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Advice to candidates: Don't underestimate New Jersey

It's called the Garden State and in earlier days was known for the many vegetable farms in its rural central and southern counties. But New Jersey's reputation beyond its borders more often casts it now as a rough-edged place where the natives "tawk" funny and say they come from "Joisey," (except, of course, around Princeton).

The state's often a subject of ridicule if not contempt. A New York Daily News reporter, looking westward out his office window and remarking how clear the skies were, once told a colleague: "You can see them picking their noses over in Jersey." Television shows often feature Jersey girls who seem to be dropouts from reform school.

Such is the environment in which the state's Republican Gov. Chris Christie is being introduced on the national stage under most unfavorable circumstances. Just as he was emerging as an early frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, largely on the basis of his involvement in the state's recovery from Hurricane Sandy, along has come "Trafficgate" (No political scandal escapes being dubbed a successor of Watergate these days, no matter how unrelated).

Mr. Christie's aides were seen in electronic messages to be the culprits in an intentionally vindictive traffic jam on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge connecting with Manhattan. And their boss denied any knowledge or involvement, declaring himself the victim of staff betrayal.

However, unfortunately for the Jersey governor, the tale could be the script for a "Sopranos" episode on hard-knuckle mayhem without the machine guns and corpses cooked up in a kitchen in Jersey City or Hoboken.

Such is the fate of the state probably most known in earlier political days for the bossism of Democratic Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, who ruled over other Hudson County mayors as if over a medieval fiefdom and was a strong New Deal ally of FDR.

Just one minor example of his powers was the closing of all public schools in the county on the opening day of the Jersey City Giants, the not very good farm team of the New York Giants, so kids given free tickets to paper the house could attend.

One Democratic presidential candidate in 1984, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, could have argued he lost the nomination because of a joke he told about the state a few days before its presidential primary. Campaigning with his wife, Lee, at his side in California, which also had a primary on the same day, Mr. Hart told a posh Bel Air fund-raising party how they divided campaign chores.

"The deal is, we (usually) campaign separately," he said. "The good news for her is, she campaigns in California and I campaign in New Jersey." As the guests laughed, Lee broke in to say she got to hold a koala bear there. To which her husband observed: "I won't tell you what I got to hold -- samples from a toxic dump!"

Hart thought nothing more about the remark, but Jerseyans were tired of "Jersey jokes" -- about the state's industrial odors, waste materials and dumps so visible in the Newark and Meadowlands areas approaching the tunnels into Manhattan. Indeed, Hart had been running television ads in the New York-New Jersey market using the Meadowlands sports complex as a background and touting the state's pride in industrial and hi-tech development.

For two days, the statewide Newark Star-Ledger ran page-one stories on Hart's remarks, and the pride-in-Jersey ads began working against him. His apology that all he was trying to say was he wished he could spend more time with his wife fell flat. His chief opponent for the nomination, Vice President Walter Mondale, campaigning in northern California had only this comment: "I love California."

On primary night, Hart won the statewide popular vote there but Mondale picked up nearly three times as many convention delegates by the way they were allocated, and he shut out Hart in New Jersey, taking all 117 delegates. Mondale was able to declare himself over the top for the nomination the next day.

So the message is: Don't mess with folks in Jersey. But will it apply against Christie? Or will they fuggedaboudit?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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