Last Updated July 10, 2003
"A valley of humility between two mountains of conceit": That is what Benjamin Franklin called New Jersey, which even in colonial days was overshadowed by the metropolises of New York and Philadelphia. New Jersey was named by King James II, then Duke of York, for the Channel Island on which he was sheltered during the English Civil War. New Jersey was plagued in its early years by rival claims from its neighbors and, still defensive, went to the Supreme Court in the 1980s to argue that it and not New York owns the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; New Jersey eventually got most of the islands' acreage, but New York got the immigrant museum and Great Hall which are built on fill land. But New Jersey has much to say for itself. It is "a sort of laboratory in which the best blood is prepared for other communities to thrive on," Woodrow Wilson said when he was governor, just a tad defensively.
Today, New Jersey is the nation's ninth most populous state: It boomed in the 1980s, suffered sharply in the early 1990s recession, came back strongly, and is now weathering the high-tech storms with mixed success. New Jersey was the home of Thomas Edison and of the old Bell Labs; its successors Lucent and AT&T were among its biggest employers in the 1990s, and later laid off many workers. Other big employers include several of the nation's biggest pharmaceutical firms--Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis, Schering-Plough. These industries give the state a high-income, high-education work force, and in 2000 New Jersey passed Connecticut and had the nation's highest median household incomes. But it still trailed in per capita income and wealth and has a lower percentage of college graduates than Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado and the District of Columbia; this is the home not only of high-income Ph.D.'s, but also of The Sopranos. This is prosperous middle income country, with more two-car than one-car families but fewer limousines than Manhattan, with an estimated 13,500 $1 million houses but not the multi-million dollar co-ops of Manhattan or mansions of Greenwich, Connecticut.
Within New Jersey's close boundaries is great diversity, geographically from beaches to mountains, demographically from old Quaker stock to new Hispanics, economically from inner city slums to hunt country mansions. Though New York writers are inclined to look on New Jersey as a land of 1940s diners and 1970s shopping malls, this state much more closely resembles the rest of America than does Manhattan, even if some of its traffic signals are arrayed horizontally rather than vertically and its accents can sometimes be incomprehensible to outsiders. The Jersey City row houses seen on emerging from the Holland Tunnel, many renovated by Wall Street commuters and Latin immigrants, give way within a few miles to the skyscrapers of Newark and its new Performing Arts Center. Farther out are comfortably packed middle-income suburbs and the horse country around Far Hills, the university town of Princeton, old industrial cities like Paterson and Trenton, and dozens of suburban towns and small factory cities where people work and raise families over generations. Among them are commuter towns like Middletown, whose commuter trails lead to Lower Manhattan, and which lost dozens of men and women on September 11. A year later, only 37% of New Jersey citizens said their lives had returned to normal and 29% said they would never be the same; 43% said they thought about the attacks every day.
Whoever has legal title to Ellis Island, New Jersey has long been a magnet for immigrants, and it is again today. In 2000, 29% of its residents were born in another country or had a parent who was. Hudson County, the land along the ridge opposite Manhattan, was the home to hundreds of thousands of Irish, Italian, Polish and Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century; in 2000 it was 40% Hispanic, with Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans. Immigrants are plentiful in the little middle-American towns of Bergen County, Filipinos in Bergenfield, Guatemalans in Fairview, Koreans in Leonia, Indians in Lodi, Chinese in Palisades Park. The old central cities of Elizabeth and Paterson were half-Hispanic in 2000 and Camden, opposite Philadelphia, was 39% Hispanic. There is still a black majority in Newark, but it includes many of the Brazilians in the Ironbound district. New Jersey has all the ethnic variety that America offers.
In the last two decades, a new New Jersey has sprouted. The oil tank farms and swamplands of the Jersey Meadows have become sports palaces and office complexes; the intersection of I-78 and I-287 has become a major shopping and office edge city; U.S. 1 north from Princeton to North Brunswick has become one of the nation's high-tech centers. Even some of New Jersey's long-ailing central cities are perking up. Jersey City's waterfront is sprouting office buildings, shopping malls, apartment complexes, and the New York Daily News printing plant; Newark is graced with a sparkling Performing Arts Center and new subdivisions; Trenton, after many years of being the only state capital without a major hotel, finally has a Marriott. New Jersey increasingly has an identity of its own. It is the home of big league football, basketball and hockey franchises and of the world's longest expanse of boardwalks on the Jersey Shore from Cape May to Sandy Hook. And New Jersey is one of America's great gambling centers: Atlantic City, an hour from Philadelphia and two hours from Manhattan, had gambling revenues in 2002 ($4.4 billion) that nearly matched the Las Vegas strip ($4.5 billion).
State government played an important role in building New Jersey identity and pride. Governor Brendan Byrne in the 1970s started the Meadowlands sports complex and got casino gambling legalized in Atlantic City. Governor Tom Kean in the 1980s started education reforms and promoted the state shamelessly. The revolt against Governor Jim Florio's tax increase in 1990 was led by the first all-New Jersey talk radio station and took on national significance with the 1993 election of Christine Todd Whitman, now EPA Administrator. In the late 1990s crime and welfare rolls dropped, but auto insurance and property taxes remained the highest in the nation. New Jersey, contained within two of the nation's biggest metropolitan areas, was also a harbinger of the national trend in the big metro areas toward Bill Clinton's Democrats. Not so long ago, suburban New Jersey was one of the most Republican of big states: It voted 56%-42% for the first George Bush in 1988. But in 1996 New Jersey voters, turned off by the congressional Republicans' Southern leaders and by the national party's opposition to abortion and gun control, voted 54%-36% for Clinton and 53%-43% for Democrat Bob Torricelli for the Senate. In 1997 Whitman, despite cutting taxes, was reelected by only 47%-46% over little-known Democrat Jim McGreevey. In 2000 New Jersey was not seriously contested; Al Gore carried the state 56%-40%. In 2001 McGreevey defeated Republican Bret Schundler for governor by 56%-42% and in 2002, after an unorthodox campaign, Democrat Frank Lautenberg defeated Republican Douglas Forrester for senator by 54%-44%--eerily similar margins. (Even more eerily, Schundler and Forrester both got 928,000 votes.) Republicans still have some suburban strength here, but in 2002 Democrats won back the position of Essex County Executive and elected their first Bergen County Executive ever.
New Jersey's politicians compete in a market that is the second most expensive in the nation, because you have to buy New York and Philadelphia television. And they have a special handicap, because those stations don't give state politics and government the in-depth coverage that voters in most states can expect. This gives an advantage to well-known candidates, like former Senator Bill Bradley, and to incumbents with a distinctive style and notable achievements, like Governors Brendan Byrne, Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman. But it also means that in high-income, highly-educated New Jersey politics is often the business of county and city political machines, of varying degrees of competence, cronyism and corruption. It is, astonishingly, a great advantage in both parties to have the designation of the local county party on the primary ballot. Donald DiFrancesco, who as state Senate president became Acting Governor--not quite Governor--after Whitman's resignation, was one such politician, from the Union County Republican machine. Jim McGreevey, elected by a wide margin in 2001 after his near-defeat of Whitman in 1997, was a product of the Middlesex County Democratic machine and served as both mayor of Woodbridge and state senator--in New Jersey as in France politicians can be town mayors and state legislators at the same time. New Jersey is also notable for giving its governors more real power than any other state. They are the only statewide elected officials, they have great clout in the budget process and they appoint all judges and all 21 county prosecutors and judges.
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