Election Day Musings

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In New Jersey, Christie ran as the candidate of the suburbs.  While he fared as poorly as Jon Corzine’s previous opponent did in urban Essex, Hudson, and Camden Counties, Christie was a massive winner in the more suburban Ocean, Sussex, Gloucester, and Monmouth counties and even did well in Middlesex and Atlantic counties.  Should nonprofits serving the residents of Trenton, Camden, Newark, and Jersey City be concerned?

The answer depends on where you sit on the political spectrum.

Chris Christie’s first post-election visit was to a city whose voters rejected him categorically.  Appearing in front of Newark’s Robert Treat Academy, Christie argued for replicating charter schools like the Academy across the state.  He singled out the New Jersey Education Association, the union representing most teachers in the state, as the roadblock to be overcome.  Supporting the Academy are powerful Democrats, including Newark North Ward power broker Steve Adubato and Newark Mayor (and rumored future gubernatorial candidate) Cory Booker.

Although a Democrat, Booker acknowledged having text-messaged Christie throughout the campaign, suggesting that they really might be friends rather than newly minted post-election buddies.  Booker is a big promoter of charter schools and a leader in E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone), which pushes for charters and vouchers (Booker distances himself from the latter). Both Booker and Adubato were over-the-top effusive about Christie on charter schools.  If you’re a nonprofit charter school operator, the election of Christie doesn’t hurt.

But if you’re a nonprofit working on affordable housing, get ready. While Corzine’s chief at the Department of Community Affairs, Joe Doria, was hardly a barnburner, he was supportive of affordable housing development and “fair share housing” requirements for suburban communities (as  Hudson County pol, it would have been hard for Doria to be otherwise).  But Christie has pledged to “gut” the affordable housing requirements of the state contained in the Fair Housing Act, the codification of the Mount Laurel cases that challenged exclusionary housing development patterns in the suburbs (Christie said that the regulations of the Council on Affordable Housing requiring low-income housing in the suburbs are “stifling development and growth”).

Corzine left Christie a looming budget gap of approximately $8.8 billion for FY2010; that’s 29.9 percent of the total budget.  Taxpayers opposing New Jersey’s increasing tax burden were one of the chinks in Corzine’s armor that led to his loss (according to the WSJ, Garden Staters had the highest combined state and local tax burden in the nation and New Jersey’s business tax climate ranked last).  Christie is all but certain to slash important budget lines (as opposed to Corzine’s plan of selling the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway or increasing tolls by 800 percent).

Rather than spending, one senses in Christie’s vague campaign platform a vision of the nonprofit sector as volunteer-oriented–offering training to “neighborhood watch groups” and creating “alternatives to gang membership facilitated by community groups, faith-based groups, and other local institutions,” for example.Or charity-supported –a platform-highlighting New Jersey replica of the corporate tax credit programs of Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania to finance vouchers for kids to go to private schools.

Incumbent Corzine proved capable of losing the election all on his own, alienating such a broad swath of people that even the New Jersey Environmental Federation decided to endorse Christie, its first endorsement ever of a Republican, because of Corzine’s lack of leadership.  In Virginia, Bob McDonnell didn’t have to unseat an incumbent.

McDonnell’s platform was as detailed as Christie’s was vacant, with a huge–and electorally winning–emphasis on job creation.  Although Virginia faces is own rolling budget deficits in FY2009 and 2010 (and projected for 2011), McDonnell’s platform pointed to his track record as a tax cutter and promised independent audits of state agencies to prove their merit or lack of merit for continuation.

Like Christie and other Republicans, McDonnell espoused the catechism to multiply charter schools and pitched for partnerships with “character-building” groups such as the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boy and Girl Scouts, and Cal Ripken’s “Badges for Baseball” program.  But he also added Communities in Schools, one of the high profile national community service organizations that gets lauded like Teach for America, City Year, and other social entrepreneurs.  Like those, CIS did quite well under the Bush Administration landing plenty of AmeriCorps grant support (landing $57 million in federal support between 2000 and the first two quarters of FY2008, including $25.3 million from the Corporation for National and Community Service and $18.2 million through the Department of Education).

McDonnell’s pledge to use CIS as part of his strategy of bolstering Virginia’s educational performance may well be predicated not so much on state government spending programs, but on the state’s ability to tap the expanded CNCS programs through the Obama Administration and the Serve America Act.  Where is the McDonnell commitment to use state funds to support nonprofit sector capacities and programs?  When McDonnell the tax cutter makes spending cuts to close the state’s 13.8 percent deficit for FY2009 and 20.1 percent deficit for FY2010, where and when will the axe hit the state’s nonprofit sector?

Is there a McDonnell/Christie message for the nonprofit sector?  In the wake of galloping budget deficits and angry taxpayers, do these gubernatorial newcomers portend a public sentiment in favor of cutting state budgets on the backs of programs linked to nonprofit programs, with devastating results to the constituencies typically assisted by nonprofit service providers?  This isn’t a question of political parties, as state legislatures controlled by Democrats and Republicans are cutting the guts out of social programs to reduce deficits.  Campaigning to close budget gaps and expand volunteer-oriented nonprofit activities, McDonnell and Christie may be exclamation points on this budget cutting trend.

The nonprofit sector had better pay attention to state budgets and the budget cutters residing in state governors’ mansions to gauge the future of public charities.