It’s not a golden era for America’s state governments.
The governor of New York, regardless of who it is, only seems to exist to screw up in nationally humiliating ways. California’s leadership class is just getting around to dealing with the literally existential quandary of having too much housing for nature to sustain and not enough housing to sustain humanity. Blue states in the Midwest may be trying their best but are held back by gerrymandered-in Republican legislators whose only goal is the continuous reinvestigation of voter fraud that did not take place. Red states are, obviously, also laser-focused on pretend fraud, but not to the extent of ignoring other priorities like making sure no one learns about racism in high school or has to get vaccinated during a death wave. If states are supposed to be laboratories of democracy, then flames are shooting out of the beakers, alarm klaxons are bleating horribly, and the scientists are running back and forth screaming.
Not in New Jersey, though. New Jersey—the home of Thomas Edison’s laboratory, by the way, which is usually considered the greatest laboratory of all time—is getting things done.
The state is belittled, in general, for many fairly sound reasons, and its politics have historically been associated largely with the phrase “multiple-count indictment.” But it has in recent years become a model of how to run a government that can respond to the United States’ myriad problems, old and new.
First, the coronavirus. When the pandemic exploded in the U.S., New Jersey was victimized by poor federal planning and what we now know to have been a fatal hesitancy to lock down New York City, where many of the state’s residents are (or were) obligated to travel for work. Since then, however, it has executed a consistent and successful strategy of shutdowns, mask encouragement, and vaccination. It’s going back and forth with New York for the distinction of having the highest vax rate of any state with an at least equally large population—both states have double-jabbed 66 percent of all residents—and it has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country. Pockets of vaccine hesitancy have been attacked proactively with school- and neighborhood-based outreach programs. (My colleague Aymann Ismail, who lives in Newark, confirms: “There are tents everywhere.”) In the midst of all this, New Jersey ran an entire presidential and congressional election in which mail ballots were sent to every voter and then—unlike in New York—counted quickly afterward.
As far ahead of the pack as not screwing basic things up puts an American institution these days, New Jersey also has a record of progress that exists apart from the pandemic. In 2018, the state passed a law guaranteeing 40 hours of annual paid sick leave to in-state workers. In 2019, it passed a law that will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. (It’s currently at $12.) In 2020, it passed a tax increase on individuals earning more than $1 million a year, a reform similar to one that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has failed to get through in his state, and which has helped New Jersey actually fulfill its social-spending commitments to a degree not seen in many years. 2020 also saw the enactment of a bill, described by Politico as “a groundbreaking win for the environmental justice movement,” that requires regulators to consider historic levels of pollution in a given neighborhood or area before approving further risks. (Seems like a no-brainer, but progress is progress!) And in 2021, “the dirty Jerz” decriminalized marijuana and set up a process to begin the legal sale thereof.
One of the people who deserves credit for this is the state’s governor, Phil Murphy, who won office in 2017 and is currently up for reelection in voting that concludes next Tuesday. His entry into state politics did not at first seem like a populist triumph: He’s a former Goldman Sachs executive who has one of his superexpensive homes in Middletown Township, a classy-skewing, New York City–accessible part of the Shore. (He maintains other dwellings in Berlin and Italy, as one does.) But as Brandon McKoy—until recently the president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive policy group—told me, it quickly became clear that Murphy had retained the “lower middle class perspective” of his Boston-area upbringing and believed in a “bottom-up, middle-out” theory of growth. Noted McKoy, who’s now an executive with the D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “The first two major policies he was campaigning on were a millionaire’s tax and the minimum wage.”
As McKoy points out, none of the bills that Murphy has signed into existence are controversial ones. They’re popular not just with the Democrats who increasingly make up the local population—Fairleigh Dickinson professor Dan Cassino recently observed to New Jersey Spotlight News that the state is “exporting a lot of Republicans to Florida, while importing a lot of Democrats from Brooklyn”—but with voters as a whole. However, the Biden administration’s Build Back Better agenda, which is currently wedged between the House and Senate like a cargo ship in the Suez Canal, is a vivid reminder that even popular proposals can get pulverized into junk by special interest lobbies, the individual legislators who protect them, and the apparently ineradicable Democratic reflex to project “responsibility” by turning something that would help everyone into something that would help a smaller number of people and confuse and anger everyone else.
Murphy deserves credit for keeping his eye on the ball, then, as well as for prioritizing practical competence and large-scale reform over the presidential campaign–minded accumulation of superficial résumé items. (Both Andrew Cuomo and Murphy’s Republican New Jersey predecessor, Chris Christie, were extreme offenders on this count, and look where it got them!) From a political perspective, it’s impressive that he’s been able to keep his relationship with the state’s Democratic legislative machine in working order, although the cost of that goodwill, it was suggested to me, was his decision to support the renewal of expensive and dubiously useful “economic development” tax breaks. He’s also been criticized for taking a cautious approach to criminal justice and police reform, pandemic relief for the undocumented, and in-state Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention—issues, basically, that have the potential to alienate “conservative” white voters. Decisions on these subjects have considerable consequences in a place that is 15 percent Black and almost 25 percent immigrant; relative to other states, though, New Jersey’s baseline consensus on social tolerance and law-enforcement accountability is an adequate one.
Since before Murphy’s time, meanwhile—and before they became salient, middle class–crushing concerns for national Democrats—the state has also been forward-minded (albeit in fits and starts) about housing and early-childhood education, two issues with racial justice implications. In respective rulings related to two landmark decisions, Mt. Laurel and Abbott v. Burke, the state’s supreme court ordered local governments to attempt to use their zoning powers to create affordable housing and to (among other things) make education available to 3- and 4-year-olds. Advocacy groups, crucially, have held governments accountable for actually following those decisions, whose mandates Murphy and the Legislature have also recently begun funding at increased levels. The Fair Share Housing Center estimates that Mt. Laurel has helped create 70,000 affordable housing units and that 50,000 more will be built in the next decade; one legacy of Abbott is that many counties have free pre-K systems, which Joe Biden has cited as models for the rest of the country, in which the state covers tuition for children enrolled at privately run preschools that meet given standards. Somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in the program, including your author’s 3-year-old daughter. It’s like living in Scandinavia but with many, many more Italian-food options.
Does New Jersey have problems? Of course. Despite its efforts to build out affordable housing, and the rapid, dense development of Jersey City, the state still has some of the most cost-burdened renters in the country. Its unemployment insurance system suffered some of the same pandemic meltdowns as those elsewhere, and its wealth gaps are extremely noticeable even on short trips from town to town. One governance expert, Yale’s David Schleicher, alluded to a famous Chris Rock routine in noting to me that the state’s finances are kept afloat by its “millions of rich dentists”; it was an exaggeration, but not a huge one—the state has one of the country’s highest median incomes—and those dentists are interspersed with pockets of poverty from Trenton to Newark to Atlantic City. There are also the perennial issues of aesthetically off-putting factory sprawl and things like, you know, “the maple syrup event.”
But the big question about the United States’ future isn’t whether it will encounter economic and environmental crises. It’s whether it can react to its problems functionally. (We’re talking about addressing the challenges of being a post-industrial pluralistic democracy here rather than just, like, whose well-to-do urban neighborhoods look nicest, Massachusetts.) And the country would, jokes and stereotypes aside, be well-served by its other governments starting to keep up with the Bon Jovi Toxic Waste Sopranos State.