With Democrats now in control of the governor’s office and holding bigger majorities in the Legislature, it may be tempting for Republicans in Trenton to be more provocative or even profane to draw attention to their priorities. And who could blame them for trying such an approach given the success it has seemingly brought President Donald Trump?
But the top Republican in the New Jersey Assembly is promising that is not the direction that his caucus will be taking during the tenure of Gov. Phil Murphy, even as the self-styled progressive governor is unapologetically promising to hike some taxes and increase spending.
Instead, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) is launching a statewide push to “Rally the Reasonable,” an effort that he says will primarily focus on raising legitimate questions about taxes and the affordability of Murphy’s liberal agenda.
“Here’s my question to the new administration: Even though some of your proposals are really good ideas, we need to know, where is the money coming from? We need to know how you’re going to pay for that,” Bramnick commented last week during a news conference in the State House that kicked off the new “Rally the Reasonable” effort.
Meanwhile, the veteran lawmaker is also not being shy about taking issue with Trump’s approach to political messaging, which often involves aggressively going after opponents and the press on social media.
More than just a tweet
“I didn’t spend this much time in Republican politics to be defined by tweets that insult people, or a demeanor that in my judgment doesn’t reflect the best of the Republican Party,” Bramnick said.
It may seem like an odd strategy for a Republican leader like Bramnick to be taking on his own party’s standard bearer at a time when Democrats are rising in New Jersey. But given Trump’s unpopularity here, and the damage he is doing to the Republican brand, it’s a tactic that makes a lot of sense, said Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.
“New Jersey Republicans have to keep the focus on Murphy’s policies, and not Trump’s tweets,” Dworkin said.
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who never held public office before being sworn in last week, has described himself as a “pro-growth progressive” who is focused on reigniting the state economy, while also restoring more fairness to state fiscal policy. He’s promised to enact a series of tax-policy changes, including raising taxes on those earning more than $1 million annually, to help bring in more revenue for a list of priorities that includes improving mass transit, providing free community college, boosting aid for K-12 school districts, and increasing public-employee pension funding.
“A stronger and fairer New Jersey means that someone has your back. I do,” Murphy pledged during his inaugural address (https://www.njspotlight.com/stories/18/01/16/murphy-kennedyesque-dreams-anti-trump-jabs-in-optimistic-inaugural-address/) in Trenton last week.
But Bramnick, who’s been rumored to have considered running for governor himself, promised during his own event in Trenton that the Republican Party is also looking out for the average New Jersey resident, with a particular focus on how Murphy’s policy proposals could impact their bottom line. The Assembly Republicans have estimated it will cost between $5 billion and $7 billion in new spending to pay for all of Murphy’s promises, a big chunk of money for a state that right now spends about $35 billion annually.
“The taxpayers of New Jersey need to know where the money is coming from,” Bramnick said. “How many new taxes? How many new fees? Who is going to pay?”
The Assembly Republicans, meanwhile, also want property taxes to be a bigger part of the discussion. They note Murphy has refused to call for the renewal of a key property-tax reform related to local police and professional firefighter salaries enacted by former Gov. Chris Christie that Democratic legislative leaders recently allowed to expire. They are also pushing to outlaw the payouts that many public employees can get on retirement in New Jersey for unused sick and vacation time. Last year, NJ Spotlight reported public workers across the state are owed nearly $2 billion for such unused time.
“We are willing to work on a bipartisan basis, and our history shows that we’ve done that,” said Assembly Republican Whip Nancy Munoz (R-Union).
The GOP’s “Rally the Reasonable” effort will involve working with party leaders throughout the state to organize a series of events in the coming weeks and months that will show off a different side of the GOP than people are seeing right now from Trump, Bramnick said.
“We’re going to simply try and do town halls and say ‘We’re the Republican Party, and we’re not crazy,'” Bramnick said. “We are not crazy or extreme, we’re reasonable.”
“What we want to do is show that there is middle ground here, that it’s not us versus them,” Bramnick went on to say.
Dworkin, the Rowan University professor, suggested Bramnick and the other Republicans are showing that they have a long-term strategy to survive in the post-Christie era in New Jersey that right now is being dominated by the policies – and social-media posts – of the GOP president.
“The long-range play here is to reconfigure the Republican brand so that Trump doesn’t overwhelm it,” Dworkin said.
He also pointed to recent gains that Democrats made in traditional GOP strongholds like Morris and Somerset counties as proof of the predicament facing Republicans, who will need to appeal to more than just Trump’s base in New Jersey if they want to regain any ground.
Keeping the focus off Trump and putting it on Murphy and the troubles he could face trying to implement his agenda will help the GOP to play the traditional role of the opposition party, Dworkin said.
“They want to be able to say, ‘We’ve got better ideas, we’re going to hold you accountable,’ which is what the minority party should be doing,” he said.