The 7th District in Burlington County is an area with split partisan representation where Republicans hope to cut into the Democrats' hold on Assembly seats and the incumbents are fighting just as hard to try to stay in power.
Because it is one of the four districts considered truly competitive this year, the race continues to attract attention. That's even without well-known veteran Jack Conners, a 13-year assemblyman and the deputy speaker, who stepped down after his home town, Pennsauken, was moved from the district.
Similarly, long-time Assemblyman Joseph Malone, a Republican currently representing the neighboring 30th District, also decided to retire after his hometown of Bordentown was moved into the 7th. So new Republicans have entered the fray: Moorestown businessman Christopher Halgas and Mt. Laurel Mayor James Keenan.
Democratic Assemblyman Herb Conaway is a seven-term incumbent, but one who supported the pension and benefits cuts for state employees pushed through by Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney. In contrast, his running mate Troy Singleton, newly appointed to replace Conners, is an official in the carpenters' union.
Republicans enjoy a substantial advantage in name recognition at the top of the ticket, where state Sen. Diane Allen, a former Philadelphia newscaster and 13-year incumbent, faces a challenge from Democrat Gail Cook, the mayor of Beverly.
Events seem to be breaking Allen's way even beyond the district. On October 19, a Superior Court judge ruled that the state constitution exempts the judiciary from the increased pension and benefit contributions imposed on other state employees. That ruling may well hold up on constitutional grounds, but it has it angered Christie and many others in Trenton. Allen announced that she would sponsor an amendment to "clarify" the constitutional definition of judicial salaries. She said she normally "hates" opening up the constitution for tinkering, but strongly believes employees of all three branches of state government should be treated the same during a time of cutbacks.
"For the judiciary to claim that it should be treated differently during this time of economic crisis, I just can't believe that's what most judges want to do," Allen said. "Clearly, we're all in this together and everyone should share in the sacrifices."
The case generated a flurry of what may be superfluous publicity for Allen, who has had time to lend her presence to other campaigns.
"I'm not feeling quite as much heat this year," she acknowledged.
To some extent, the issue may diminish resentment among public employees about the benefits cuts, Allen said.
"From what I'm hearing when I knock on doors, most people agree that we absolutely needed to change" pension and benefit plans, Allen said. But she suggested doing even more: for instance, eliminating the ability to stockpile some benefits to prevent workers from "retiring with $200,000 or $300,000 in unused sick leave."
Allen acknowledged teachers and other public workers may have legitimate gripes about the heated atmosphere surrounding the pension and benefit reductions. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, Allen said she supports giving teachers the resources to do their jobs.
"I don't believe in taking money away from the public schools through vouchers, funding private scholarships and such," she said.
Cook, a former teacher, found common ground with Allen on education and other issues while responding to questions from the League of Women Voters.
"At this time I don't believe we should be diverting critical state resources to private and charter schools but rather focusing on improving our underperforming public school districts," Cook said.
The two also favor funding for women's health services, including family planning. Some Republicans find that unpalatable, and cuts in state aid to women's health centers have become an issue in other districts. But all the Assembly candidates on both slates also endorse the spending.
Almost all the candidates also agree that the state should ban hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which involves injecting liquids at high pressure deep into the ground to free natural gas. The holdout is Halgas, who believes the process should be closely monitored, but not barred.
Where differences arise among the candidates, they often are subtle, revolving around the best way for New Jersey to escape the economic doldrums plaguing the nation.
Allen and Conaway are both among legislators named "taxpayer champions" by a business and industry group. Conaway's score was lower because he favors restoring a higher marginal rate for upper-income residents, the so-called "millionaires tax."
Cook sees state aid as an important way to keep property taxes in check.
"As the Mayor of a small town I often learn to do more with less for my residents, but we cannot allow significant budget cuts to be balanced on the backs of seniors and middle class families," Cook told the LWV. "As we repair our economy we must make it a priority to return to appropriate levels of state aid to reduce property taxes."
Keenan said desperate times demand sacrifices.
"I'll always have to look for efficiencies" in Mount Laurel, Keenan said. He pointed to money saving steps such as $1.5 million in police concessions, including longer shifts. Employees need to understand that in current conditions, belt-tightening is necessary to preserve jobs, he said. But he does not blame workers for the hard times.
At the state level, governors and legislators of both parties -- including Conaway -- allowed problems to fester for years even as budgets underfunded the pension system, according to Keenan.
"He's been part of the system" that led to the need for Christie to make bold cuts, Keenan said of Conaway.
The governor and legislature should look harder for savings in state operations through efficiencies, not by axing important programs or cutting aid to towns and school districts, Keenan said.
"I don't want to make government smaller," he said. "I want to make it cost less."
In Singleton's view, fair treatment for middle-class and working people, including public employees, remains an important principle, especially in a time of economic uncertainty.
"We've got to balance two very real issues," he said. "Everyone is concerned about high property taxes and the affordability of our state coupled with the economic uncertainty."
At the same time, Singleton said, "draconian cuts" make economic conditions worse. The state should help small businesses, "who are the ones who really are the job creators," and spur employment through construction programs, he added.
"One of the things we ought to do is make an investment in our infrastructure," said Singleton, who serves on the Burlington County Bridge Commission.
He cited a recent national report that found numerous New Jersey bridges in poor condition. Ignoring them will lead to larger problems, while fixing them is a way to get people back to work, he said.
The high-profile races have pulled in stacks of money. Unusually for a first-time candidate, Singleton has proven to be the top money raiser so far, based on state Election Law Enforcement Commission figures. His October 11 report shows $362,569 in total receipts as of a month before the primary in his personal committee, not including $175,884 in receipts for the joint Cook, Conaway & Singleton committee. That's a tribute to his union ties, and his past work as an aide to Conaway and Conners, as well as former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts.
But in a generally above-board campaign, Singleton is upset by a Republican ad showing dollars raining on him from the sky and implying they are from state pensions. He was among legislative aides highlighted in a news report several years ago on workers with part-time jobs that help them qualify for pensions. But he dropped out of the system shortly thereafter, prior to vesting in the pension system, citing a family situation.
"I don't have a state pension, I'm not entitled to one and I won't be collecting one," Singleton said.
Halgas, a Moorestown businessman, chided Singleton for his unwillingness to change the pension system, even for judges, saying, "He opposed the reforms in the first place . . . if left up to Singleton, judges will continue to live better than everyone else off the public dime."
"We need to make New Jersey a more affordable and competitive place for businesses," he told the League of Women Voters, saying that that means reducing "the comparatively high tax rates that send employers and employees alike packing for other states."
That requires more fiscal discipline in Trenton, and a willingness by the legislature to provide towns with the tools to be flexible, said Halgas, who years ago worked on Allen's first campaign.
"We need to give local elected officials more power to reduce costs, share services, build smaller and more efficient workforces, and otherwise make government more affordable in order to reduce property tax bills instead of just mitigating them with rebates and levy caps," Halgas said.