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James Ahearn: DiFrancesco knows how to play to the voters

Originally appeared in the Bergen Record on Wednesday, March 7, 2001

DONALD DiFRANCESCO is a get-along, go-along guy who has fashioned a successful career in New Jersey politics one deal at a time. He rose from assemblyman to state senator to president of the Senate.

Now he is acting governor and seeking election as governor in his own right. He is very much a part of the State House scene, has been for 25 years, comfortable with fellow legislators of both parties, with lobbyists, with union and business leaders, with special-interest activists. He happens to be a Republican, but he is not wedded to ideology. Anything but.

You could see that, weekend before last, when he and the other two serious candidates for governor, one a Republican, one a Democrat, addressed the annual legislative conference of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers' union.

There was not a dime's worth of difference between DiFrancesco and the Democrat, Jim McGreevey. They both favored raising pensions for teachers, including retirees. They both favored raising teacher salaries, although New Jersey is already a national leader in that regard.

This year the union wants to raise the statutory minimum salary, for new teachers, to $40,000. It may come as a surprise to some readers that New Jersey law specifies a minimum teacher's salary, but it does. Back in the Sixties, when I was a legislative correspondent, the minimum was about $5,000, and every year the NJEA would fight to raise it.

In time, the contract bargaining process around the state raised minimums, district by district, to considerably more than the legal floor, and the union began to face criticism that it was demanding more than the law required. So it changed tactics. It stopped fighting to raise the legal minimum. The law became a dead letter.

In 1985, in a bolt from the blue, Tom Kean, then governor, asked for and won a raise in the minimum to $18,500. That was a big boost, more than many districts were paying, especially in the rural western and southern counties. Teachers were ecstatic. And with the minimum jacked up, there was a ripple effect up the ladder. Senior teachers got more, too.

The legal minimum has not been raised since then. But teachers have done quite well, thank you. The minimum salary in districts across the state averages about $33,000 today. Not bad, when you consider that the top of the scale in suburbia is commonly $70,000 or more. A raise in the legal floor to $40,000 would mean a one-shot average increase of 21 percent for new teachers.

At the NJEA gathering, neither DiFrancesco nor McGreevey committed to a $40,000 minimum, or to any specific figure, but each intimated that, if elected, teachers would not regret it. As for teacher pensions, DiFrancesco said, "My prediction is that you will be pleasantly surprised at the outcome."

Applause, applause. The teachers gave a much different reception to the other Republican candidate for governor, Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler. He is not a get-along, go-along guy. He is a man of pronounced and conservative views. For instance, he favors giving parents the power to choose non-public schools for their children, with substantial tax support.

He was bold enough to try to sell this idea to his audience of public-school employees. Hey, he told them, think about it. Parents who take advantage of that option would be more supportive of teachers, especially if less money were spent on school administration. The teachers weren't buying it.

DiFrancesco told them what they wanted to hear: "We will stand firm against initiatives that divert attention, divert resources, even manpower, from our public schools, whether it be through vouchers or tuition tax credits."

The NJEA, which had not endorsed a gubernatorial candidate in the previous two elections, came out four-square for DiFrancesco in the Republican primary.

This kind of politics, where you count votes for and against and go with whoever or whatever has more support, is bread, butter, and mother's milk to candidates like DiFrancesco. It is why Gov. Christie Whitman made a point of approving a toll increase on Port Authority bridges and tunnels before she left office for Washington. She knew that if she left the decision to DiFrancesco he would veto the plan, even though it made sense, because for every commuter who could see that an increase was overdue, scores more were ready to grouse and to vote accordingly.

So, too, with the NIMBY dispute over two power plants proposed for construction in Rockland County, a couple of miles north of the New York-New Jersey border. Politicians and activists in Northwest Bergen are fighting them, although there is no denying that the region needs more electricity, that the plants, fired by natural gas, would be state-of-the-art, that some of the power could go to New Jersey, and that the plants would be built in an industrial zone. Nor, near as I can make out, could they be seen from New Jersey. The opposition complains the plants might damage a water aquifer.

DiFrancesco didn't hesitate. On Saturday he showed up at a meeting in Ramsey of Northwest Bergen mayors and pledged support to the opposition. He said he would seek a meeting with New York Gov. George Pataki to present the case for killing the projects.

It was classic Donnie D. For him, the key fact was that hundreds of people, many from New Jersey, showed up at Ramapo town meetings on the plants, and all but a handful were opposed.

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