(Portions of this post were originally published in September 2006)
New Jersey joined the fledgling American union early on, unanimously ratifying the Constitution a few days after Delaware and then Pennsylvania. That may well be the last time over the intervening two-plus centuries that there has been unanimity about anything to do with New Jersey. Except for widespread agreement that it is the weirdest of states and, I hasten to add, profoundly and incurably corrupt.
Say "Iowa" and you think of cornfields. Say "Texas" and you think of the Alamo. Say "Florida" and you think of Disney World. But say "New Jersey" and you think of . . . Oil refineries? Toll roads? The 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping? The Sopranos? And most recently Chris Christie, who has parlayed a career as a crime-busting U.S. attorney into a career as the most corrupt New Jersey governor in recent memory.
To begin with, New Jersey has a profound identity crisis that borders on schizophrenia.
Situated smack dab between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey exhibits traits of both cities and their cultures, but (the rich Bruce Springsteen songbook notwithstanding) has no identifiable statewide culture of its own to speak of. Worse yet, with the exception of a modest homegrown public television network, its citizens must rely on TV broadcasts from out of state.
Oh, the horror!
Singer-songwriter John Gorka nicely sums up the state in the closing lines of "I’m From New Jersey," which he sings with a mournful languidness that borders on narcolepsy.
I’m from New Jersey. It's not like Texas.Can't you just feel the pain?
There is no mystery, I can't pretend.
I'm from New Jersey, it's like Ohio,
But even more so. Imagine that.
I know which exit, and where I'm bound,
Tolls on the Parkway they will slow you down.
New Jersey people, they will surprise you,
Cause they're not expected to do too much.
They will try harder, they may go further,
They never think that they are good enough.
I'm from New Jersey, I don't expect too much.
If the world ended today I would adjust.
New Jersey’s license plates have been long adorned with "The Garden State" slogan because of the one-time proliferation of small truck farms. Many grew the most delicious tomatoes anywhere, among them the famously disease- and pest-resistant Rutgers variety. If you wanted the best for that sauce, salad or sandwich, you asked for "New Jersey tomatoes, please."
You can still find the occasional basket of locally grown tomatoes at a roadside vegetable stand, but most of the truck farms have been plowed under for the state’s current bumper crop – suburban sprawl, which is the unplanned and uncontrolled spread of development from cities to practically everywhere else. Nobody except developers and construction companies (and politicians on the take) want sprawl, but nobody seems to be able to stop it. So it’s not for nothing (pronounced nuttin by gen-u-wine old-time residents) that New Jersey is the most densely populated of the 50 states.
(Speakin of nuttin, the state also has a vernacular all its own: A shoobie is a tourist, any carbonated beverage is a coke, everything is measured by blocks, to hook up is to have sex, route is a term never heard (it’s always take "9," not "Route 9"), a sub is a sandwich made with various meats, cheeses and vegetables, while a pie is a pizza, the beach is the shore, and to travel there is to go down the shore.)
Back back to our story . . .
The aforementioned tomato was named for New Jersey’s largest institution of higher education – Rutgers University.
That brings up another big image problem.
New Jersey is the only state without an eponymous university of consequence. The sports teams of Pennsylvania State University, University of Washington, Kansas State, Ole Miss, and so on and so forth, are magnets for state pride, bragging rights, paraphernalia from baseball caps to t-shirts to beer mugs, as well as lots of college sports betting, most of it illegal. When was the last time you heard someone say, "We’re from Rutgers and we’re going to kick your ass!"
Rutgers' inferiority complex is so bad that in recent years it has pored millions of dollars not into educating the little dears who make up the student body, but the football program.
It gets worse . . .
Even the most cursory Internet search reveals that almost everything written about New Jersey has to do with official corruption.
In fact, New Jersey is the second most corrupt state in the union after Louisiana (no surprise there), according to political scientist Larry Sabato, who co-authored an entire book about New Jersey’s love affair with the bribe.
This often falls under the heading of "Pay to Play," shorthand for a fact of New Jersey life: If you want to do business with the government at any level, you have to grease politicians' palms, usually in the form of campaign contributions.
The list of the many dozens of politicians who have succumbed to the siren song of corruption in recent years is at least a reflection of New Jersey’s diversity. They're white, black, Latino and Asian. (The excuse often made for this epidemic is that an unusual amount of power resides at the local level and in the governor's office with nothing in between. To which I say, bullbleep.)
When Christie's predecessor, Jon Corzine, was sworn in as governor in 2006, the keynote of his inaugural address was a pledge to enact sweeping ethics reform. If that sounded familiar to jaded New Jerseyans, it’s because predecessors since time immemorial had said the same thing. And like those predecessors, the clean-up effort went nowhere.
Corzine, a financial executive who is wealthier than God, was best known as governor for shacking up with a woman while still married and then bankrolling her to the tune of $6 million when they broke up, and for being badly injured after being thrown from a State Police vehicle in a crash because he wasn't wearing a seat belt.
By the way, Corzine replaced Richard Codey, who had become acting governor after the sudden resignation of James McGreevey in 2004 because of an extramarital affair with a male aide whom he had appointed head of the state’s department of homeland security despite not having a lick of experience.
Then there is Christie, whose cojones seem to be as big as his belly, even after he secretly underwent lap-band weight loss surgery.
In an effort to perfume his image among Republicans who see him as a moderate alternative for the GOP presidential nomination -- as opposed to conservatives beholden to the Tea Party and outright kooks -- Christie has repeatedly beaten up on police officers, firefighters and teachers who belong to New Jersey state public employee unions.
But the nomination is looking like a long shot after revelations that Christie administration insiders engineered five days of George Washington Bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, causing monumental gridlock and a public-safety emergency, because the Democratic mayor of that burg refused to endorse him in Christie's 2013 re-election campaign for governor.
That, it turns out, was the tip of the iceberg:
Beyond Fort Lee, these insiders, with the knowledge and approval of Christie (as eventually will come out), traded or withheld juicy development projects -- and possibly Hurricane Sandy relief aid, as well -- depending upon whether mayors endorsed or did not endorse him.
The rot is not confined to politics.
Most people see New Jersey through a car windshield on that infamous turnpike. Which makes the jackbooted troopers who patrol the toll road good will ambassadors of a sort. What sort? The sort that will stop you because of your skin color.
Then there is the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the state's largest and supposedly most prestigious health-care institution, which did such a good imitation of being a mob family, what with no-bid contract kickbacks and such, that it became the first university in the country to be overseen by a court-ordered federal monitor.
And where else but New Jersey would 44 people be charged with money laundering, including three mayors, two state assemblymen . . . and five rabbis.
Worse yet . . .
In a rare fit of self reflection, New Jersey changed its slogan from "The Garden State" to "Come See For Yourself" a few years back. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know it cost millions and millions to redo all those state line signs, official stationary and, of course, license plates. The motto didn't stick.
A more appropriate slogan might be "The 'Kick Me' State."
Well, I'm not going to take it anymore. I’m tired of all the snide remarks, jokes and hang-dog song lyrics. Besides which, some of my best friends are from New Jersey.
So I’m going to the record straight:
New Jersey is a really special place. If you know where to look.