Saturday, August 9, 2008
A Governor, a Boardwalk and a Massive Photo-Op
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine visited Ocean City today, and brought with him the usual horde of spin-doctors, sycophants, and hangers-on. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, it’s politics. These people are part of the package.
I waited in the lobby of the Port-O-Call Hotel for the governor to show up. The Ocean City Illuminati, a few connected business owners, clergy leaders and government officials popped by to introduce themselves when the governor’s black SUV pulled up.
Corzine shook hands as he entered the hotel, and made his way to the small group of reporters – one local news camera and three local journalists, myself included.
When the governor shook hands with me, he noticed my notebook.
“Oh, he’s got one of those things. He’s a reporter,” Corzine said when we shook hands.
“Yes, excellent,” I said through clenched teeth. No matter. I’d get him later. See, I called my dad on my cell phone minutes before Corzine’s arrival and asked him if he had any questions he wanted the governor to answer.
“Ask him why New Jersey has the highest property tax in the country,” my dad said.
My dad owns a small business and a few properties and gets pummeled by high taxes. He thinks the government screws you for wanting the American dream. Decades ago, the working man yearned for prosperity. Now the government penalizes you for succeeding.
Corzine made his way down the Boardwalk, photographers leaping in front of him and snapping photos, dodging joggers and cyclists and following the governor and a cadre of local officials including the mayor, city business administrator and president of the state AFL-CIO.
The governor chatted with beach tag collectors, met tourists and posed for pictures. The whole event was a dog and pony show and a gigantic photo op with Ocean City as a backdrop.
A man on a bicycle rode by and called out, “Nice job!”
A woman sitting on a bench with a large plastic drum of caramel corn overhead this and blurted, “What? Are you nuts?”
Corzine stopped and bought salt water taffy and visited the Ocean City Music Pier, where local girls rehearsed for the Miss Ocean City Pageant.
The governor had a few hecklers. A few guys riding bikes yelled out, “Drill for oil!” but Corine’s presence received mostly positive attention. When Corzine walked into a local pizza shop, the place burst out in applause. He sat and had pizza and shook hands and chatted, all while photographers snapped his every move.
Usually such stunts are tiresome exercises in futility, but I walked with his entourage for blocks and his aide assured me that I’d get a chance to interview the governor. A perky TV reporter who resembled an Amazon beauty queen lobbed softball questions at Corzine. I wanted the governor to answer dad’s question.
So I ran it by the governor’s aide.
“I don’t think that’s the kind of question we want today,” the aide said. “Today is about being on the Boardwalk…”
“Okay,” I said, nodding.
When Corzine exited the pizza shop, his aide grabbed him and said the local press would like to interview him.
Corzine came over. Here’s what transpired:
ME: I was going to ask about property taxes.
CORZINE: Property taxes are a serious problem in this state. We put a cap on. We’re trying to bring about consolidation in services and provision of services. A lot of people are not happy with some of those elements but we actually cut the budget this year. If that ends up having implications of municipalities, we increased the spending on education on a broader basis or hold out the place where property taxes are driven by. At the end of the day there’s growing costs across the state and across the country; energy, food and other things that the state has to deal with as well and the local government. We’re going to do everything we can to hold the line. The rate of increases cut back pretty significantly….It’s a problem, I know it, but we’ve got to keep working on it. We can’t fix it overnight.
ME: How can we make it more affordable for people to stay here and for businesses to relocate here and set up shop so everyone can enjoy New Jersey?
CORZINE: The idea of dealing with health care, dealing with the cost of education, dealing with some of the business tax structure which we’ve worked on, I’ve lowered business taxes about $500 million since I’ve been in office, are all elements that will help encourage the growth of business over a period of time. We have a national recession going on so you sometimes have to distinguish what’s happening in the state versus what’s happening from the national economy. It looks to me like Ocean City is doing well, at least today. From what I hear revenues are strong this year, activity is strong. Matter of fact, a lot of people are staying close to home this year and I think that probably helps this year.
Well, dad, I tried. I didn’t want to just talk about the obvious – his visit to the Boardwalk. How many weekly reporters from southern New Jersey can interview the governor? Usually, he’s protected by a phalanx of aides and a communications office that handles media inquiries. Not today. Today, I asked dad’s question and the reply was promptly spun.
Corzine and the Ocean City delegation continued their journey to view a solar panel project on the city’s civic center. Along the way, the head of the Boardwalk Merchants group nudged me.
“Can I ask you a question? How come your paper writes articles that are critical of the administration?” he asked me.
“They’re not critical. It’s just news,” I replied.
“But they’re one-sided,” he said.
At this point I became belligerent.
“Oh, no! We’re so biased!” I pretended to lament. “Listen, I talk to the mayor and the administration for every story I do. I get all sides of a story. If you feel slighted about a Boardwalk story, then I’ll interview you.”
“No, it’s not the Boardwalk. It’s just that your stories report one side and criticize the administration,” he said.
“Look, I talk to everyone. Do you even read the paper? I try to get comments from the mayor and business administrator every week. I’m professional at what I do. That’s why I win the awards,” I said, making a slam dunk in the argument.
The guy backed off.
“I’m not having any animosity here,” he said.
“Neither am I,” I said. “Life is too short to have animosity. If you feel slighted, then just give me a call.”
I felt 100 feet tall. I used to back off any criticisms and shrink at any assertions that my reporting was skewed or biased in any way. Today, I wasn’t meek. I defended my reputation and profession. I’m the Fourth Estate, bitches. Don’t fuck with me.
In the end, the meet-and-greet was a well-orchestrated grovel-fest between local officials and the governor, but that’s what politics is: ingratiating and ass-kissing. Ocean City partnered with the state for a beach replenishment project, they keep applying and getting state grants, they continue to be America’s Greatest Family Resort. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. That’s the way politics works in New Jersey. I’m not saying it’s wrong or right. I’m saying it’s just the way it is here.
Corzine posed for pictures and thanked everyone for hosting his visit. His black SUV pulled up near the civic center and he, his aides and State Trooper security detail got inside and were whisked away, north to Ocean Grove, to another town and another place where he met a different set of local officials and tourists. To do a familiar grip-and-grin dance and hear the plight of the little people.
Walking home, a noisy calliope from Gillian’s Wonderland spilled its jaunty melody out onto the Boardwalk. I threw back my head and laughed out loud. I felt an electric pulse of absurdity around me, a carnival of mediocrity where the scum of the earth were the hawkers, luring unsuspected hayseeds into the big top with promises of wonders and delights that turn out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.