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USA UK and Malta News
08/11/2007 - 23:31

EditoWeb USA NeWs: New Jersey Democrats Grapple With Rebuke of Stem Cell Initiative


TRENTON, Stung and puzzled by the defeat of a ballot initiative to borrow $450 million for stem cell research, leading Democrats in New Jersey struggled on Wednesday to explain why they were repudiated by voters and how they planned to finance the biomedical research for a center already under construction.

Until Tuesday evening, state officials had said they were confident that the measure — intended to catapult New Jersey to the forefront of an intense race with other states to lead the way in stem cell research — would easily pass. Recent polls indicated voters were solidly in favor of the initiative, and Gov. Jon S. Corzine had even contributed $150,000 of his own money to it.

But instead, the measure was decisively defeated, 53 percent to 47 percent. Even Middlesex County, a staunchly Democratic area where ground was recently broken for the 18-story Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, rejected the initiative.

On Wednesday, Mr. Corzine, Senate President Richard J. Codey and other supporters of stem cell research said they had little choice but to ask the state’s pharmaceutical companies to help finance the effort and then try to squeeze money from a budget that is already facing a $3 billion shortfall.

“I do have concerns that the delay may very well limit us in a competitive world," Mr. Corzine said at a State House news conference.

He said he still believed that most residents supported the concept of stem cell research despite the objections of anti-abortion groups and the Roman Catholic Church. And he did not rule out putting the measure back on the ballot at some point, although Mr. Codey later told reporters that would not happen next year.

Democrats said the rejection of the stem cell measure taught them a broader lesson: that voters are frustrated by the bleak fiscal landscape in a state saddled with $30 billion in debt, and they do not trust Trenton to fix the problem.

“They’ve told us to resolve our alarming and pressing financial problems,” Mr. Corzine said.

Yet voters approved borrowing $200 million to preserve open space. Explaining the seemingly mixed message, former Gov. Brendan T. Byrne said that the $450 million sought for stem cell research was “an intimidating figure,” but that the money for open space was approved because New Jersey has always been environmentally aware.

From a numerical standpoint, Democrats did not have a terrible night on Tuesday. Buoyed by a fund-raising advantage of three to one, they added a seat to their majority in the Senate, and now have a 23-to-17 edge; they lost two seats in the Assembly, and now have a 48-to-32 advantage.

Still, another ballot measure showed just how disgruntled many voters were — or at least the estimated 30 percent of registered voters who bothered to cast their ballots. (According to the attorney general’s office, until this year the lowest turnout had been 31 percent, in 1991.)

They rejected a proposal that would have funneled money from last year’s sales tax increase to property tax rebates, something critics of the plan had dismissed as an election-year gimmick.

“I think the voters cut up the credit card,” said Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “They said, ‘We’re not going to let you borrow any more money until you can pay our bills.’”

Proponents of stem cell research view it as an opportunity to develop cures for diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s. But opponents call it an unproven pseudoscience that requires the destruction of human embryos and opens the door to human cloning.

Several Catholic churches in the state circulated fliers during Sunday services expressing qualms about the initiative.

“Certainly a number of people in the state heard our message about ethical stem cell research, and were moved,” said James G. Goodman, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark. “But there certainly were many financial reasons in people’s minds as well.”

One television commercial produced by New Jersey Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, said: “Research has not produced one cure. Not one. Question 2 is about taking your tax dollars for something that Wall Street and the drug companies will not invest in. Think about it.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Corzine — who made embryonic stem cell research a major issue in his 2005 campaign for governor — blamed himself and other supporters of the measure for not doing a good enough job educating the public about the potential economic benefits. He also said the campaign could have done a better job clarifying that the $450 million was to be borrowed over 10 years, rather than all at once.

“Twenty-twenty hindsight is always better,” he said. “It obviously needed an additional boost to get voters out that would identify with this issue. But that’s easy to say the morning after.”

How the defeat of the initiative will affect the research complex going up in New Brunswick was unclear. While the state had already committed $270 million for construction costs for that building as well as others around the state, Ronald S. Heymann, vice president of New Jersey Citizens’ Coalition for Cures, which advocates stem cell research, said that if the money did not materialize, the building “shouldn’t be sitting there empty.”

Mr. Heymann and others expressed concern that any delays in securing research grants could drive scientists elsewhere.

“Every time the resource is denied to this research it’s tragic,” said Robert N. Klein, the chairman of a board overseeing a $3 billion stem cell program in California. “For California to carry the leadership for a great part of the nation alone is a monumental task.”

But for many New Jersey voters, there are more pressing issues.

Beth Sarsfield, a 49-year-old chemist who works in New Brunswick, said that although she had voted for the stem cell measure, she was not upset that it had been rejected. “I didn’t think it was going to be totally effective,” she said.

Ms. Sarsfield said that her mother — like her, a loyal Democrat — had voted against the measure.

“I think there are a lot of people who think there’s a lot of debt in New Jersey,” Ms. Sarsfield said. “From people in my family, they did not feel it was going to be sufficiently funded and that it would be ineffective — it was going to be a waste with debt.”

Asked if her mother had struggled in making her decision, Ms. Sarsfield answered quickly, with a word that was reverberating around the state: “No.”

Jonathan Miller and Andrew Pollack contributed reporting.


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