseyans are alarmed by this deal. Instead of attacking Sen. Lautenberg, these politicians should be joining the Senator in demanding answers from Gov. Christie about the effect this deal will have on student costs, jobs, and the financial health of our state colleges."

Sweeney's statement demanded more higher education dollars for South Jersey schools.

"Sen. Lautenberg ignores how South Jersey has been shortchanged in state funding for higher education," continued the statement issued by Sweeney. "The reasons for the proposed merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan have nothing to do with the funding of the medical school but everything to do with correcting this imbalance. In fact, Rutgers-Camden serves as a cash cow feeding Rutgers-New Brunswick . . . We deserve our fair share of higher education funding and the benefits of our own research university right here in South Jersey."

Rutgers-New Brunswick officials dispute statements that the university takes money from Camden to use for other purposes, saying the university's total commitment to the campus exceeds the amount of revenues Rutgers-Camden receives.

But while Christie continues to talk about the purpose of the reorganization plan as strengthening higher education throughout the state, the statement by Sweeney and the other legislators made clear that it is foremost about money for South Jersey.

While not addressing that question, Wagner said the plan has little to recommend it to South Jersey students, or anyone else, and needs more work. Christie has said he wants it to take effect July 1.

"The plan offered little in the expansion of choice for the students of South Jersey and offered no financial details as to how this can occur," said Wagner, adding students should continue to have the opportunity to choose between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan. "The four-month deadline is absurd. There are too many questions that need to be answered. The first one is how to pay for this. I heard estimates from as low as $40 million each year to millions upon millions of dollars to make this happen."

She said there is also not enough information to tell whether giving three units of UMDNJ to Rutgers-New Brunswick and putting the operation of University Hospital into a public-private partnership would hurt the hospital and Newark itself.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the politics of the issue are not as simple as one of North Jersey vs. South Jersey.

"This is a very complicated issue … It's not surprising to find people getting very passionate and having strong feelings about these things," said Rebovich, noting Democrats represent Newark, New Brunswick and Camden, all of which would be affected by the plan. "It's clear that the Democratic party, especially when they do not have a Democrat in the governor's seat, has many different power centers and many different leaders . . . Unlike the Republicans, there is no one person who has the ability to tell everybody to get in line."

If the reorganization is advanced as legislation, it appears Wagner would be in the minority of those opposed.

Assuming Republicans stand with Christie, as they have almost to a man on every important vote since he took office, and all the South Jersey legislators who issued yesterday's statement also back it, as the statement all but indicates they do, supporters would have 22 votes in the Senate and 44 in the Assembly -- enough to pass it.

Christie is still trying to determine whether to try to reorganize the schools himself using an executive order -- something the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services has said it believes he cannot do -- or seek legislation embodying it.

Rutgers officials contend that the university's boards of governors and trustees would still have to endorse any change, and it's unclear whether one or both boards would approve trading Camden for Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Questions remain about the financial ramifications of taking pieces of UMDNJ, and the leadership, faculty, and students at Rutgers-Camden are united in their opposition and have threatened legal action to stop it, if necessary.

R2RMerge, the Rutgers-Camden student movement that has gathered more than 12,000 signatures on a petition opposing the merger, issued its own statement last night, defending Lautenberg and attacking Sweeney. It charged that rather than supporting the call to gather more facts on the proposal, "Senator Sweeney once again curtsied to the Governor, utilizing bravado to shift the focus off of the issues."

"The students, faculty, and administrators at Rutgers deserve to have specific and detailed answers from the governor addressing their concerns," said Michael Edelman, a Rutgers Camden Law student and spokesman for R2RMerge. "It's deeply encouraging to know that Senator Lautenberg supports our call for accountability and responsible government."

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