Let’s start with the setup: State Sen. Jon Bramnick did a one-on-one forum at Fairleigh Dickinson University on Thursday afternoon as part of the school’s “Gubernatorial Conversations” series — even though there’s little to suggest Bramnick will actually jump into the gubernatorial race.
The veteran legislator, however, had plenty to say.
Bramnick (R-Westfield) talked to a standing-room-only crowd about a number of topics, including the Mount Laurel housing decision, New Jersey Transit, making pension payments and the money and power of politics. He offered an intriguing idea about affordability (capping state budget increases) — and he gave an example of where he would raise taxes (seriously).
And, of course, he discussed the news of the month: the recent election.
It was a tough love talk.
Bramnick, whose party lost seats in the Legislature, said the image of Republicans on the national scene likely played a part in the party’s poor showing.
“The image of the Republicans from Washington, where they can’t pick a speaker — and then they pick a speaker (Mike Johnson) who doesn’t believe the election was real — does not help Republicans in New Jersey,” he said.
Former President Donald Trump, returning to the daily news cycle, doesn’t help either, Bramnick said.
“He’s back in the news with people who think Jan. 6 was just a little picnic,” he said. “(Voters) look at the Republican line and they say, ‘He seems OK, but I don’t trust the Republicans, based on the crazy stuff.’”
New Jersey, as everyone knows, gets mostly national news. That’s part of the problem, too, Bramnick said.
“Every time you turn on CNN, Fox, it’s all national,” he said. “So, the image of the Republican Party is not defined by (state Sen.) Vince Polistina of Atlantic City, it is defined by Donald Trump, or by (U.S. Rep. Jim) Jordan, or by the new speaker — and that’s a problem for the party in New Jersey.
“And as long as we’re defined by these Republicans who won’t accept the decision of courts, we’re in big trouble.”
Bramnick told the audience that the Republican Party needs to win back the trust of the voters in the state. And to do that, he said, it has to offer a positive message — not one that only aims to knock down the other side.
That message, he said, is more important than the money that most people feel determines elections.
“People will determine whether you’re authentic,” he said. “You can beat the money. If you are authentic, and people trust you, you can still win. It’s hard. I think there is too much money in politics, but I guarantee you that people can look at you and determine whether you’re authentic.”
Bramnick may have surprised some when he said he calls Gov. Phil Murphy and the first lady, Tammy Murphy, friends.
“I like Phil and Tammy Murphy, I just disagree with them,” he said. “I don’t think they have evil hearts. I just think they look at the world differently than I do.”
To defeat them and other Democrats — and Tammy Murphy just announced her intention to run for a U.S. Senate seat — it’s about sharing a different vision, Bramnick said.
“I think we can win elections if (voters) believe that the Republican Party is a party of goodwill, that they care about people and they’re respectful,” he said.
Bramnick talked on a number of issues during a nearly hourlong presentation that was moderated by Peter Woolley, the founding director of the School of Public and Global Affairs at FDU and included a few questions from the audience.
Here are a few of those responses (which were paraphrased or shortened for readability):
On money in politics — and why people donate so much
Jon Bramnick: The power that comes with the job is significant. Meaning, you can change people’s lives by voting one way or the other. So, every industry in the state, every business in the state and every profession in the state, in a moment’s notice, could lose all of their rights if the Legislature gets mad and the governor gets mad.
There are 120 legislators, 40 in the Senate, that are controlling the lives of 9.5 million people, so you can see why people donate to people who have significant power over their lives.
It doesn’t work right — and there’s all kinds of problems in politics, but you want the right people there. It is a complicated process, but simply put: wrong people, bad decisions, serious effects on certain professions.
On urban sprawl — and the Mount Laurel ruling on affordable housing in 1975
JB: The (New Jersey) Supreme Court basically said we believe there’s not enough affordable housing.
The problem with that Mount Laurel decision in the ’70s — and all the decisions since then — is that the courts now decide how many housing units go into your neighborhood. It is the most ridiculous system. It is costly — and the judges don’t know anything about housing.
What should be done? The Legislature should show some guts. If the Legislature wants residential development and affordable housing (rules), pass a law. But don’t leave it up to the courts.
On NJ Transit — and the various plans to fix it
JB: New Jersey Transit, without federal assistance, is going to have a $1 billion deficit. So, you can have all the plans you want, but, unless you can figure out how to pay for it, nothing’s going to get changed.
The bottom line is money. And it’s the one area that I’d be willing to invest. People say, ‘Republicans don’t raise taxes.’ Let me tell you something, if you don’t get people to work, people aren’t living in New Jersey. Simple as that.
People in New Jersey will pay if you give them the right service. They just feel many times that they’re not getting the right service. So, if we really invest in New Jersey Transit, it’s worth every dime.
On making the pension payments
JB: I do praise Gov. Murphy for making those full pension payments. A contract is a contract. We have to make those payments. Democratic and Republican governors have deferred those payments and I think it proved to be very costly.
If you want to change the rules of the road with respect to new people coming into the pension system, that’s fine — if you can find a system that works.
On affordability — and spending
JB: The (spending of) local municipalities and counties is capped at 2%. The state of New Jersey isn’t capped. I don’t understand why. I think we need a constitutional amendment to put a cap on the state budget the same way we do for towns. If we can cap a 2% increase in spending on the state budget, and then we get a 10% or 15% increase in funds to the state, we will have extra money.
Spending has to go down. If you want affordability, you have to limit spending.