BOONTON, N.J. — “Do you want a weaker defense for the United States?” asks GOP Senate candidate Doug Forrester before a rally of 200 or so voters at an Elks Lodge here.
“No!” they shout back.
“Do you want higher taxes?” Forrester wonders.
“No!” they scream in unison.
Standing, fittingly enough, beneath a stuffed trophy of a 12-point buck, Forrester adds: “Help is on the way and, Lord knows, we need help.”
At three campaign stops Sunday afternoon, Forrester places taxes near the very top of his agenda, just behind national security. And appropriately so. According to the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C, New Jersey struggles under America’s fourth-highest overall tax burden. In 2002, Garden State residents paid $9,659 per capita in federal taxes.
“New Jersey is a relatively high-income state,” says Tax Foundation executive director Scott Hodge. “So they get hit by the progressive federal tax system, the complexity of the tax code, and things like the alternative minimum tax and the gift and death taxes.”
An older gentleman named Joe Molitoris pours soda pop for guests at the Elks Lodge rally. He could drink to Forrester’s tax agenda. “I’m a great believer that the money ought to go back to the people so that we can go ahead and spend it on our economy,” Molitoris says. “I like the president’s tax cuts, and I like the fact that Forrester wants to make them permanent. That’s the only way I think that we’re going to keep our economy rolling.”
Just outside, Forrester stands beside Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R., N.J.) and speaks informally to journalists. The chilly wind and threatening clouds do nothing to dampen Forrester’s spirits.
“I was given 30 days to run against Frank Lautenberg,” Forrester says of the 78-year-old former Democratic senator. “When the 30th day is done, so will he be done.” Forrester is buoyed by a Gannett poll concluded Friday. Of the 611 likely voters surveyed, Lautenberg led with 42 points to Forrester’s 37 (margin of error: +/- 4%). In a state with so many voters who decide at the last minute, such volatility and tepid support for a seasoned opponent bode well for the 49-year-old co-founder of a successful prescription-benefit management company.
“I’m in favor of removing the estate tax,” Forrester continues. Beyond reducing the capital-gains tax and making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, Forrester says, “I’m against the marriage-penalty tax. I want to remove that. I want to remove the tax on Social Security benefits that Frank Lautenberg put there.” He adds that he has spent time in urban areas where minority businesses “are very vulnerable to high taxes, to over-regulation.” He says that such entrepreneurs “want the kinds of low taxes that will allow them to build for the future. They certainly want the estate tax gone, and that’s something that Frank Lautenberg defends, which is indefensible.”
Forrester is backed by the National Federation of Independent Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. National Taxpayers Union Campaign Fund president John Berthoud took the unusual step of traveling from Washington, D.C., to Asbury Park to endorse Forrester.
“Doug is the candidate of less government and lower taxes and is the most attuned to the families of New Jersey,” Berthoud said.
Lautenberg can only dream of earning such tax-fighting credentials. During his 18-year Senate career, the disgraced Robert Toricelli’s last-minute replacement raised taxes and spent the proceeds. In 2000, the NTU gave him an “F” for voting pro-taxpayer just 13% of the time. That was an improvement, however, from his 5%, “F” grade in 1999.
To be fair, Lautenberg voted against President Clinton’s 1993 tax hikes, but he did so a year before facing re-election and in the middle of a massive backlash against then-Governor Jim Florio’s tax increases. That tax revolt helped Republican Christie Todd Whitman defeat Democrat Florio at the polls that November.
Lautenberg also supported President Reagan’s 1986 tax reform and the reduction in capital-gains taxes in 1998. Still, NTU spokesman Pete Sepp remains unimpressed. “Lautenberg’s three terms in office were like a day in London,” Sepp says. “Mostly cloudy with only an occasional ray of light.”
On the spending side, Citizens Against Government Waste gave Lautenberg an overall 29% score across his Senate career. He did especially poorly in his last term, however. In 1999 and 2000, for instance, he received ratings of just 9% and 11%, respectively.
Lautenberg 2002 press aides did not return calls seeking comment. Their campaign web page does tout Lautenberg’s support for “middle class tax relief,” such as targeted tax breaks for college tuition and child rearing. Such measures do little, however, to stimulate long-term economic growth.
For his part, Forrester is terribly impressive in person. He is energetic, disciplined, and talks with almost anchorman-like clarity before crowds, TV news crews, and one-on-one. Visualize CNN’s Lou Dobbs with a stump speech.
For a man in a tight Senate race, Forrester looks supremely relaxed in a loose, yellow, black and gray argyle sweater. He and his confident, genial, and incredibly calm entourage traverse the Garden State aboard a bus that is painted his campaign’s forest-green theme color. Now decorated with a larger-than-life portrait of Forrester, his wife, daughter, and two sons, the vehicle previously served as the Straight Talk Express during John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid.
“I really want some ice cream,” Forrester says along Route 23, lamenting that he has not eaten any since an event last month in Princeton. Team Forrester soon stops at the North Star Diner in the town of Wayne. The candidate shakes hands, greets babies, and takes pictures with patrons before pausing for a snack.
Between bites of apple pie a la mode, he unfortunately says that he opposes President Bush’s plan to give Americans the option to devote some of their Social Security taxes to privately-owned accounts. “That’s privatization, and that’s what I’m not interested in,” he says. The good news is that he wants to expand IRAs, 401(k)s, and similar financial instruments. “We need, frankly, to increase the savings rate in the country for investment purposes and for capital resources.”
Forrester also wants the Senate to adopt New Jersey’s “single-purpose” approach to legislation. In the Garden State, bills must address only one matter at a time. “In other words, you don’t have riders that compromise or confuse the purpose of a bill,” Forrester explains. He complains that in Washington, “We have these pieces of legislation that sail through congressional waterways likely heavily-barnacled ships.” If the Senate required measures to focus on only one problem, “I think a lot of pork would be eliminated because [omnibus bills] wouldn’t see the light of day.”
Shortly after dusk, about 20 minutes away, Forrester poses some simple questions to about 400 GOP activists crammed into the grand ballroom of the Hasbrouck Heights Hilton. The boisterous, Bergen County crowd sits shoulder-to-shoulder around tables festooned with reflective, helium-filled balloons of the American flag and shiny red, white, and blue stars.
“Do you want an end to the death tax?” he asks from the podium.
“Yes!” the suburban Republicans yell back.
“Do you want lower taxes generally?”
“Yes!” they roar, even more loudly.
American taxpayers can expect new leadership for tax relief if New Jersey voters say “Yes!” to Doug Forrester today at the polls.