Can one person still make a difference? You bet. Consider Thomas H. Kean and New Jersey, for example. When Kean was first elected governor eight years ago, New Jersey was one of the nation's most maligned states, and perhaps with some reason. Always overshadowed by neighboring New York and Pennsylvania, the Garden State was viewed as anything but garden-like. It was a place known mostly for political corruption, urban decay, toxic dumps and such tourist highlights as the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike, named for famed New Jersey natives like Clara Barton and Grover Cleveland. The state did not even have its own VHF television station.
One man cannot take credit for all of New Jersey's impressive economic, social and cultural renaissance. Some of the work was begun by Kean's predecessor, Brendan Byrne. But New Jersey has come into full bloom in the past eight years and much of the image change can be credited to the energy of the governor's office.
The 54-year-old Republican has mixed free market economic policies with moderate to liberal social positions on subjects that include the environment and public education to be an effective and popular leader. His appeal attracted considerable numbers of black votes, and he has given the Republican Party real status in New Jersey. It's been a long time since we heard New Jerseyites apologize when they explain where they are from.
The Almanac of American Politics says Kean has been New Jersey's most popular governor since his ancestor William Livingston was elected in 1776. But New Jersey is one of the few states that limits governors to two terms. Kean could not run for reelection if he wanted to, and aides claim he didn't want to anyway. Nor has he considered challenging the popular Bill Bradley, the Democratic U.S. senator whose seat is up in 1990. Kean will be succeeded by the winner of the Nov. 7 election, either Democratic Rep. James J. Florio or Republican Rep. Jim Courter.
When he leaves his Trenton office next Jan. 16, Kean will become president of Drew University, a small liberal arts institution in Madison, N.J. And don't be surprised to be hearing from Drew University in the future.