Facing a tough re-election bid in a down economy and against an aggressive Republican challenger in former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine has his hands full. It is not as if he has had an easy go of it since stepping in to run for the office, and sparing Democrats in the state further embarrassment after the disgraceful exit of former Governor Jim McGreevey. A series of missteps, some personal and a few tactical, has given the former Wall Street executive, who previously served in the Senate representing the Garden State, more than his share of challenges. Through it all Corzine has confronted the tasks-at-hand with his Midwestern matter-of-fact sense of confidence, plowing ahead against an impatient public, skeptical state press and critics on both sides of the political aisle.
Last Friday, Governor Corzine went about the business of governing but also took a significant step toward securing the electoral support of the state’s minorities and women in the November election. In an event staged on the grounds of the governor’s mansion, Drumthwacket, Governor Corzine signed an Executive Order mandating minority and women participation in projects receiving state and federal economic stimulus dollars. In a state where the recession has devastated urban communities, and long-term joblessness is disproportionately affecting many Blacks, the governor’s initiative seeks to inject new energy behind efforts to increase access to public contracts, jobs and job training. Though there are signs that the economy may be turning a corner, states like New Jersey may not see any reasonable improvements among the hardest hit for some time to come. As a result, in many instances, government is forced to intervene to stimulate economic activity where the private sector may be lagging.
Speaking to the large crowd, Governor Corzine said, “I am signing this historic executive order because we must do all we can do to make sure public contracts, jobs and job training are shared with those groups hardest hit by the recession.” The executive order comes almost one year after the governor established the Office of Supplier Diversity under the direction of the state Department of Treasury. The office was created to offer small, minority and women-owned businesses a streamlined, one-stop destination for training, mentoring and information on contracting opportunities in the public and private sectors. The governor’s actions were also consistent with the recommendations made in a 2005 New Jersey Disparity Study that detailed the degree to which minorities and women were excluded from contracting opportunities with state agencies.
The executive order is far reaching and sets overall goals for state agencies, public authorities, colleges and universities and commissions to contract with minority and women-owned firms, and includes reporting requirements to monitor spending while also mandating greater efforts to advertise opportunities. In addition, the order calls for the posting of jobs created with federal and state stimulus dollars on the state Department of Labor’s website in a manner consistent with the transparency guidelines of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“ARRA”). Going a step further, the governor’s executive order also mandates equal opportunity on work sites funded through stimulus dollars, including construction contracts. The latter has been a persistent problem in states throughout the country and New Jersey is no exception. One of the most significant provisions of Governor Corzine’s executive order is the mandate to include minorities and women in training and apprenticeship opportunities in the construction trades. It requires state agencies and institutions of higher education to allocate one-half of one percent of every dollar New Jersey appropriates for construction projects to increase the numbers of minorities and women placed in jobs in the construction trades. There is also a mandate that state agencies work with contractors and organized labor to improve diversity in the ranks of jobs generated through stimulus funding. It also ensures compliance with the Division of Public Contracts and Equal Opportunity Compliance, an agency responsible for ensuring that any firm contracting with a public agency in New Jersey provide equal opportunity in employment.
There has been much controversy over the manner in which federal stimulus dollars have been drawn down and used by states. With many states facing historic highs in unemployment, the public has grown somewhat skeptical about the impact of ARRA dollars in terms of job generation. This is particularly true in the nation’s urban core, where cities are seeing the effects of the downturn and Blacks enduring the worst of the recession. New Jersey has some unique challenges as a state with one of the most diverse populations and a hodgepodge of cities, all of them feeling the effects of the recession. In that sense, Governor Corzine may have hit the right chord as the state’s Black and Latino communities, often lodged in the state’s cities, are looking for relief in an economy where private industry is struggling to recover. The use of federal and state stimulus dollars to boost minority and women participation could serve as an important segue until the economy fully recovers and private sector hiring picks up steam.
There was a celebratory mood in the air as hundreds gathered under a tent to witness Corzine’s signing of the order. With Democratic Majority Leader Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman leading the charge, the event took on a partisan tone with several Democratic mayors, members of the legislature and key union officials in attendance. In addition to Watson, State Senator Ron Rice of Newark, a key proponent of the executive order, spoke of the significance of the mandate and its necessity given conditions faced by people of color and women. Those sentiments were shared by a key Latina in the legislature, Assemblywoman Nellie Pou of Paterson, who represents one of the New Jersey’s hard hit urban communities. Watson commended Pou for her focus on expanding woman participation and acknowledged State Senator Loretta Weinberg, the governor’s running mate and first lieutenant governor candidate in state history, who was seated in the audience. Weinberg is a longtime progressive legislator and activist from vote rich Bergen County, and someone who is seen as a champion of women and minority causes.
In a tough election year Governor Corzine will need all of the energy on display at the signing last Friday to rally Democratic voters this fall. What remains to be seen is whether the governor’s campaign can translate his governing initiatives into political chits he can use come November. Recent polls suggests that he has some work t do in securing Black voters but he has sufficient time to do so, and an arsenal of Black lawmakers that can fan out throughout the state as his surrogates. Still, Corzine will be well served to take nothing for chance against a challenger who ironically is running on the mantle of “change.” While Black voters in New Jersey have consistently cast their ballots for Democrats, there have been instances during the campaigns of Republicans Tom Kean and Christine Whitman, when significant Black votes were siphoned away from the Democratic gubernatorial candidates. As a governing tool, Governor Corzine’s executive order may have real utility but it could also serve him well on the campaign trail as he makes his case before Black voters in the state.