With Democrats in New Jersey more than willing to score political points whenever new President Donald Trump’s policies rub residents here the wrong way, Republicans in the Legislature are struggling to change the subject and get out a message that’s focused more on state issues.
In fact, GOP legislative leaders in recent days have tried to shift attention away from Trump’s controversial executive actions and cabinet nominees by talking instead about issues that have long frustrated voters from both parties in New Jersey, like high property taxes and growing disparities in education funding.
Yesterday, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) went a step further, urging his Democratic counterparts to call a special session of the Legislature to force action on the state’s major problems.
Stakes high because all 120 seats in Legislature up for grabs
Whether the GOP strategy will prove to be successful over the long term remains to be seen. But the stakes are high for all involved since all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs this November.
Right now, Democrats hold a 24-16 advantage in the Senate, and a 52-28 margin in the Assembly. The Democrats were able to pad their hold on the Assembly during the last legislative election in 2015, when they added four seats.
They’re also hoping to make up even more ground with the full Senate also on the ballot in 2017 —something that could be more likely after the announced retirement of long-time Republican Sen. Diane Allen earlier this week. Allen’s Burlington County district is currently split, with two Democrats holding the Assembly seats. Popular Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) has also already indicated he will run for the seat Allen is vacating.
With firm control of the legislative agenda, Democratic leaders have spent the first month of 2017 holding hearings on issues like school aid and transportation infrastructure as they await Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address, which is scheduled for the end of this month.
Dems have seized on president’s unpopularity in Garden State
But even as Christie’s approval rating has sunk this year to just 17 percent — a record low for a New Jersey governor in recent history — it’s Trump’s unpopularity that Democrats in New Jersey have seized on in recent days. Results of a survey released yesterday by the Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll showed just 37 percent of the state’s residents approve of the job that Trump has been doing during his first few weeks in office.
After protests erupted last weekend, the Democrats are also preparing to vote on Monday on a resolution that will condemn Trump’s decision — citing national security concerns — to temporarily ban immigrants and refugees from seven countries, including war-torn Syria. Since the order gives some priority to those in religious minorities from the seven Muslim-majority states, Trump’s executive order has been viewed widely as the Muslim ban that he repeatedly promised to enact while running for office last year.
But the announcement of the pending Senate resolution drew a sharp statement from Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., who suggested the Democrats are rushing to schedule votes to condemn Trump’s actions while other issues that are more pressing in New Jersey remain unaddressed.
“They’ve planned votes to express opposition, but they haven’t planned any votes on cutting property taxes, nor have they planned votes on creating opportunities for students and job seekers, or on ethics reforms that would help to rebuild trust in our government institutions,” said Kean Jr. (R-Union).
Kean accuses Democrats of working for headlines, not NJ
“Rather than work for headlines, Senate Democrats should start working for New Jersey,” he said.
Bramnick, the GOP Assembly leader, said the special session he envisions would force the Legislature to focus on state issues like education aid, public-employee benefit costs, and affordable housing.
“Why not at least have a vote up or down to see where the members are, both Democratic and Republican, on these issues that would reduce costs to the taxpayers?” Bramnick said. “I would say it’s time for us to investigate the Democratic Legislature, and why they continue to do nothing on the substantial issues of the day.”
“Clearly, the biggest issue that we face here in New Jersey is affordability,” said Assembly Republican Whip Anthony Bucco (R-Morris).
But an hour later, Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) issued a pointed response, saying Democratic lawmakers have been working on the very issues that the Republicans have accused them of ignoring. Prieto also defended their interest in federal policy and Trump, citing the impact that the federal government frequently has on issues at the state level.
“Assembly Democrats will never back down from defending the civil rights and well-being of our state’s residents,” he said. “New Jersey Republicans may enjoy defending Donald Trump and Chris Christie and their destructive policies, but Democrats will stand up for New Jersey residents anytime and anyplace.”
Sweeney spokesman says no apologies for focus on Trump
Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) also made no apologies for the Democrats’ recent focus on Trump’s actions. “Apparently, these Republicans need to be reminded that every legislator took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, as well as the New Jersey Constitution,” McGrath said.
“We aren’t just taking a stand in opposition to Trump’s un-American assault on our constitutional rights, we are taking a unified stand in support of American liberties and values and the policies that support them,” he said.
But at least one Republican, Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), has come to Trump’s defense. Oroho called on members of his party to stand up for Trump, saying it is “a moment of truth” for the GOP. He also took issue with the portrayal of Trump’s executive action as a Muslim ban.
“President Trump is simply acting on what earlier administrations have identified as threats to the security of our nation and lives of our people,” Oroho said.