Most Americans focus on the quadrennial Presidential election, and even there, only on the top of the ballot. By doing so, they abdicate their responsibilities as citizens and then bitch and moan about government.
Off-year elections and down-ballot positions are critically important – not just for the term of those being selected to serve, but also for years to come – especially in New Jersey where we elect our governor and legislature in odd-numbered years. Let’s take a look at past and future elections to see how they have an impact well beyond the terms of the winners.
2013: This is the Mother of All Election Screw Ups for the Democrats. After four years of mismanagement, bombast, and chicanery, Chris Christie – a Republican governor in a Democratic state – should have been more vulnerable. Yet, every viable Democrat but one decided, at best, not to run; and at worst decided to support Christie because they were afraid of the bully’s retaliation. Cory Booker, who once said he never shrank from a challenge, decided to sit this one out and opt for a Senate seat instead. Booker, whose claim to fame is running into burning buildings to save cats, decided not to use his charisma, intelligence, and political capital to save the state from four more years of economic and environmental mismanagement. Steve Sweeney, whose desire to inhabit Drumthwacket is well known, decided to wait four years and take the easier path by running for an open seat. Barbara Buono was the only Democrat with the chutzpah to challenge Christie, but the national and state Democratic parties who were reluctant to put money into a tough race summarily dismissed her and poured all their resources into the only other gubernatorial race that year.
2014: This year, with no statewide elections, attention turns to the Federal level. The retirement of Rush Holt, one of the best congressmen today, while disappointing, will have little effect on the political landscape. His sure-thing replacement, Bonnie Watson Coleman, will bring more diversity to the New Jersey congressional delegation, and her voting record will be similar to Holt’s. But there is a bellwether election in the Third District, where Republican Jon Runyan decided to hang up his congressional cleats. This is one of the few seats in the country that is flippable, and Democrat Aimee Belgard has an excellent chance to wrest control from the Tea Party influences that tarnish New Jersey politics.
Currently, Belgard is one of two Democrats on the five-member Burlington County Freeholder board. With two open seats this year, the Democrats have a chance to control the board for the first time in decades. Up until now, with only token opposition, the Republican-controlled board has become very adept at awarding no-bid contracts to their political donors, and treat the county taxpayer as their personal plaything. The importance of this “off-year” election to Burlington County voters cannot be overstated. No doubt, there are similar stories in other county races this year.
2015: In this “off-year”, the entire State Assembly is up for election. But there won’t be any surprises. Successful gerrymandering in 2010 will keep the incumbents in power unless they are tarnished by a scandal that exceeds the normal New Jersey tolerance for misdeeds.
2016: Without a statewide Senatorial election, most of the attention will be on the race to succeed Barack Obama. As we have seen in the last few years, presidential elections have tremendous impact even after the chief executive leaves office. The radical extremists that Republican presidents put on the Supreme Court years ago are a threat to marriage equality and other civil rights. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans are successful in overturning the 1964 “one man, one vote” ruling, given the current Court.
Chris Christie will not be on the ballot, but will continue to position himself for a future run. Again, with gerrymandering, most of New Jersey’s congressional districts should be safe for incumbents.
2017: Another critical off-year election for New Jersey. In fact, the race for governor has already started on the Democratic side, with several contenders positioning themselves for a statewide run. And the entire legislature – Assembly and Senate – will be up for election. But there’s more. The new governor and the legislature that will be elected in 2019 will set the stage for the decennial redistricting. If trends continue, it’s possible that New Jersey will lose one more seat in Congress, but even if we don’t, congressional and legislative districts for elections through 2021 will be greatly influenced on the outcome of those years’ elections.
Before we sent American soldiers to fight and die for Halliburton and other corporate interests, we once sent American soldiers to fight and die for our right to vote. And that fight was not limited to overseas battles. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, among others, died so that you, I, and your neighbors could vote. We can honor their lives not just by voting, but also by getting the complacent voters that we live with more involved and participatory.