Why Is New Jersey the Nation's Problem?

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's been seven years since I've called New Jersey home and six years since I paid it any tax money. It's been nearly two years since I lived within 2,800 miles of that state.

So why does it still dominate headlines, feature prominently on the sports page and dot the television listings?

What have I done so wrong that I have to be subjected to a live feed of Gov. Chris Christie's State of the State address about lane closures on the George Washington Bridge -- which I haven't had to cross in roughly half a decade -- on an Oregon network affiliate? What did I ever say to a columnist from the Oregonian to make him turn Christie, the Super Bowl and a stadium 10 minutes from my parents' house into a clumsy metaphor for this state's own governor?

Why has the transformation of Carlo's City Hall bakery in Hoboken from tiny neighborhood shop to camera-crowded den of TLC's Cake Boss extended into a sixth season?

I should know better than to ask these idiot questions about my former home state. New Jersey is a loudmouthed mess that gets really irate when it's ignored for too long. Allegations that Christie had his aides prod connections at the New York/New Jersey Port Authority into closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge and backing up traffic as a rebuke to the mayor of Fort Lee -- also known as that cluster of high rises surrounding the bridge's New Jersey side -- are damning, but mostly to Christie's New Jersey constituents and the New York commuters (as NBC's Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen illustrated in song).

As former Lawrenceville, N.J., kid and Daily Show host Jon Stewart noted about a week ago, this scandal that Christie's denied direct involvement in would be lucky to crack New Jersey's Top 10 political scandals of all time. Keep in mind, the state is only five years removed from Operation Bid Rig that not only resulted in more than a half dozen of the state's sitting mayors being arrested for corruption, but in a group of Orthodox rabbis being arrested, charged and sentenced for organ trafficking.

Even that's pretty low-stakes poker for the portions of New Jersey that produced many of those arrested -- Hudson and Bergen counties, surrounding the site of the upcoming Super Bowl. Former Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, whose political machine held the area in his grip for roughly 40 years, used to have a desk in his office with a two-way drawer just for accepting bribes. The Roosevelt administration gave him funding for a medical center in return for Hague's help getting him elected. Long before Judge Dredd uttered "I am the law" in comic books, Hague did so to his opponents. Seem familiar?

It's an area where voting ballots have a habit of vanishing, where mayoral candidates are dumped out of office for bank fraud and where photos of nude, drunken, sitting city leaders make the rounds. But Christie matters in ways that those guys just didn't.

As a re-elected Republican in a largely Democratic state and the public face of New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Christie has presidential aspirations that his infamous Jersey politico predecessors never did. While Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton is still far more favored by the polls than Republican hopefuls including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, polls conducted by Qunnipiac, CNN and PPP all give Christie a slight advantage over the former Secretary of State.

That's why national networks aired portions of Christie's State of the State address. That's why national outlets are following "BridgeGate" as if Christie had suspended domestic air travel. Since Superstorm Sandy, Christie has been a national figure and someone U.S. citizens are going to want a close look at if he decides to seek the presidency in 2016.

That's the key difference between all of the examples above and New Jersey's longstanding place as the butt of the nation's jokes. It isn't the unfortunate target of all of this recent attention: It actively seeks that spotlight. Though the idea of a Super Bowl in the New York metro area originally surfaced after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and was initially tied to Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 before the New York Jets' plans for a stadium in New York City fell through, Christie and the state pushed for hosting duties. That idea gained momentum in 2010 as the New York Giants and Jets prepared to open their new MetLife Stadium near the old Giants Stadium site in East Rutherford, N.J.

Grouse about the cold-weather Super Bowl if you'd like, but New Jersey and New York's Super Bowl host committee built a snowflake right into its logo as a point of pride. New Jerseyans may grouse about the infrastructure work for the event that backed up the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 3, but the state seems pretty excited about the slate of events it's hosting leading up to the game -- including a weekend festival in a Hoboken park with a sweet view of the Manhattan skyline. The Garden State may not enjoy how game ridership will tie up mass transit, but it not so secretly loves that its PATH trains, Hudson-Bergen light rail, Newark light rail and NJTransit commuter rail finally received equal billing with New York's subway system on a regional transit map.

New Jersey is humblebragging its way through these latest brushes with notoriety if only because they offer a rare opportunity to control the message. The Super Bowl and even Christie -- for better or worse -- are matters of national import that New Jerseyans had a say in and had a means of either benefitting from or directly influencing. The same can't be said for the state's somewhat unflattering roles in HBO's The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire, which cast it as a fertile ground for mob activity, violence and corruption. New Jersey also didn't get much of a voice in Bravo's The Real Housewives of New Jersey or MTV's Jersey Shore, which turned the state into a backdrop for loudmouthed, anger-prone, hyper-aggressive social outliers and made it look like a booze-and-rage-filled playpen for the overtanned nouveau riche.

None of that is necessarily wrong, mind you. For a small state, New Jersey produces more than its share of outsized personalities from its densely packed environs. While it's the state of Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman and Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao, it was also the state of the Oxygen Network's Jersey Couture, the now-defunct Style network's Jerseylicious and, yes, The Cake Boss. When Hoboken indie rock club Maxwell's closed last year, club co-owner Todd Abramson lamented to The Star-Ledger that The Cake Boss, JWoww, Snooki and various cast members of The Real Housewives of New Jersey have turned the town's nightlife into a sea of LED screens and cheap cocktails. In short, it lost control of the message:

"The culture in Hoboken is driven by TV now," Abramson continued. "A lot of the bars downtown are fighting with each other for who has the most giant TVs. That's what Hoboken nightlife has become."

The rest of the nation, meanwhile, is starting to tune all of it out. Of that slew of aforementioned Jersey-based reality television shows only Cake Boss and Housewives remain. Each is losing traction, ratings and the coveted 18 to 49 demographic -- with recent airing of Cake Boss dipping below 1 million viewers, more than half of whom are 50 or older. With U.S. viewers shifting their gaze to Louisiana and a family of duck-call makers, New Jersey is slowly sliding out of reality television's picture.

That makes the present day Peak Jersey. By Feb. 4, the Super Bowl will have cleared out of town with a massive hangover and an ill-advised late-night hot dog run to Rutt's Hutt still rumbling in its belly. By March, Season 6 of Cake Boss will be wrapped up -- though Carlo's baker Buddy Valastro's spinoff shows Bakery Boss and Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker will muddle on. The Olympics, midterm election coverage or some other distraction will inevitably kick Christie and "BridgeGate" out of the headlines.

In the meantime, we as a nation are stuck with Jersey. For a state that's spent much of its modern existence advising the rest of the nation to fugheddaboudit, the Garden State is making it painfully difficult to do so.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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