Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Republicans vow they'll be heard

Corzine met with eight new state senators. A key concern: The plan to raise highway tolls.

TRENTON - Eight Republicans recently stood outside Democratic Gov. Corzine's office and made a promise.

"We will be heard," Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole said.

O'Toole will be among nine new Republican senators sworn in on Jan. 8, and they are promising to play a louder and tougher underdog role.

That's welcome news to Republicans who believe the party has become too yielding to the Democrats, who will continue to control state government for at least two years.

Conservative Republican consultant Rick Shaftan said New Jersey Republicans had come to accept "second-place status."

"They've been pretty passive," Shaftan said. "That's an understatement."

But Republicans now are vowing to stand up to Democratic policies when the new Legislature convenes.

"We're here to get something done and make a difference," said Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R., Mercer), another new Republican senator.

The Republicans' vows come at a time of major change for the Legislature.

The Senate will swear in 16 new senators, while the Assembly will have 28 new members. That's the biggest turnover since 1991, when voters ousted Democrats following tax increases.

"It's a rare point in time," said O'Toole (R., Essex).

Democrats will control the Assembly by 48-32 and the Senate by 23-17, and Corzine does not face reelection until 2009.

Democrats are unmoved by the Republicans' talk and confident their success will continue.

"Gov. Corzine and the Democrats are taking on the toughest issues New Jersey has faced, including many long-term problems that have defied solutions," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, the state Democratic Party chairman.

"If the Republicans want to play a constructive role, that's fine," Cryan said. "But if all they do is turn up the volume on negative, partisan criticisms, the public will see right through them."

The state has 1,160,000 registered Democratic voters and 875,000 Republican voters, and has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, supported a Republican for president since 1988, or backed any Republican in a statewide election since 1997.

But Shaftan is among those buoyed by voters' rejection in November of two referendum questions sponsored by Democrats - one asking for approval to borrow $450 million for stem-cell research, the other asking to dedicate sales-tax money to property tax relief.

Voters "have to get aggressive," Shaftan said. "They have to draw a line in the sand with Democrats."

Senate Republicans have already changed leadership and staff members.

"The people of New Jersey want to change the direction our state is heading, and Senate Republicans are prepared to lead in that effort," said Sen. Tom Kean Jr. of Union County, who will be the new Senate Republican leader.

Corzine said he was interested in working with the other side. He recently met in his office with eight of the nine new Republican senators.

"We developed these problems over a long period of time, with Democratic and Republican administrations," Corzine said. "They will only be fundamentally resolved if we come together on a bipartisan basis over what's in the best interest of the state."

Republicans hope to make their voices heard loudest in opposition to Corzine's plan to increase highway tolls in order to pay at least half of $16 million in state debt.

"We had a good meeting, but not that good of a meeting," said Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio (R., Morris), who is becoming a senator.

Corzine is expected to introduce his toll plan on Jan. 8. He has not said how much tolls may increase, but a recent report found they need to go up at least 45 percent to pay for widening the New Jersey Turnpike and to fix bridges on it and the Garden State Parkway.