Op-Ed: Sidamon-Eristoff – ‘Different’ Isn’t Necessarily the Best Thing for NJ

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff | October 27, 2015 | Opinion
Five distinct aspects of Garden State public culture that hinder good government and limit economic growth

Former State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff
Friends and colleagues often ask how my five years in New Jersey state government compared to my prior service in New York City and New York State government. What is different or distinct about New Jersey’s political/government culture? In particular, are there any differences in “public culture” that negatively impact New Jersey’s relative governmental or economic performance?

Although five years is hardly time enough to begin understanding New Jersey’s labyrinthine public culture, it was sufficient to appreciate that the differences between New York and New Jersey are numerous, nuanced, and consequential.

While some distinctions, such as New Jersey’s stronger executive powers and nonpartisan legislative staff, arguably favor (or at least could favor) New Jersey’s relative performance, others almost certainly do not.

In the interests of promoting further discussion, here is my “top five” list of distinctive features of New Jersey’s public culture that I believe negatively impact our state’s performance.

Some caveats. First, this list is admittedly subjective and incomplete. I invite and look forward to readers’ additions, comments, and corrections. Second, I do not mean to imply that New York is somehow “better” than New Jersey. Believe me, both states have their issues and I could easily come up with a similar list for New York. Finally, with apologies, I will embrace space limitations as cover to defer a discussion regarding potential solutions to future columns.

The first distinction concerns the nature of partisan political power, particularly with respect to legislative power. While New York has evolved a system in which the elected leaders of the New York State Legislature’s majority and minority conferences control sophisticated political organizations (including patronage, fundraising, and political campaign management) that have long eclipsed the role of traditional party organizations, a number of old-fashioned party “bosses” in New Jersey still play a major role in influencing nominations, filling vacancies, fundraising, and campaign operations.

While some bosses are elected party chairs, others hold no official public or party position at all. Nonetheless, they collectively control dozens of legislators and their influence over the selection of legislative leaders is such that New Jersey governors routinely feel compelled to negotiate with sponsoring bosses in addition to, and sometimes instead of, the official legislative leadership.

The persistence of the boss system enjoys a symbiotic relationship with a second noteworthy distinction: New Jersey’s dubious tradition of multiple public office-holding, which basically doesn’t exist in New York.

Although the practice of holding more than one elected position at the same time is being (slowly) phased out, a surprising number of senior state legislators hold a second or even third patronage position at the local government level. For example, the penultimate speaker of the state Assembly simultaneously served as a deputy county administrator in Essex County, while one regional political boss serves as a state senator, mayor of North Bergen, and North Bergen assistant school superintendent. To the new observer of New Jersey politics and government, such arrangements are bizarre and invite obvious conflicts of interest.

A third distinction is that New Jersey suffers a relative dearth of analytics, both inside and outside of government.

Despite decades of budgetary retrenchment, New York’s public agencies still have a depth of capable staff who generate economic, fiscal, legal, scientific, or social analysis in support of governmental decision-making. Further, a broad range of independent nongovernmental advocacy groups, occupying nearly all points of the ideological spectrum, supplement and challenge the government’s analytics with their own credible analytics. The result is a cacophonous yet fairly well-defined and informed public dialogue.

In New Jersey, by contrast, public agencies are lucky to have a miniscule staff devoted to research and analytics and there are only a handful of independent organizations that even attempt to generate credible analytics on state or local issues. The result is a systemically under-informed and totally undisciplined public dialogue that too often closely resembles a schoolyard shouting match.

The lack of public analytics exacerbates the impact of a fourth, widely-appreciated distinction concerning media coverage. Voters and other stakeholders in New York can rely on a robust independent press to help them interpret and understand public issues and processes.

Unfortunately, New Jersey is sandwiched between two large media markets served by news organizations that cannot or will not devote significant resources to covering New Jersey issues. Similarly, the state’s largest newspapers have cut back news-gathering resources in the face of financial challenges and have a limited circulation reach. The result is that New Jersey’s citizen-voters are pretty much on their own in trying to deconstruct public decision-making, a task that is nearly impossible in a state were many of the most important political connections are buried in obscurity far beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated ground-penetrating radar.

A final, and highly subjective, distinction concerns self-perception and pride in public service. In my experience, the individuals serving in New Jersey state government and political office are demonstrably the equal of their counterparts in New York in terms of intelligence, education, experience, honesty, and dedication to public service.

Yet, as awkward as it is to point out, they often don’t carry themselves with the same self-confidence or sense of professional pride. With or without justification, most public servants in New York take it as a given that they “play on a varsity team.” Although by any objective measure New Jersey is also a “varsity” state, its public culture remains almost preternaturally “junior varsity” in self-perception. Why this is so defies easy explanation and, no, I don’t have a ready antidote or solution. But we’re only deluding ourselves if we deny the problem exists.

Does all this have an impact on performance? I would argue that it does. I believe that the combination of party bossism and multiple office holding obscures transparency and political accountability with respect to public decision-making, institutionalizes wasteful and sometimes corrupt conflicts of interest, and supports a cynical and hyper-transactional political culture that, in turn, inflates costs and deters investment in New Jersey.

I believe further that the lack of public analytics and robust media coverage weakens the breadth and quality of New Jersey’s public dialogue on important issues, making it even easier for disciplined masters of the political system to manipulate the process at the expense of public accountability.

Finally, I believe that the relative lack of pride makes it more challenging to recruit and retain talented public servants, feeds the public’s cynicism about government, and undermines New Jersey’s competitive economic position by projecting an insecure and negative image to investors and competitors alike.