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Candidates: Legislative District 9

The Republican incumbents and their Democratic challengers seem to agree more than they disagree on the major issues facing the 9th District.

Covering 23 municipalities in Ocean, Atlantic, and Burlington counties, this Jersey Shore district is suffering from the poor economic climate affecting the rest of the state, but there are some issues unique to the area.

And on issues like cleaning up Barnegat Bay and the decommissioning of the Oyster Creek nuclear plant, it would be hard to tell which candidate represents which party.

For instance, during a debate on October 19 at Stockton State College, both Republican Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove and Democratic challenger Bradley Billhimer complemented Gov. Chris Christie's 10-point plan for Barnegat Bay.

"It shows his commitment to cleaning up Barnegat Bay," said Billhimer, noting that all the nutrients that seep into the bay have made it inhospitable to marine life but an Eden for jellyfish, which stung his daughters numerous times this past summer.

Like Billhimer, Gove said educating people about how they can keep the water cleaner is very important and she vowed that the passage earlier this year of the nation's strictest limits on fertilizers is just a first step.

"We are going to do more," she vowed.

In discussing the planned closing of the Oyster Creek Generating Station in 2019, Carla Kearny, the other Democratic Assembly candidate, almost echoed Gove's statements.

"If it takes place the way it should, jobs shouldn't go away right away," said Kearny. "The conversation needs to continue about what's going to go on."

She also supports making Atlantic City "more family-friendly" as a way to boost tourism, which has been dependent on the struggling casino industry. Both Kearney and Gove agree that while it is not within the 9th District, Atlantic City's health affects the economy of its northern neighbor.

Kearney said her interest in politics came early, since her parents were involved in politics when she was a child. She is a counselor at the Mercy Center, a non-profit organization in Asbury Park. Kearney is also a fatherhood coordinator as part of a new initiative derived from President Obama's call for fathers to engage in their children's lives.

She is in her third term as a councilwoman in South Toms River, where she is also on the planning board. She was the council president in 2009 and worked to get state money to allow the borough to build a new garage. About 10 years ago, Kearney started Camp South Toms River, a multicultural educational summer camp.

"I feel I have a lot of experience," she said. "I will bring that to the Assembly table."

Her running mate is a lawyer in private practice. He also teaches criminal law at Ocean County College and is a commissioner on the Berkeley Township Housing Authority.

"I am not a politician; I have never held public office," Billhimer said. "I am a small business owner."

He said the economy is the most important issue in this year's race and he would support state efforts to create jobs and bolster the economy.

"We need to get people back to work," Billhimer said. "We need to get people feeling good about the economy. We need to foster an environment where people will go back to spending money."

Gove, who has been in the Assembly since 2009 when she was chosen to fill a vacancy, agreed with Billhimer but specifically called for more deregulation. She also said the state needs to revise the school funding formula to provide more equity for residents in the district, saying that "for too long, the Abbott districts have taken the lion's share of school funding."

Before joining the lower house, Gove served on the Long Beach Township Committee from 2003 to 2009. She also was mayor from 1984 to 1988.

"I know the hardships that come with burdensome state mandates, overregulation, and unfair taxation policies," she said. She also served on the Ocean County Advisory Commission on the Status of Women for 13 years, beginning in 1986. Currently a full-time legislator, Gove is retired from teaching. She taught social studies for 32 years at Southern Regional High School.

Gove has given high priority to supporting veterans and serves on the Assembly Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. She supports the siting of a veteran's hospital in South Jersey and is serving on the recently created New Jersey Veterans' Hospital Task Force that is charged with making recommendations about a veterans' healthcare facility in the South.

Gove is running with fellow incumbent Assemblyman Brian Rumpf. The Republican has been in the General Assembly since 2003 and also served the Little Egg Harbor Township Committee from 1997 to 2005, including a stint as its mayor between 2000 and 2003.

An attorney in practice with his wife, Rumpf has been sidelined for the past few weeks, first by a broken femur resulting from a fall from his roof and then by the development of a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung. He did not return calls to discuss his positions and did not attend the debate.

In the Assembly, Rumpf sits on the transportation, public works, and independent authorities committee, as well as the education committee.

This year, Rumpf sponsored laws that prohibit the towing of trailers and boats on public highways during an evacuation emergency; establish the Alzheimer's Disease Study Commission; and allow municipalities to give free or reduced-price beach badges to active military and national guard personnel and their families.

On the Republican ticket for the Senate seat is Sen. Christopher Connors, who has represented the district first in the Assembly beginning in 1989 and moved to the upper house four years ago. Prior to joining the legislature, Connors was a member of the township committee from 1985 through 1990, serving as its mayor between 1986 and 1989. He is an attorney in private practice.

The three 9th District legislators often work together and co-sponsor bills. Connors said the district's "constituent service is unparalleled anywhere in the state." The three share one office. Lately, the staff has been fielding calls about economic issues involving a mortgage or reduction in social services. Connors said he answers every call and email.

The biggest issue for the Connors' team is job growth.

"We have to improve our economic climate and be more competitive with other states," Connors said. "We need to reduce corporate tax rates to keep business in New Jersey and to attract new businesses."

He said the state needs to keep on the path of reducing government size and government spending and providing tax credits for a variety of projects that stimulate job growth. He also supports reining in environmental regulations that would otherwise stymie business growth and discourage companies from moving to, or staying in, the state. Finally, he supports Christie's opposition to a millionaire's tax, fearing it would drive people, and revenue, out of New Jersey.

Regarding Oyster Creek, Connors said the state should establish a group as soon as possible to look at potential future uses for the facility, including the economic and environmental impact of any ideas.

His opponent, Democrat Dorothy Ryan, who lives within 10 miles of the plant, largely agrees with Connors about Oyster Creek, saying she would like to explore the potential conversion of the facility into another source of energy, such as wind or natural gas.

A former marketing executive, Ryan has served on the Barnegat Township Committee since 2007.

She said her ticket is running on a platform to protect the poor and the middle class. They want to preserve government health insurance programs, including Medicaid and NJ Family Care, and restore funding for women's health initiatives that Christie cut from the budget. They also seek pension system reform, including the closing of loopholes that allow some to collect multiple pensions.

In the biggest disagreement with the Republicans, Ryan supports the millionaire's tax both as a fairer system of taxation and as a way to generate additional revenue that could help reduce property taxes.

Ryan called property taxes "outrageous" and said they are "a burden on the homeowner."

Like Connors and the Assembly candidates, Ryan said cleaning up Barnegat Bay is crucial because, among other benefits, it brings in tourists and that is a boost to the economy of the district. She supports the state's limit on fertilizers, but opposes the administration's allowing waivers of storm water management for developers.

"Barnegat Bay pollution has to stop," she said. "I visit the beach and see the water full of jellyfish where children swim."

Lisa Zambito is a freelance writer based in Hunterdon County.

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