Varnish Remover

Greener Than Thou

Shore Revised, produced by David Axelrod and Associates for Rob Andrews for Governor.

The New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial primary sent a trickle of voters in that state to the polls June 3. This off-year contest–between four-term Rep. Rob Andrews and two-term state Sen. Jim McGreevey–generated little attention: The incumbent, Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, is likely to trounce her Democratic competition in November, and only 350,000 voters turned out at last week’s poll.

Despite the low levels of interest, both candidates took to the airwaves in the last few weeks of campaigning, blitzing the costly Manhattan and Philadelphia media markets with negative ads. The cost of the air war: an estimated $4 million.

McGreevey, who came from behind to win the primary by a slim 2 percent, painted his opponent as a Newt Gingrich Democrat who had voted to cut Medicare and the school-lunch program and deprive children of vaccines. And if the Andrews spots were to be believed, McGreevey was an anti-environmentalist who had delayed closing a pipeline that pumped treated chemical waste into the Atlantic. “For years, the Ciba-Geigy pipeline dumped cancer-causing toxins off the Jersey shore,” says Shore Revised, produced by David Axelrod and Associates for the Andrews campaign. “As a lobbyist in Trenton, Jim McGreevey … sided with the big polluters.” The visuals–a sleepy coastline that, gradually leached of color, tightens into a jaundiced, roiling froth–offer third-party verification via superimposed newspaper clips. But it is worth noting that 1) the clips take on Ciba, not McGreevey and 2) they are more tentative than the context would suggest. One headline merely places Ciba at the storm’s center; another notes that residents blame the company for cancer cases in the area.

The hope, of course, is that voters will skim the ad and buy its message. And to this end, the spot proffers a lobbyist-disclosure form, with McGreevey’s signature in ominous close-up. The form, which is largely indecipherable, is from 1988. It documents McGreevey’s efforts to amend the Ciba-Geigy bill, efforts that have been spun differently by each camp. The day after the first primary debate, where Andrews had raised the Ciba-McGreevey issue, McGreevey issued a statement saying that he had in fact “drafted compromise amendments that broke the logjam and allowed the ban on ocean discharges to be written into law.” Detractors have pointed out that the only significant amendment to the bill ended up delaying the pipeline’s closure by a year. Determined to establish his distance from the Ciba issue, McGreevey has cited newspaper reports in which major players on the bill say they have no memory of his involvement. But his protests seem to have had little effect on area environmentalists. The New Jersey Environmental Federation has endorsed Andrews, a fact that Shore Revised trumpets. And a group of greens who had supported the closure of the pipeline recently held a press conference disputing McGreevey’s claims, saying that the state’s big business and industrial interests, with which McGreevey was affiliated at the time, had opposed the bill.

Going from negative to comparative, Shore Revised touts Andrews’ dedication to the environment. He’s taken on the big polluters in Congress, we’re told, the spot cutting to what looks like footage of a congressional hearing but which is, in fact, staged. (House and Senate ethics rules prohibit the use of official facilities for campaign purposes, which means that any “hearing” in a political ad must be contrived, and made to look as authentic as possible.)

The unnoted ironies pile up: Their fulminations notwithstanding, both McGreevey and Andrews have received better-than-average ratings from green groups. Environmental score cards produced by the New Jersey Public Interest Group gave McGreevey a 60 percent rating in 1996–only three state senators did better. A different group, the League of Conservation Voters, gave Andrews 62 percent in 1991 and 100 percent in 1996. His soaring score notwithstanding, Andrews came under fire in 1993 for supporting a measure that would have diverted $1.2 billion from the Superfund program (a fact that McGreevey has made much of in radio ads). McGreevey’s involvement in the pipeline issue notwithstanding, he gets credit for sponsoring the Pollution Prevention Act, which reduced the toxins released by the chemical industry. His initiative notwithstanding, he has come under fire for letting the Whitman administration undermine what the Pollution Prevention Act sought to achieve. Clearly, there was time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions–and alas, it isn’t Andrews who gets to take the toast and tea. Shore Revised ends with the ubiquitous shot of the politician with his family and the ubiquitous spiel about him fighting for his family and yours. The fight was in vain, as it turned out. Andrews lost. Does that mean the spot failed? It was a classic play on a hot-button issue, and it fell just short. Making the case against McGreevey in the broadest and barest terms, its message never quite landed.

–Robert Shrum

Robert Shrum is a leading Democratic political consultant.