New Normal for NJ Republicans: Finding Ways to Be Bipartisan

With the Democrats controlling the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, the Garden State GOP needs to find a way to make sure its voice is heard in Trenton

Credit: Martin Griff
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.
With Democrats having control of both houses of the state Legislature for well over a decade, Republican lawmakers in Trenton have grown accustomed to being in the minority. But starting next year, the Republicans will face a new, more partisan reality.

Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is due to replace term-limited Republican Chris Christie in the governor’s office come January, and that changeover means GOP lawmakers will no longer be able to count on a gubernatorial veto to block policy proposals they disagree with. Murphy’s arrival will also provide less incentive for the type of bipartisan negotiations that have given the Republicans a chance to help shape numerous pieces of legislation during Christie’s two terms in office.

Faced with that predicament, Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) has promised his minority caucus will still pursue an agenda that will be based on the issue of affordability, something that Christie also emphasized during his tenure. But in the Senate, longtime Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) has already offered to work on a bipartisan basis with Murphy and the Democratic leaders, suggesting the minimum-wage issue — which is a key priority for Democrats — is one area where they can find compromise.

So far, the overtures from Kean have been rejected by the Democrats, and at first blush, there appears to be little reason for them to seek input from the Republican leaders once Murphy takes office. The Democrats will only be adding to their majorities in the wake of the legislative elections held earlier this month. But the GOP leader still believes Republicans have something worthwhile to offer the Democrats, suggesting Trenton is at its best only when generating policies that are truly bipartisan in nature.

Bipartisan believer

“I am always optimistic that we can have bipartisan solutions,” Kean Jr. said in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight.

“We were all sent down by our hundreds of thousands of constituents, each and every one of us, to find good solutions,” he said.

Democrats held a 24-16 majority in the Senate heading into the legislative elections that were held across the state earlier this month, and they added one additional seat to their majority after the votes were tallied in all 40 districts. While state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) picked up the seat of retiring Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) in the 7th District, and former Monmouth County Democratic chair Vin Gopal upset incumbent Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) in the 11th Legislative District, Republicans won back control of the 2nd Legislative District seat that was held by the late Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), with Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) defeating Sen. Colin Bell (D-Atlantic).

In the Assembly, Democrats added two more seats to an already firm majority as Democrat John Armato won Brown’s Assembly seat in the 2nd District, and Democrat Roy Freiman picked up the 16th District seat of Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), who did run for reelection after trying unsuccessfully to win the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination. The two pickups pushed the Democrats’ margin over Republicans in the Assembly to 54-26.

Forced to work across the aisle

During Christie’s tenure, those additions would have been important because the Democrats have never been able to successfully override one of Christie’s legislative vetoes in both houses of the Legislature. That forced them to work with Republicans to make any progress on issues like property taxes, public-employee pensions, and transportation funding.

But with Murphy now coming into office, mustering up the votes needed to override a gubernatorial veto appears to be a much less significant factor, especially since many elements of Murphy’s policy agenda already line up well with the longstanding priorities of the Democratic leaders.

For example, last week Murphy appeared alongside Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and incoming Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) for the first time publicly as a leadership group to announce that a top priority will be significantly increasing the state’s minimum wage. Currently set at $8.44, the three leaders were in agreement that the rate should be lifted over time, to $15.

While Kean opposes a minimum-wage increase that tops out at $15, a level that he said is “simply too high,” he believes Republicans would be able to work out a compromise with Democrats on the wage issue, especially if they can create some more predictability for the state’s business community. The GOP leader is also looking to get Democratic support for a proposal to enact an income-tax cut for the state’s middle class, which may soon get clobbered by a tax-code overhaul that’s currently advancing in the Republican Congress. Among other changes, the federal-tax legislation would eliminate or at least scale back a key tax deduction that right now allows New Jersey residents to write off both their state income taxes and their local property tax bills.

So far, the Democratic leaders have yet to entertain the offer from Kean on the minimum wage, and they’ve also questioned why the Republican leader would tie a middle-class tax cut to what they consider to be an attempt to address the state’s standing as one of the worst in the country on income inequality.

“Trading off a minimum-wage hike for something else? Come on,” Sweeney said last week.

But the Democratic leaders have also conceded that they have yet to work out all of the details on the minimum-wage issue, including whether some employees, such as farmworkers and teenagers, should be exempt from the higher hourly wage. If those disagreements persist, that could provide an opening for Republicans to get involved. And with all of the division and partisan rancor coming out of Washington, D.C., these days, Kean said Democrats should also consider cooperating with Republicans as a way to set an example for the rest of the country.

“Let’s have one of the first products of the Legislature and the new governor be one that is bipartisan in nature,” he said.