Monday, January 29, 2007

For Democrats, Bergen County Spells Success

By Stuart Rothenberg

For Republicans, New Jersey, once a GOP-leaning, anti-tax state, stands as a stark reminder of how things have changed, particularly in the Northeast. But the better example — and warning of things to come — is Bergen County, a suburban bedroom community that has moved away from its Republican roots and toward the Democratic Party.

The county, once bedrock Republican territory and the most populous county in the state, has voted Democratic in the past four presidential elections — twice for Bill Clinton, and more recently for Al Gore and John Kerry.

Even more notably, the county executive and all seven members of the county board of freeholders are Democrats. Republicans lost their last freeholder last year, when incumbent Elizabeth Randall lost her bid for renomination and the eventual nominee lost in November.

But in a development that was more humiliating than substantive, the county party’s headquarters was padlocked recently because the Bergen County GOP couldn’t pay its rent.

The last remaining county-wide GOP officeholder is County Clerk Kathleen Donovan, a moderate who last year lost a Republican primary for county executive. Donovan, a former state legislator and one-time chairman of the state GOP, is serving her fourth term as county clerk.

No Republican has ever won statewide office without carrying Bergen County, and the last statewide GOP candidate to carry the county was Bob Franks in his losing bid for the Senate in 2000. Last year, Tom Kean Jr. (R) lost the county to Sen. Bob Menendez (D) by 8 points.

Republican Rep. Scott Garrett’s 5th Congressional district includes part of Bergen County. He carried the county by only 4,209 votes (51.2 percent), though he won district-wide by 55 percent. The part of Bergen County not represented by Garrett is represented by 9th district Democrat Steven Rothman. Rothman carried the Bergen portion of his district with 71.5 percent of the vote, meaning Bergen County voters voted overwhelming Democratic for Congress last year.

Republicans have three major problems in the county: the national party, changing demographics and a fractured GOP that is being outworked by Democratic strategists.

Many of Bergen County’s Republicans are more politically in sync with former Gov. Tom Kean (R) than they are with his son. They are classic Northeast moderates, whose views on cultural issues don’t easily fit with Sunbelt conservatives.

The county itself also is changing. Hispanics and Asians have moved into the county in recent years, as have New Yorkers, many of whom have brought their values and Democratic preference with them.

While these developments would have posed a challenge for the county GOP, they could have been managed had the Bergen County party leaders been smart or county Democratic operatives been inept. Unfortunately for the GOP, neither of those things happened.

Bergen County’s Republican organization is being outworked and outfundraised by its Democratic counterpart, which has become a well-oiled machine under the guidance of party Chairman Joseph Ferriero.

While Ferriero helps local Democratic parties raise money and contact voters, Republicans spend most of their time fighting with each other over issues and personalities. Republican conservatives, in particular, seem more interested in isolating and purging moderates than in winning elections. As a result, the county GOP is getting badly outspent in races and losing more and more elections, creating a vicious cycle of defeat.

Bergen Record reporter Scott Fallon noted in a November article that when Ferriero became the county Democratic chief in 1998, Republicans controlled two-thirds of Bergen County towns that had a partisan form of government. After November’s elections, Democrats had increased their control to 56 percent of those communities, a dramatic reversal in just eight years. Now, Ferriero has plans to go after sitting GOP state legislators and town officeholders in other previously heavily Republican areas.

Republicans complain that Ferriero is using Democrats’ increased political muscle in the county to wring even more money out of companies that want to do business with the county. Odds are that they are right, but so what? That’s the way the game is played in New Jersey, and as long as both sides know the rules, nobody is in a position to complain.

Ferriero took a weak county party and built it up, brick by brick. Republicans could do the same thing, if not with immediate success, if they got their act together. And they actually have an issue they could use, both in Bergen County and statewide, to start to rebuild their party: property taxes.

If Bergen were an isolated case, it might not even be worth mentioning. But what’s happening there could happen (and indeed has happened) in other northern suburbs. While the GOP has made gains in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, it continues to lose ground in New Jersey, Illinois and southeast Pennsylvania.

Increasingly, Bergen County looks like a model for further Democratic success outside the South. We’ll see if the Republicans write it off or take steps to resuscitate their local parties, both in Bergen County and elsewhere in the Northeast.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 25, 2007. All rights reservered. Reprinted with permission.