Virginia, New Jersey governors races tell tale of two populisms

Virginia, New Jersey governors races tell tale of two populisms
© Greg Nash

The governors races in Virginia and New Jersey took an ugly turn this month. Republican candidates Ed Gillespie and Kim Guadagno each took a page from the Donald Trump playbook with racially charged ads accusing their Democratic opponents of aligning with violent immigrant gang members. To judge from the country’s two highest-profile contests this year, the Republican Party is betting the farm on the racially divisive tactics that helped usher Trump into power last year.

But they’re not taking all of Trump’s plays. Tellingly absent from either the Gillespie or Guadagno campaigns is any of the “rigged economy” rhetoric Trump used to build support among working class voters, much less any concrete solutions to make our out-of-whack economy work for working families.

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That’s a sharp contrast with the Democratic candidates for governor. Physician Ralph Northam in Virginia and former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy in New Jersey have denounced the nativism and racially charged fervor of their opponents, instead staking their bids on surprisingly bold platforms of economic populism aimed at balancing the scales of the economy and helping families eke out a middle class existence.

Take paychecks. Both Northam and Murphy have embraced the fight for $15 movement and called for gradually raising the out-of-date minimum wages in their states. Many other high cost of living states have higher minimum wages, and every year Virginia and New Jersey taxpayers shell out billions of dollars in public assistance for low-wage workers, many of whom work at profitable companies like McDonald’s or Walmart. Murphy and Northam’s calls to gradually phase New Jersey and Virginia’s wages up to $15 an hour would raise pay for about one in three workers in the two states.

Gillespie opposes Northam’s call to raise Virginia’s minimum wage, despite the fact that he used to argue that states, not Congress, should handle the minimum wage. Guadagno similarly opposes Murphy’s proposed wage increase and backed Christie’s veto of a $15 minimum wage last year.  It’s the same story on paid time off for working families. A shocking 40 percent of U.S. workers, and most low-wage workers, are not provided any paid sick days by their employers. A stunning 87 percent have no paid weeks off when they have a baby or when serious illness prevents them from working.

Fortunately, growing numbers of states across the country now allow workers to earn paid sick days, and guarantee them up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for childbirth or serious illness. In Virginia, Northam has called for Virginia to join the paid leave states, while Gillespie has been silent. In New Jersey, which has already adopted paid family leave, Murphy has called for guaranteeing earned paid sick days, while Guadagno opposes it.

On healthcare, Gillespie has fought the Affordable Care Act for years, and been conspicuously silent on President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE and the Republican Congress’s ongoing attempts to roll back health care coverage for hundreds of thousands and cut Virginia’s Medicaid funding. Northam, by contrast, has strongly opposed TrumpCare and backed Governor Terry McAuliffe’s attempts to overcome opposition by the Republican legislature and expand Medicaid for working families, as states like West Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio have done.

As they vow to fight any action to improve pay or benefits for workers in their states, Gillespie and Guadagno are instead calling for tax cuts, arguing that they will spur corporations to create jobs and improve pay. That’s the same trickle-down economic package that the Republican Congress is pitching, and that deep red Kansas tested with disastrous results, leading its Republican legislature to roll it back.

The contests in New Jersey and Virginia are fundamentally a test of two populisms. Gillespie and Guadagno’s campaigns will reveal whether Trump-style immigrant bashing and scaremongering campaigns can work, even if they’re divorced from any of Trump’s nods toward populist economics. Meanwhile, if voters reward Northam and Murphy for standing up against hate and instead offering a strong progressive economic agenda, they provide a roadmap for fighting back and fighting forward in the Trump era.

Paul Sonn is director of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.