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Senate Race: Legislative District 37

The Port Authority toll hikes are getting almost as much attention as the economy and property taxes in the race for three legislative seats representing the 37th District. That's because only the Hudon River separates New York City from this Bergen County District, home to the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge.

But while most of the seven candidates for seats in both houses abhor the toll increases that will bring the maximum cost to cross the river to $17 in 2014, their positions on the economy and education are varied enough to give voters a clear choice at the polls next month.

That is especially true in the Senate race, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Loretta Weinberg faces a challenge from Republican Robert Lebovics.

The district has traditionally voted Democratic. The state GOP thinks that pattern will continue and has offered little help to its candidates here. But the GOP challengers are hoping that the wave that brought Republicans control of the Bergen County freeholder board and other county seats will continue and help them upset the incumbents.

"This is an uphill battle, but the polling shows we are gaining," Lebovics said. "I have a funny feeling this is going to be the biggest upset of the year."

To carry that off, the Republicans would have to overcome the Democrats' tremendous voter registration advantage. Democrats in the newly constituted 37th outnumber Republicans by more than 3 to 1. In 2007, the last time Weinberg was on the ballot, the Democrats won by more than 2-to-1 margins.

Weinberg said the GOP county sweep resulted from Democratic in-fighting. The party has mended fences and that should not be a factor this year.

Still, said Weinberg, "Are we taking anything for granted? Absolutely not."

Redistricting could tighten up the results a little. Last spring, a state commission swapped four Democratic-leaning municipalities -- Bergenfield, Maywood, Ridgefield Park, and Rochelle Park -- for Fort Lee, which tends to vote Democratic, and Republican-leaning Alpine, Cresskill, Northvale and Rockleigh. Teaneck, Hackensack, Englewood, and Fort Lee are the largest communities in the 37th.

Weinberg has represented the 37th in Trenton for two decades, first in the Assembly and, since 2005, in the Senate.

She was Jon Corzine's choice for lieutenant governor two years ago and should benefit from any sentiments against Gov. Chris Christie. That includes getting support from the unions still smarting over last June's pension and health benefits reform. Neither Weinberg nor her Assemblymembers voted for the reform, and so the entire ticket got the endorsements the New Jersey Education Association, state Fraternal Order of Police and NJ AFL-CIO.

Chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, Weinberg found herself on the receiving end of Christie's infamous bullying when he told reporters over the summer to "take the bat out" on the 76-year old grandmother for collecting a public pension and legislator's salary at the same time.

"My disagreements with the governor are usually around when he attacks people," she said. "He seems to have a problem controlling that aspect of his personality ... He is just downright rude and inappropriate."

She said she generally has supported Christie's efforts at ethics reform, but vehemently opposed his eliminating all state funds for family planning centers.

Weinberg said she is most proud of writing the laws requiring insurance companies to pay for a 48-hour hospital stay for new mothers, setting 0.08 as the blood alcohol level at which a driver is considered intoxicated and banning smoking indoors.

"That took 10 years to get through; it will probably save many people's lives," Weinberg said of the smoking ban. "I hope in the future I can add marriage equality to that list." She was a co-sponsor of the controversial measure that would have authorized same-sex marriages in the state. The bill failed in the Senate at the end of the last legislative session.

Despite her passion for issues like marriage equality, Weinberg said voters this year are focused on jobs and property taxes. She called the Fair School Funding Act supported by the Republicans as a way to reduce taxes "a really crazy school funding formula" that neither considers how to pay for all the other programs funded by the income tax, nor the Supreme Court orders that the Abbott districts receive set levels of state aid.

To boost the economy, Weinberg supports and is co-sponsoring part of the Democrats' nine-bill jobs package in the Senate. She is also co-sponsoring the bill to reinstate and expand the tax credit for film productions that the Senate passed again last month, despite Christie's veto of a similar bill earlier this year.

"He vetoed the film tax credit bill, saying these are not permanent, good jobs," Weinberg said. "If you're a hairdresser, carpenter, or a caterer, and you can get a job with a production for a few months, you think that's a good job."

Lebovics, an otolaryngologist from Englewood, said he is running because he is unhappy with the district's current representation in Trenton and wants to make life better for his children. "The bottom line is she [Weinberg] has been in the legislature for 20 years and look at what's happened," said Lebovics, a political novice. "The state lost its pristine credit rating on her watch. The pension system has been decimated ... Why would you expect her to do any better next time?"

Lebovics said the state needs to set metrics to get results from schools. And, like his running mates, he supports the Fair School Funding bill proposed by Sen. Michael Doherty (R-23). That bill seeks to amend the state constitution to provide an equal amount of school aid per student regardless of school district, so the Abbott and city districts would no longer get more aid.

"That would give $163 million back to our communities, that's money they could spend on education or for property tax relief," he said.

Lebovics also supports expanding school choice options, with education dollars following the student to his district of choice. This will help all children, and especially those from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, because "for the first time in their lives, the parents will be able to pick a system of education that works."

He also pledged to cut state spending if elected, saying, " my family has to live on a budget ... The state has to learn to live like that, too."

He has taken on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and most recently called for a repeal of all the tolls.

"The whole concept of the Port Authority has to be revamped," said Lebovics.

He said its mission is supposed to be fostering interstate commerce, but it has grown far beyond that. Lebovics said the PA is currently involved in 240 construction, infrastructure, and security projects, making the toll hikes necessary.

"The tolls on the bridges and the tunnels should cover the costs of the bridges and the tunnels, but why should I be paying for work at Stewart Airport?"

Colleen O'Dea has been a journalist for 28 years, most recently with the Morristown Daily Record. She has covered the Statehouse, education, and the environment -- among other beats.

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