Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald on the Budget, Property Taxes, Millionaire’s Tax, Booker Prez Bid, George Helmy, Guv 2021, Marijuana Battle, Trenton Politics (and MORE!): the InsiderNJ Interview

BORDENTOWN – Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) walked into a pizza parlor here shortly after 1 p.m., sat on a stool at a table and began talking to InsiderNJ about New Jersey.

Here is that exchange:

INJ: What did you make of Lizette Delgado Polanco’s decision to resign from the Schools Development Authority (SDA)?

LG: I think she made the absolute right choice. I think it was obvious on its face and I’m glad she came to that decision without having to go through some long and prolonged questioning of people’s resumes, qualifications and backgrounds in the area of construction and development. She made the right choice for the state. It gives us an opportunity to look at how we structure this going forward. How do we get the most talented people in, in conjunction with the EDA [Economic Development Authority]? It’s an opportunity to shape this in a way with this new administration, the speaker, senate president, and myself, to get the best results. That’s what this should be about.

INJ: Do you see this as an opportunity to dissolve the SDA sooner rather than later?

LG: This is where part of our experience comes in .We’ve seen a lot of mistakes there over the years at the SDA. We’ve raised lots of questions as to who’s getting contracts, some out off New York, companies that came in made a lot of money and left the state that didn’t understand the culture of our state.

INJ: Delgado Polanco also stepped down as vice chair of the Democratic State Committee. How does that impact fight for the chairmanship between sitting Chairman John Currie and [Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman] Leroy Jones? Does it give Currie, in your view, the chance to say, ‘Look, we cleaned house over here,’ or is Jones in a position to say, ‘Too little to late?’

LG: I don’t see it that way. The problems she created at the SDA are hers. I don’t think she could stay in such a high profile position in the Democratic Party, but I don’t think her problems splatter on John Currie.

INJ: What do you think about [Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair] Peg Schaffer getting installed as her replacement?

LG: Peg’s wonderful. She was very helpful to us as we grew our majorities in the state. I would definitely want to see a woman in the position. I think we need that balance.

INJ: We’re getting into the teeth of the budget season. What’s your position on a millionaire’s tax?

LG: My position is very similar to that of our leadership with [Speaker] Craig [Coughlin] and [Senate President] Steve Sweeney, and our leadership team in the assembly. Look, I voted for this thing probably eight times. I’m not opposed to bringing in $450 million, but not into a black hole that doesn’t address ultimately the underlying problem, which is centered on property taxes. I would rather preserve that revenue and have an honest conversation around restructuring a broken tax system that over-relies on property taxes. This has been a passion of mine for 15 years. The governor says if we adjust the corporate business tax, raise the sales tax and re-institute the millionaire’s tax, our problems go away because we have this economic stimulus. My response is that what every other governor before you has done that and we’re still here with the problem. We have to be bold.

INJ: What are the major components of how you think we should solve the problem?

LG: Massachusetts holds a blueprint for what New Jersey could do, which requires restructuring the tax system. They spread out the tax base and created more business tax incentives.

INJ: But isn’t that what Governor Murphy is doing?

LG: The question is what kind of incentives are they. Our businesses are going to Massachusetts. They’re expanding in Massachusetts while he’s having conversations around tax incentives. I don’t see him mirroring those incentives, which have led businesses to Camden and to Massachusetts.

INJ: What’s your sense of your caucus right now?

LG: I think the caucus is rock solid and very unified. This is a very smart group of people with tremendous energy and alot of young, new faces coming in. These are people who bring a lot of passion  to the work. You have Craig and I and a veteran like Gordon Johnson as a stabilizer. [Assemblywoman] Eliana [Pintor Marin] has been wonderful as budget chair. You have the balance of people like myself and [Assemblyman] John Burzichelli with [Assemblywoman] Shavonda Sumter and Eliana. It’s a great group of leaders. Look, I’ve tried to say to the governor’s office, the legislative members in New Jersey are the foot soldiers hearing from people firsthand. They hear things like ‘tax fairness is not whether if you’re making a million I’m going to tax you more.’ They’re hearing ‘I’m selling my house to move to Pennsylvania because I cant justify these property taxes. In Merchantville, 60% of the homes for sale are in foreclosure. That’s a frightening statistic. We know we have the highest foreclosure rates in the country. These are homes for sale, beautiful, with property values going down and empty rooms because people have abandoned the homes.

INJ: But people don’t trust government to fix their problems. The sense of Democratic leadership in the state is that it’s the legislative and executive branches of the same party executing tactical strikes on one another. Dysfunctional is not the word. It seems very much a pointed rivalry where rational discussions can’t occur.

LG: I don’t look at it that way. I think that’s probably a convenient narrative to sell stories. Listen. [Governor Phil Murphy Chief-of-Staff] George Helmy has been a phenomenal addition. I can’t speak more highly of the guy. He is very generous and gracious with his time. When he first started he came down to South Jersey and met me for dinner. He asked my position on the millionaire’s tax. I explained my position. He listened. He engaged. Is everything like point counterpoint? It’s not. Everybody wakes up – I hope they don’t, actually – but if they’re like me they turn on the news and what i see in Washington, D.C. right now fascinates me. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Republicans wouldn’t stand up to him. Yet if we stand up ia governor of our party it’s infighting. I’m taking my years of experience to our governor, and I think he does the same with me. That’s not a bad conversation.

INJ: There’s still a trust gap. People don;t think politicians are working with their best interests at heart. People don’t think those conversations are transposing tangibly to their lives.

LG: Yes, I feel that comment. I hear it from our neighbors. I feel that way as a citizen. I don’t have the trust factor with this president. In the past, I didn’t always agree on public policy, but I had a trust factor. My touchstone has always been my mother [the late Cherry Hill Mayor Maria Barnaby Greenwald]. To this day I can go anywhere in this state and somebody remembers my mother, and she is beloved. My personal objective when I ran was to keep that memory alive. I don’t know when my time passes if people will have that of me, but I hope so.

INJ: It has to be a little frustrating, I would imagine, and offensive. You cultivate a name in public life, public service, and then someone like Trump shows up, out of the box in the extreme, on a wave of people’s rage about government and an argument – that connects – about people in office not serving a public interest.

LG: People are afraid for their security. When you have families that statistics show are making personal financial decisions, walking away from a mortgage, you know they’re pissed at the people in charge who are allowing that to happen. No one’s doing that willingly. No one’s defaulting on a mortgage in New Jersey and renting a place in Pennsylvania except because they believe it’s better for their financial interests. I’m screaming at the TV during the federal shutdown. Why? What I remember from the shutdown, more than anything else, was that 81% of people in this country are living with $400 in a savings account and one paycheck away from financial ruin. And it’s worse in New Jersey, yes. When all that happens, they know a Lou Greenwald is fighting for him, but the grander scale of government is not understanding. I get that the state could use $450 million but when we’re spending $30 billion on property taxes, don’t sell it as tax fairness. Tax fairness is figuring out how I can make your property taxes more attractive. Thirty and 31 year-olds – look, 20 years ago in New Jersey I’m buying a house because my father told me if you’re renting a house you’re pissing that money away. You buy a house you can write it off. Now it’s the reverse for these 30 year-olds. You rent. But it’s a ripple effect. You don’t buy a washer and drier. You’re  not buying landscaping for your home, all of the things that generate money for the state.

INJ: Where is this going in this budget cycle?

LG: I was with the governor last week at Camden County College and I was very pleased to hear him say that there are many things in the Path to Progress Task Force Report that he supports. Eliana and I served on that committee. I co-chaired it. We told them at the outset. Don’t tell us what we want to hear. Tell us what other states are doing, and what we should be looking at. Among Republicans, I would say [Senator] Steve Oroho is the most influential Republican in the state right now, as someone deciated to long-term solutions to problems.

INJ: Marijuana legalization. Does it get done this cycle?

LG: It’s the hardest issue I ever dealt with. Really uncomfortable. Painful. Wish I didn’t have to do it.

INJ: As a father?

LG: Partly, yes. When I first ran in 1995 I was 28 years old on the heels of Bill Clinton running for president and saying, ‘I tried it but didn’t inhale.’ I said i never tried it. When I was 28 and reporters asked me about it, I was a liar. and now reporters ask me and I tell them the same thing, ‘no,’ and I’m a geek.

INJ: You were an athlete?

LG: I was an athlete. I worked out. I work out. I was a basketball and football player. It scared me as a young man. I wanted to be in control. It scared me to see people lose control. It brought down their inhibitions. The other part was my parents used fear. They were very loving parents, but remember, my mother was in the public eye. They told me, ‘You’re going to be on the front page of the Courier Post.’ I never wanted to embarrass my family. That’s why I never did it. Through the years I spent a lot of time  going to schools talking to kids. I’ve spoken to thousands of kids.

INJ: Backing it now you feel like a hypocrite?

LG: It’s the hardest vote I’m ever going to take. And the reason I will vote for it is because I have a friend whose son got addicted to opioids because he had his wisdom teeth pulled. …Like most addicts he thought he could smoke marijuana and he bought marijuana laced with fentanyl. They woke up and he was dead in the rec room. I can’t stop kids from doing it. I can’t stop the black market in the current structure. We can create a safer product by legalizing it and regulating it. But I don’t want my kids to use it and I don’t want to use it.

INJ: Where are we on the political side?

LG: The advocates have been remarkable. They’re passionate. But they are not the same people who lobby us on education funding. They’re scattered, in the best of ways. We have the same handful of issues to resolve. If you leave here and get in an accident and you had marijuana, I can’t judge it the way I can with alcohol. We’re going to do roadside tests and that needs to be worked out. [Assemblyman] Jamel Holley in particular has done a remarkable job on the social justice side and showing us how minorities have been punished to a far greater degree. I think it will pass.

INJ: Within the next couple of months?

LG: Long shot.

INJ: Can it be tied in this budget cycle to the millionaire’s tax?

LG: I say no only because it is a vote of conscience. This is a question of personal conscience that is not going to be traded off for a millionaire’s tax. You want to give me a constitutional convention, I’ll give you my vote for millionaire’s tax.

INJ: What’s your sense of the developing Democratic Primary for president?

LG: We haven’t formally endorsed [U.S. Senator Cory] Booker yet, but obviously Booker is a bright light for me and a national figure. Cory and I came up together so it’s exciting for me. And if you judge people by the people they surround themselves with, George Helmy gives me a great impression of what Cory’s about. I’m that impressed with George Helmy. Joe Biden is always going to be our third U.S. senator in New Jersey and I think he did a remarkable job as vice president.

INJ: Know him well?

LG: I wish I could say I do. I don’t but I’ve worked with him on public policy. He’s passionate on the gun issue. So am I. And on cancer research. Like me. He’s been wonderful for this country. He’s an asset.

INJ: [South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete] Buttigieg?

LG: If I was running for governor, I would run the way he runs for president. He does what I try to do, which is to take complex issues and bring them down into a connecting policy statement. He’s not bothered by the taunting or heckling but stays genuinely focused on his message to improve people’s lives. He’s fact-based and detail-oriented. I’m very impressed with him. Hopefully that’s how people would describe me.

INJ: Biden’s public displays of affection an issue for him?

LG: I don’t know. We have to all evolve. One of the things people loved about my mother was when you interacted with her you were present in her life. But there’s a way to do that without making people feel uncomfortable. [Senator] Kamala Harris, she’s another one to watch. When I see her engaging with the crowd she reminds me of my mom: an incredibly intelligent woman who was incredibly strong but didn’t lose her femininity along the way. A gift. That’s the challenge. I don’t know enough about the individual situations of Joe Biden. You don’t want to change who he is, which is personable. I’m being a Monday morning psychologist here, but I think he’s sharing his personal loss with others and trying to comfort them. We’re all evolving people, but people in real time sharing their feelings about what might make them uncomfortable, that’s helpful.

INJ: Is the rest of the country looking at us and saying we want a country that is more like New Jersey? How does Cory Booker get out from under the awful albatross of this state?

LG: If i ran for governor I would not run for president until I fixed the problems in New Jersey, and I would fix them the way we talked about. Of course, it would end up in a presidential contest as ‘you increased property taxes.’ And I’d have to say, ‘I did, while decreasing property taxes for 9 million New Jerseyans.’ But it becomes complicated to describe in soundbites on a national stage. But I think part of the problem in New Jersey is people have been afraid to fix our problems because they’ve had eyes on something else. They’r worried about how it’s going to sound in a primary. The nation’s problems require different medicine than the problems that assail this state. Mind you, I’m not talking about Cory, who’s in the legislative body. He’s not in a position to fix it.

INJ: But it did haunt Christie.

LG: Yes. Cory is in a much diff position. Cory brings intelligence and passion and ability to articulate issues.

INJ: His twitter following…

LG: You can’t have that unless you’re addressing issues. People aren’t following him because of his stand out football career at Stanford.

INJ: He’s not doing well. He’s at two percent. Losing ground.

LG: I’m not skilled enough to give him advice. But part of the issue is everyday there’s somebody new in the race. These polls right now don’t mean anything. Cory’s chance to shine will be when the contestants settle down. Buttigieg was at two percent then people got to know him. Cory hasn’t had the same chance to display.

INJ: Is the progressive wing of the party – visible in this primary season in several theaters around the state – adequately served by the New Jersey Democrats?

LG: Everyone’s voice is welcomed into this process. I was that person in 1995. I wasn’t supposed to win. I don’t have an objection. No matter how this plays out, be a part of it. Get involved. Otherwise you’re shouting in the rain. If you want to be a part of it, you’re welcome. I don’t think they would disagree with what we did on pay equity, minimum wage, gun violence prevention, women’s health. I’d love for them to be involved.

ING: Martin O’Malley. He was a relatively young white guy in this Democratic Party, supposedly reasonably good looking, and he got run over in 2016. Do you ever look at yourself in this democratic Party, and say, being a white guy is not all it’s cracked up to be?

LG: I don’t say that. I have three beautiful kids. I have a daughter who grew up in a political family. She went to Muhlenberg without a real sense of what she was going to study. Undeclared with a talent for musical theater. But she was inspired by the 2016 campaign of Hillary Clinton. Senator [Tim] Kaine spoke at Muhlenberg. She waited in line for three hours to hear him speak. Afterwards, this young woman decided not only to confidently cast her first vote for Hillary Clinton, but now she wants to go to law school and wants to do public advocacy law. I have two girls and a boy, who are generous of heart. They are remarkable young people, intent on giving back in some way. I was raised by my mother to believe that’s what the Democratic Party is, and it doesn’t have a sex or color tied to it.

INJ: What else are you working on?

LG: Two things. Gun violence prevention, all tied to background checks and armor piercing bullets magazine capacity. One of my memories that stands out, which I will always hold with me, is meeting with families after Sandy Hook. Those kids were like my kids. We started to look at it from the standpoint of families. The other thing the Path to Progress Task Force and forming a convention to study property taxes. My wife and I moved to Voorhees for the schools, as people have always wanted to come to the New Jersey suburbs for schools. But now they’re moving to Pennsylvania to pay for private education. And so I keep barraging my new friend George Helmy with this stuff.

INJ: You keep mentioning a constitutional convention.

LG: We’d have to create the convention, and I’m working right now with the speaker, walking him through it. He gets it. I’m talking to the front office and Senate President Sweeney. Steve Oroho certainly embraces the concepts. I don’t think there’s the political courage for what you’d have to reform to get it done without a constitutional convention. It’s been in the hands of elected officials for 50 years and it hasn’t gotten done.

INJ: There are some races in the legislature this year. LD1. LD2. LD8.

LG: In LD1, Senator Bob Andrzejczak’s numbers are Jeff Van Drew-esque. He’s worked very hard to create his own connectivity. That team – they are and will be known as the Jeff Van Drew team. Matt Milam, it’s like going back to the future with him. He was in the assembly, he stepped out to run the family business. They sold the business and now he’s coming back in retirement. Bruce Land has strong ties to the veterans community. We’re very confident those candidates will win. In LD2, Vince Mazzeo is one of the most popular politicians in the state. He’s everybody’s neighbor. John Armato is active in fighting the opioid crisis. We’re going to be actively involved. We picked really good candidates in the 8th District. I’m always excited when I see one of our staffers [Gina LaPlaca] come back and run. We show our commitment to diversity again, as we look to add to the highest number of women we’ve ever in the assembly. These are young candidates [LaPlaca and Mark Natale] who are growing families and buying homes and paying property taxes. Their experience makes them really good candidates.

INJ: What about 11 and 16?

LG: Those are our competitive districts. The incumbents are all still relatively new but to me, 11 is progressing nicely to the position where Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson were a few years ago. They’ve created such a reputation; and 16 is not far away from that. Andrew [Zwicker] is the poster child for progressives Roy [Freiman] is one of the hardest working people in our caucus. He comes to us with public policy and thinks things through.

INJ: Senator Ronald Rice says the level of boss control in the legislature is more than he’s ever seen, yet you celebrate the various qualities of different people you say have room to breathe.

LG: Senator Rice is anti-establishment. How many years has he been in office? And his son was on council in Newark. Look, I celebrate our success. I cant speak for Ron but if you’ve been in office for 30-some years you’re part of the establishment. Welcome to the club. We fought for gun violence bills the governor signed in his first 90 days. We fought for women’s health and got $7 million back in the budget. Organizational structure brings success. To get that done, to have an honest conversation about true tax reform in the state, when I watch Jamel Holley step up and be a leader and inspire me on a social justice issue, talents have had an opportunity to shine. That’s because of the structure in the party we created. I reflect on the pride of Craig and myself when we asked Eliana to chair the budget committee. That only happens if you get to 41. I was in the minority. I’d rather be where we are today.

INJ: What’s the difference between the Christie and Murphy eras?

LG: It’s eight years of accomplishments versus 15 months, and that’s not fair. People forget. I think I was one of Governor Christie’s great antagonists out there but I had a choice. I could bemoan that he was governor or spend eight years trying to move my agenda forward. There were things I couldn’t get him to agree with, which was his right. But I think Nancy Pelosi is doing a remarkable job as speaker. It’s because just as she instructs, I don’t get to work with the people I like in this business. In a democracy, someone else chooses who I work with. But someone choose me, and they have to work with me, too. With Christie you could line up ten issues and we could disagree on all ten but we never gave up on trying to find the 11th. With Murphy, I don’t think it’s as bad as people make it out to be. It’s not as broken as people wwant to make it out to be.

INJ: Would you support him if he runs again?

LG: Yes, I would.

INJ: Barring a tremendous derailment.

LG: Yes, I do. Only he can decide if he wants to do this again. He’s new to government. Is he enjoying himself? I love doing this. Yesterday this little girl at the designation of cancer institute spoke about how she was cured at Rutgers. I played a small part in that. When I see the gratitude of families at Sandy Hook, when they convey to me that they know somebody’s listening to them, I love that. To your point about people believing that government is not working for them; to those people, there’s someone getting it, and that’s gratifying.

INJ: What do you say to a young person with a yearning for public service who doubts the toxic atmosphere?

LG: It’s not as bad as people make it out to be. It’s not as bad as what you see on TV. Start by being an advocate. Like my daughter. Make a change. And if you dipped your toe in, go up to your knees. If you get a little braver and you want to start swimming, we’ve got a place for you. This isn’t for everybody. There’s been a lot of turnover through the years. There are only 14 members left from 15 years ago.

INJ: You’ve routinely spoken of your admiration for Governor Jim Florio. Any other governors impress you?

LG: I actually have fond memories of the governors. Brendan Byrne had one of the greatest senses of humor. On the invitation of Steve Adubato, I had an opportunity to roast Governor Byrne at his 9oth birthday. He had a tremendous wit. I’m very proud of [Governor Christie Todd] Whitman and the way she stood up to Trump. I’m proud of the accomplishments we got done with Jim McGreevey. We started the conversation around marriage equality then. We signed legislation I crafted on auto insurance and he was one of my biggest supporters on cancer research. Jon Corzine gave me great latitude on the budget. I disagreed with Christie on nearly everything, but we would not have had the success we had in Camden without that partnership. Our wish is to replicate Camden and bring it to Trenton tomorrow and then to Paterson.

INJ: Your favorite president?

LG: Is Lincoln. Pick up his speeches. You can close your eyes and be transfixed into the room. His written word conveys his presence. When I think of a leader who did not concern himself with being popular, I think of President Lincoln. People want to vote for people who solve problems and that takes courage. That’s him. I just have tremendous admiration for him. I have a book in my office at home on Lincoln and book of letters between Adams and Jefferson. They fought about the same things we fight about, and the same level of sarcasm expresses an underlying friendship. Deep down in politics, there are friendships developed with people whom you wouldn’t otherwise see yourself aligned.

 

 

 

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