Minority leader talks gerrymandering, free community college, Trump

In the upcoming midterm elections, every vote will count. But the collective influence of voters is diminished by partisan gerrymandering — the penchant of politicians to manipulate electoral maps in a way that gives them an advantage. So says the state’s top Republican. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick sat down with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: Assemblyman, you wrote an Op-Ed recently about gerrymandering. You’re upset that so many legislative districts around the state are solidly Republican or solidly Democratic. What’s the diagnosis? What’s the problem?

Bramnick: The problem is that legislators, congresspeople don’t want to give up their seats, so they’re gerrymandering in such a way that it’s Republican or Democrat. But that is a problem for voters, because — and I think it’s a problem for our country — most people in our country and in New Jersey are in the middle. Gov. Kean once said 70 percent of the people are kind of in the middle. But if you have districts that are very Republican or very Democrat, the problem becomes that legislator or congressman moves to the right or left, and that’s why we have such polarization. We can set up these districts and make them more competitive, and then you would get somebody would have to play to the middle, as opposed to the right and the left. I just think people lose their right to vote when it doesn’t make any difference.

Aron: Are you proposing something for the 2020 census year?

Bramnick: I’ve been proposing a constitutional amendment for years, saying that you try to make as many competitive districts as possible, giving the voters real choice. I don’t think it’s getting any headway right now in the Democratic majority, because, you know, they’re in the winning seat right now.

Aron: How do you do that mechanically? How do you create more competitive districts?

Bramnick: Well, think of the way it’s mapped now. Now, the districts are weird, you know. You could draw a funny little shape and that’s the district. You could do the same thing and include Democrat and Republican towns, as opposed to all Republican towns. Like, my district is mostly Republican. Sen. Scutari’s district’s mostly Democrat. You could merge those two districts, they’re contiguous, and you would just put one Democratic town more in my district, one Republican town in his district. Make it more competitive so it makes a difference.

((This has been edited for time Aron: Would you abolish the system that we’ve used for the past 70 years where five Republicans and five Democrats get in a room and they reach an impasse. And then the Supreme Court appoints a tie breaker, who most recently sided with the Democrats. Would you do away with that who system?

Bramnick: I’m happy to keep the system as long as the model that they have to follow is which map comes up with more competitive districts. And that 11th appointee — the arbitrator, the one who makes the decision — has to follow that mandate: pick the map with the most competitive district. And if he doesn’t, then it goes to court and that person has to do that.))

Aron: And as I think you just said, this is probably wishful thinking. The Democrats enjoy a comfortable majority in both houses of the Legislature. They’re probably not going to buy into your proposal?

Bramnick: I’m not even sure Republicans would as well. I think this is about basically self-preservation, and I don’t see politicians changing. But it seems to me, not only important to you as a voter, but important in terms of our country being less polarized.

Aron: How is Gov. Phil Murphy doing from the vantage point of the Assembly Republican leader?

Bramnick: I think he’s way to the left in spending. I think it’s just, he’s almost blind toward how much the state costs the average taxpayer. He has a philosophy, and I think he deeply believes in it. I don’t think he’s a phony. He’s almost like a Bernie Sanders, maybe to the left of Bernie Sanders. But this tax and spend stuff? It’s not going to end well for New Jersey. As I said, nice fellow. His wife is very nice as well. But policy wise? I couldn’t be farther away from his concept of tax and spend.

Aron: What about the vision he presents of a modernized, invested, a state in which there’s heavy investment in public education, public transportation, innovation economy. Is that pie in the sky?

Bramnick: Well it’s pie in the sky if people are leaving and moving to other states.

Aron: Are they?

Bramnick: Without any doubt. I hear it every day. The Democrats think no one is leaving. You ask the average person you meet on the street whether they think this is affordable and whether they’re going to stay, I can tell you that poll ends very poorly. So, his pie in the sky, and that’s what it is. I don’t think he sees the reality of the average taxpayer. He’s broad. He has a broad vision. I just think it’s the wrong vision.

Aron: I thought you were going to say he has so much money that he can’t relate, but you’re not saying that.

Bramnick: Well to some degree that is true. Somebody that has that much money, I think it is difficult to understand how the middle class really struggles. What I don’t understand, because he comes from the business world, business people must be telling him that they’re moving their businesses out of the state. But, look, I think he’s committed to what he’s going to do and I respect that. I think it’s the wrong road.

Aron: His roots are middle class, or has he would say, middle class on a good day back when he was young.

Bramnick: Yes, but he is deeply committed to a very serious tax and spend policy. I mean, to raise billions of dollars in taxes, he wants free community college. Let me ask you about free community college. Why should it be free? Why shouldn’t that student have some skin the game?

Aron: Because K-12 education is free and why not make progress and make the next two years free as well?

Bramnick: Because, one, we don’t have the money. But, even if we did have an incredible amount of money, why not put a little skin in the game for the student? Why is it totally free? There are a lot of people who work their way through college. Look, maybe 80 percent, 75 percent. Why 100 percent free? I think people have to have skin in the game.

Aron: You’ve been the champion of civility in Trenton for a couple of years. I think you held something called Rally for the Reasonable?

Bramnick: Absolutely.

Aron: How’s that going?

Bramnick: It’s difficult because people are so mad at government. Life is difficult in terms of making ends meet. So you have to say to people, “Listen, let’s talk to each other.” And I’m not sure that Donald Trump, even though he’s a Republican president, is the king of civility. That’s not helpful. I would prefer if he showed more civility and more humility. I think that hurts my cause a bit and I’ve said that.

Aron: Are you embarrassed that he’s the titular leader of your party?

Bramnick: I would say I’m extremely, I’m not less concerned about policy, although I disagree on some policy. I am concerned about the lack of humility. I think that is problematic as an example for young people and for older people. I really believe that humility, especially as a leader, is really important. I don’t see a lot of that, and that’s deeply disconcerting to me.

((Also deleted for time — Aron: You think he could get re-elected today?

Bramnick: I’m not an expert. In today’s world, I don’t make any predictions because the economy is doing really well. Generally, across the country, the unemployment numbers are really good. So I don’t think people are voting based on humility anymore. They’re based on jobs and the economy. Me, humility is important. It always has been.))