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At the DSC State Convention in Atlantic City today, Speaker Sheila Oliver delivered an outstanding speech, emphasizing the need for Democrats to organize on a grass roots level to provide a credible alternative to Gov. Christie. Perhaps emboldened by the new poll showing Christie’s approval rating at 38 percent, Oliver found her way towards a bold vision of the future of the party that has been largely absent since the start of the Christie Administration.
Was she speaking for a reenergized Democratic Party in New Jersey – one that, as she suggested, would take their case directly to the people through their own town hall meetings to rival Christie’s, and focus energy on building a stronger grassroots base? Or telling a friendly audience of local electeds and the Democratic base what they wanted to hear? Only time will tell. But the speech stood out. More below the fold on why.
Oliver’s speech weaved together many threads of the Democrats’ pushback on Christie – but in a way that added up to more than the sum of its parts, and sounded more like an overall narrative then at least I had heard before. That narrative came from stories – of the Speaker’s personal experiences, of the Governor’s missteps, and (though she should have done it even more) of ordinary New Jerseyans.
The Speaker hammered home the Democrats’ consistent – and, judging by polling numbers, extremely potent – reminders on Christie’s unpopular stances on women’s health issues. But she also took it to a personal level, talking about her experience being in the room with the Governor, and how she felt marginalized as a woman. Indeed, the lunch was sponsored by an array of women legislators (including Blue Jersey’s own Sen. Loretta Weinberg).
The Speaker’s experience also extended to race – as she discussed her frequent experience meeting with the Christie Administration and being the only person of color in the room, in a state that is over 40 percent people of color.
Oliver emphasized the need to deal with the state’s fiscal problems, and warned that the party needed to take those problems seriously. But she critiqued Christie’s focus on attacking public workers, offering a robust defense of public workers as important members of our community and taxpayers. In perhaps the strongest part of her speech, she in a Clinton-esque moment recounted Christie’s recent failed attempt at Turnpike privatization by telling a moving story about her conversation with the wife of a tolltaker in Lodi who had spent 24 years in his job, who became depressed from Christie’s attacks on his job to the point that he questioned his self-worth and considered suicide.
Oliver also took on Christie for his recent statement that if his family hadn’t been able to move from Newark to Livingston he wouldn’t be Governor – pointing out that Sen. Lautenberg had made it from a working class family in Paterson to being Senator – essentially arguing that the Governor was disparaging Newark’s students in his statements.
She talked about the town hall meetings and said that the Democrats needed to do the same thing, and more generally devote more energy to grass roots organizing of the many groups with deep concerns about Christie’s agenda, and working with those groups to communicate those concerns.
Perhaps none of this sounds so exceptional. But it’s hard to communicate tone – and that was a lot of the point. She was fired up, and speaking from the heart. It felt like a speech that she wrote based on serious reflection about what she wanted to do with her role as the third-most powerful person in state government.
It will be very interesting to see what comes next – if we see the town hall meetings, or enhanced coordination between the party and grass roots groups on attacking Christie, and if we see Speaker Oliver taking more of a public role. Of course, she is a leader of the Democratic Party that has been often collaborating with Christie over the past year and a half – which, in a rather exceptional moment earlier in the event, Sen. Lautenberg attacked, stating that (unnamed) Democrats were wrong for supporting Christie’s agenda. And while Speaker Oliver was delivering this great keynote, Senator Sweeney wasn’t even at the conference. So lots of questions remain.
Still, there was a glimmer of a real strategy against Christie, perhaps building on the realization that pointing out the areas where Christie is way out of step with New Jersey, most notably women’s health, has worked, and Christie’s poll numbers have tanked.