Kean Enough

In Newark with the Republican Senate candidate.

When you walk down Market Street in Newark, N.J., you know you’re not in Republican territory. The buildings retain the cracked neon and broad storefront signs of a grand retail era. Now, there are shops selling cut-rate leather goods and street vendors hawking bootleg CDs. In the afternoon, the sidewalks are thick with young African-Americans and Latinos mocking, pushing, and text-messaging each other. This is an area in which some of Tom Kean’s supporters would lock their automatic car doors. Yet Wednesday, just up the hill from this delightful urban circus, Kean, the Republican Senate candidate, was meeting with senior citizens at the Metropolitan Baptist church.

Why, in heaven’s name? The New Jersey Senate race is close. Kean should continue to focus on his base, pressing the moisturized flesh in the suburbs and on the Jersey shore to make sure GOP voters turn out at the polls on Election Day. Newark is in Essex County, the strongest Democratic area in the state. Kerry won the county by 40 percentage points in 2004, and in 2000 Gore won by 45.

Tom Kean claims he’s a different kind of Republican. By spending part of one of his precious last campaign days in a windowless community center with 250 African-American seniors, he was trying to demonstrate that. During the campaign, the one-term state senator has distanced himself from Washington Republicans, calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and repeatedly proclaiming that the administration committed “terrible mistakes in Iraq” for which he says the blame “lies squarely at the feet of the president.” He supports stem-cell research and casts himself in the mold of the state’s moderate Republicans like former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Kean’s father, former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., who preceded her.

National GOP officials don’t mind Kean’s strategy because in his case, being a different kind of Republican means being a Republican that might take a seat currently held by a Democrat. The party committees put $3 million into advertising to help Kean, whose comfy message of moderation is accompanied by a relentless attack on what he charges are his opponent Bob Menendez’s ethical lapses. The cash infusion better kick in soon, or it will look like a foolish squandering of resources. Despite the relentless attacks on Menendez, new polls suggest that the Democrat is opening up a lead of five to seven percentage points.

If Kean is to close that gap and win, he’ll have to lure independent voters. Sure, he would like to pick up African-American votes and water down his opponent’s support in his stronghold, but the larger goal of campaigning in Newark Wednesday was to appeal to late-deciding independent voters across the state. By reaffirming that he is not a predictable Republican, Kean hopes to appeal to those voters who are independent because they resist strict party ideology.

Before Kean arrived at the “Seasoned Saints” luncheon, one of the church members read a “prayer” to her fellow parishioners which ended with this call to their common experience of old age: 

            It’s better to say we’re fine with a grin
            Than to let people know the shape that we’re in
            And when we go to bed at night with our ears in the drawer our teeth in the cup
            Eyes on the table, until we wake up
            Then we get up in the morning brush off our wits
            Pick up the newspaper and read the obits
            And if our name is still missin’, we know we’re not dead 
            So we have a good breakfast and go back to bed.

The room erupted with laughter. The audience was ready to receive Kean and shout amen at the first opportunity.They didn’t get their chance. His speech was thoroughly plain. His talk of tax cuts seemed far away from the lives of the people in the room who live on fixed incomes. When he talked about Social Security and Medicare, he offered platitudes: “I will lead the fight to protect Social Security benefits.”

Kean doesn’t leave an impression in a room. He’s got a pleasant smile and a careful manner. If he’s got a trick—and all successful politicians have one somewhere—it’s that he is relentlessly on-message about his opponent’s failings. His brief press conference after the event was nearly news-free because every answer circled back to that same topic. I imagine fights at home when he forgets to snap out of the loop and won’t pass the potatoes without first giving a tour of Menendez’s perfidy.

The audience only truly came to life during Kean’s talk when Pastor David Jefferson intervened and answered a question for him. A parishioner wanted to know if Kean had made a large donation to the congregation. Other politicians had reportedly done that with other churches. The pastor took the mike and assured the room that he didn’t run his church that way. “Thank God not one elected official has given this church one dime.” The amens started and the heads in the room started nodding. “Listen to me carefully. … We don’t have to cut deals with elected officials in order to have God’s work done. The senator is here because he cares, not because a deal has been cut. Give God the Praise. Give God the praise. He is here because he cares. He is here because he cares. The senator is here to say you are important to him.” The room erupted. (Kean may not have given a donation, but he now owes the pastor.)

In front of African-American audiences, uncomfortable white politicians can affect cultural connections and perform strange body gestures. Kean was sensible enough to keep from doing any of that. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t prepared to pander. He promised tax cuts, lower Medicare costs, better prescription-drug coverage, crime reduction, and budgets that wouldn’t tap the Social Security trust fund.

I figured the audience would see through Kean’s overpromising, despite the pastor’s good words. They seemed skeptical. Several had asked Kean why he was any different than all the other politicians who had made promises to improve the schools and sweep violence from the streets but never delivered. His answers weren’t very reassuring. But the dozen or so people I talked to afterward said they were all impressed, though they couldn’t cite anything particular that he had said. Some liked his father, who was elected with 62 percent of the black vote, and they were prepared to give the son the benefit of the doubt. Others seemed just glad he came. They said his visit was a sign of respect for their community. Almost everyone I talked to said they were planning to vote for him. I couldn’t tell whether he had left a lasting impression or whether they were saying they’d vote for him out of kindness, an act of hospitality due an outsider who had come to visit the neighborhood.