A musical made in the 1970s, The Wiz, with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Nipsey Russell, among others, ultimately attained cult-like status; while when it comes to New Jersey politics, “Wiz “with the passage of time has taken on greater significance as a rather dignified and more than intellectually competent semi-elder suburban statesman – with a real record behind him.
In the end, and maybe despite appearances to the contrary, a tremendous – or even mild – gap does not exist between the two, for if former Assemblyman John “Wiz” Wisniewski never actively sought a surrealistic, Flying Monkey-besieged path in public life, it kind of ended up that way, as the sedate Sayrevillian found an especially adventurous “Ease on Down the Road” existence.
What other chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee became the state director of the Bernie Sanders Campaign; who else went from machine party leader to progressive darling in quite the same way; or actually wrought significant public good from a chairmanship in Trenton (imagine that!) with his uncovering of the Bridgegate scandal, much to the horror and chagrin of many of his fellow Trenton leaders?
Maybe in a place like Vermont (think of all the times Vermont becomes that go-to example for the opposite of New Jersey, but maybe it works in this case, in part because of the Sanders connection), Wisniewski’s expert prosecution of the George Washington Bridge fiasco would have translated into instantaneous gubernatorial frontrunner status. Leaving aside for a moment the unlikelihood of Vermont ever producing Bridgegate, New Jersey’s political establishment regarded Wisniewski’s public interest heroics scornfully – and consigned him to political Siberia.
He took a crack at governor in 2017, hoping to galvanize that nascent AOC crowd he had cozied up to during the 2016 Sanders presidential run, but Phil Murphy had too much money and the backing of all 21 counties in the Democratic Primary, in addition to a virtually nonexistent public profile, which enabled him to materialize – like a Star Trek character summoned from another world – as a perfectly beamed up progressive, thereby nearly totally deoxygenating Wiz’s candidacy.
In the end, Wisniewski – the party politician trained at the knee of his late father, a local Democratic chairman – who would go on to have a significant career here, by all accounts one of the most vocal and substantively argumentative members of the Democratic caucus, retains an unusual (for New Jersey politics) commitment to ideas – and to ideals.
In a local diner in downtown Sayreville at the edge of summer, the retired assemblyman with a policy nerd’s precision and sense of delight in the context and complexity of issues, and a voracious appetite to help solve them, sized up the landscape of New Jersey challenges, starting with the gas tax that lawmakers will have to reassess and now in brutally bad five dollar-a-gallon political weather.
“During the [Jon] Corzine years I had always advocated raising the gas tax to stabilize the state Transportation Trust Fund. If he raised the gas tax and managed the money correctly [the money would be there for the TTF]. Joe Roberts was speaker at time and I had a good relationship with Joe. He told me, ‘We’re not going to raise the gas tax.’ He wanted another plan, which hinged on refinancing existing debt, and he told me, ‘We need your support on this.’ This is an example of one of those occasions when you have to make these compromises. So I remember, the bill was on the board list, and as with all thorny bills, the sponsor of the bill went up to the podium to defend the bill.”
Wisniewski met a general consensus in the room: “I don’t get this. We should be raising the gas tax. John, we should be raising the gas tax.”
The former assemblyman laughed at the memory.
“I looked in the back of the room and there was Joe Roberts looking at me with a smirk on his face,” Wisniewski said. “It encapsulates the give and take, perhaps best epitomized by that time an assemblyman [the late David Friedland] railed against a bill that moments later, after someone spoke to him, he publicly vociferously supported. The bill I sponsored became law, and I had to explain why we didn’t raise the gas tax, which I had wanted us to do.”
That worked for a short while, but ultimately, with money in the TTF running out, Governor Chris Christie did secure a gas tax hike of 22.6 cents, which would help fund the TTF for eight years.
“When money from the gas tax was no longer sufficient to issue new debt, what the Christie Administration did was use sales tax money to keep the TTF going, but that money was going to run out and there was the potential for things to shut down; they needed to do something,” Wisniewski recalled. “He was looking down the road and he decided, ‘I’ll be a statesman.’ But the problem is it had an ending. The program ends with a budget the State of New Jersey will adopt in the next fiscal year, and that’s always the problem. We never truly solve it. We kick the can down the road. I proposed a 25 cent increase you would not need to come back to; a self-sustaining TTF intended by Governor [Tom] Kean.”
Lawmakers will get the funding – but, Wisniewski laments – not in a way that solves the structural issue.
“It will be one of those things, virtually invisible, set by a formula, which dedicates almost all of the money generated by gas tax [to the TTF] so that in the short run they can address that gap, but in the long run, all this money is going to pay new debt.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his own run for governor and routine operations at the highest echelons of government and party politics (he is a former Democratic State Party Chairman), Wisniewski says we need an injection of an ever elusive societal quality. “Leadership,” he said, acutely necessary, he argues, as New Jersey founders under overpopulation, overdevelopment, and over-reliance on the automobile, amid politicians’ mumbling about climate change while handcuffed to the very procedures of land-use speeding environmental apocalypse.
“One of the issues that confronts modern politics and modern politicians is how to try to get people to go in a direction that they’re not instinctively inclined to go,” Wisniewski said. “We are very small at eight million square miles, with highly developed areas, and unless you have a robust transit system [we will continue to head down the road of dysfunction, and worse]. We spend money on roads, and not mass transit. We need leadership that makes the case for why mass transit is a better alternative for people to use when they drive into the city. We have a bottle neck because Christie delayed [the Gateway Tunnel] for a decade. We have commuters daily coming across our state from Pennsylvania to New York City. They go on route 80 and 78 and they add to the congestion. That corridor can be serviced by mass transit. If you look [at the Raritan Valley line], High Bridge, for example, receives two trains a day, and if you’re working late, or your plans change, you can’t get home, and that’s why people choose the car.”
That has to change.
As for Gateway – “I’m hopeful, but always mindful of the ribbon cutting and the announcement of the first train in ten minutes that gets derailed by our political system.” The bottom line, Wisniewski said, is “We need to push to get more and more people to use mass transit.”
In the throes of another Trenton budget season, “I’m concerned about the ANCHOR proposal,” Wisniewski said. “I’m for tax relief, but providing rebates on property taxes is like giving people Tylenol because they have a backache. They’ll better at the moment but you’re not addressing the structural problems. As I see it, you’re providing people with a 7% reduction in year one on average, assuming you can keep money the flatlined. It’s a good plan but subject to change, and it breeds the cynicism of something done in an Election Year. The money we have today is the confluence of unique circumstances, including unusually high tax collections, and that will change. That will go down at some point in time, and we need to be planning for that as opposed to be making massive pronouncements for tax relief. Why aren’t we structurally changing to deal with the overlap of government?
“Everybody wants to have their little political fiefdom, but we are the highest property taxed state in the nation,” he added. “Our proclivity is to let election cycles dictate. ‘We’ll talk about it next year.’ The problem is almost impossible to deal with because of the cycle. Also, of course, there’s too much money in politics, and I say that as one who was able to raise $2 million, who faced someone in a primary who could write his own check for $22 million. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has equated money with free speech and you can’t limit the money someone spends. That’s going to create an American oligarchy.”
If it hasn’t already.
“We need to address it, as we need to address the misreading of the Second Amendment,” Wisniewski said. “People are misinterpreting it, the same way they might infer that because, for example, coffee in this diner is free, all coffee is free. The Second Amendment refers to ‘a well-regulated militia,’ and, ironically, as Justice Berger pointed out, that is the context of everything that follows. It is all about a well-regulated militia. The debate has been hijacked by the lowest common denominator. In a functioning democratic society, we all have freedoms and responsibilities and there’s a balance between the two. If everybody has unfettered freedom, that’s anarchy.”
Will he run for governor again?
“Everybody who has ever run for office is never fully cured of that affliction,” Wisniewski said. “I was just down in the Statehouse yesterday and the conversation came up. Someone said, ‘Do you miss being in the Assembly?’ The truth is, right now, I’m so busy with my law practice, I have no idea how I would fit that in, but I’m still interested in being involved publicly. I enjoy being involved. That’s not going to go away – the possibility of being involved in something.”
He picked a cellphone off the table.
“These things have changed us,” he said.
They have dumbed down our dialogues into soundbites and emojis.
“You can’t consider – not profoundly – the issues we have talked about – issues like transportation and municipal consolidation and schools and guns – via text and twitter,” Wisniewski said. “Those are long conversations, and as a nation we have become seduced by the possibility that things can be solved with a silver bullet. That’s not reality. These things require thought, analysis and hard decisions. I think the public sees a group in Trenton and concludes, ‘When they don’t figure it out, we’ll hold them accountable.’ But this is not a spectator sport. Life has become so complicated. My fear is the two parents coming home exhausted from their jobs or the single parent with two jobs, deprived of that time to be vitally a part of public discussion. With people cut out, it’s just elected folks who suss out what they might want.
“We need to find a way to get our public space back,” Wisniewski said. “My father was the Democratic Party chair in this town, and a councilman, and I can remember going to political events as a kid. They were vital and exciting and a forum for issues and ideas and more. People felt let down if they didn’t get an invitation. But it’s hard now to get involved because we don’t have that forum for people discussing ideas. Our democracy is the poorer for it, for these are the things in which people need to be involved.”
Whether we can reclaim that space and enliven and animate a political system our country’s founders bequeathed with warnings about the consequences of sustained neglect, and whether, mystically, the Yellow Brick Road even exists anymore, Wisniewski, or Wiz, hasn’t stopped trying to find a way, even now on the outside of elected office, if not to Oz, at least to that place sometimes glimpsed amid the fog and backed up fenders from hell otherwise known as New Jersey.