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Candidates: Legislative District 2

Candidates gamble on attack ads in Atlantic City race seen as too close to call.

Judging solely by commercials, press conferences and campaign releases, the 2nd District pits the forces of Satan against, well, the forces of Satan.

Democratic Sen. Jim Whelan resorts to “gutter politics,” his challenger claims. Meanwhile, Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina, who is looking to take over the Senate seat, is charged with profiting “at the expense of our kids.”

Like leaf blowers at 10 paces, the partisan duel drowns out the thoughtful, community-spirited observations the two slates of candidates offer one-on-one about Atlantic City and environs.

Part of what is driving all the vitriol is that many observers see the race in this district with divided representation – a Democrat in the Senate and Republicans in the Assembly – as too close to call. Both parties are hoping to pick up at least a seat.

The Republican Assembly ticket pairs incumbent John Amodeo with Chris Brown. The Democratic Assembly team features Atlantic County Freeholder Alisa Cooper and Damon Tyner.

All the candidates share the goal of revitalizing the struggling resort area through job creation, low taxes, new and refurbished casinos and other attractions. Those who have held public office can point to real achievements. Those who have not can cite other contributions. Their significant differences are philosophical.

"We can't just cut, cut, cut and expect the economy to turn around," said Whelan, a school teacher and former mayor. "We have to get people back to work, and government has a role in that."

"We are not going to spend ourselves into creating long-term jobs," said Polistina, who owns an engineering firm.

Even before the economic downturn, the local casino industry was losing ground as competitors popped up like mushrooms around the country. For a business that seemed geared to busloads of day trippers, alternatives in Pennsylvania and other nearby states have meant less traffic. Local casino development seemed to hit a wall after the opening of the Borgata in 2003.

After initially injecting new life into a faded destination, casinos have not turned out to be a panacea for all ills. Particularly among city residents, unemployment has stayed high even as casinos serve as a job engine for the region. The problem became more acute following the collapse of the national housing bubble and mislabeled securities.

“The gaming industry was presented to us as recession-proof; now we're seeing it's not,” said Tyner, a lawyer with deep family ties to the community.

Some political decisions have not helped, such as the 2004 deal that diverted some Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds and casino revenues to subsidize racetracks around the state, said Brown, a lawyer and Desert Storm veteran.

Gov. Chris Christie vetoed another $15 million racetrack subsidy this summer. Both sides said they are elated that the money will stay home, and optimistic about new CRDA leadership.

The two Republicans first ran for the Assembly as reformers in 2007.

“I'm a blue-collar worker” with an understanding of the burdens families face, said Amodeo, a former Linwood councilman who retired from his job as a crane operator two years ago.

On the contentious issue of pension and health benefit reductions for state workers, Amodeo said the moves were necessary, but he regrets the process. The problem was “not our hard-working people,” but politicians of both parties who underfunded the system and ignored growing problems.

“We had to make things better for the taxpayers, but most importantly we had to shore up the pension system,” Amodeo said.

While Whelan joined in supporting the cuts, in Polistina's view, the debate highlighted differences between the two parties.

“We stand for making New Jersey affordable for everyone,” said Polistina, who like Amodeo currently holds a leadership position among Assembly Republicans. “For far too long, we have overspent, we have overtaxed, we have over-regulated.”

But Democrats aren't conceding those issues.

“We stand for preserving the middle class and fair treatment of seniors, because they're bearing too much of the tax burden,” Tyner said.

He said state budget cuts need be smarter, because reductions so far in aid to towns and school districts have made it harder for them to control property taxes.

“There have been cuts, but people aren't seeing any relief,” he said. “Folks are getting less services, layoffs, larger class sizes.”

Eliminating state movie and television tax credits was a “missed opportunity” that cost the area the chance to host production of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, which is about Atlantic City, Tyner said.

And when Polistina voted to cut $7.5 million for women's health care from the budget, “it cost us $40 million in federal matching funds, another penny-wise, pound-foolish vote,” he said. Amodeo supported a different bill that would have eliminated funding only for Planned Parenthood.

“When we talk about the middle-class, I know firsthand,” said Cooper, a school music teacher who also runs a small entertainment agency.

Elected officials at all levels need to closely scrutinize expenditures for any possible savings, because efficiencies are often possible, Cooper said. She said she would bring that approach to Trenton, insisting on departmental audits to identify possible cuts.

Government can also help a range of South Jersey businesses, other than the casinos, according to Whelan.

“We're going to have windmills off Atlantic City, right off the Steel Pier,” he said. “The turbines are going to be elsewhere, but we have a boat-building industry that's a shadow of its former self. They're used to working with fiberglass and other materials. They should be the ones we turn to for other components.

“Let's not make the mistake we've made with solar, where we have booming installations but the panels are made in China,” Whelan added.

Green initiatives and redevelopment also could help revitalize the region's historic but depleted glass industry, he said. And with a well-regarded small airport and an air traffic control program at Atlantic Cape Community College, it is a natural step to pursue aviation companies, he said.

But back in the city, the gaming industry “needs new product,” said Whelan, who served as Atlantic City's mayor throughout the 1990s after a stint on council. With increased competition, the city needs to reposition itself as a “destination resort,” with attractions for families and non-gamblers, he said.

Before such a move could succeed, the city needs to address its crime problem, according to the Republicans.

“Drive down Pacific Avenue, a block from the Boardwalk, and ask yourself in your mind, have we done enough to get this city in a position to succeed?” Polistina asked. His answer is no.

According to Brown, there are simple steps the city could take to improve safety. They include adding surveillance cameras and “sweeps to make sure people aren't living under the Boardwalk ... not in a mean-spirited way,” but to move the homeless to shelters and services.

Still, several Assembly candidates and Whelan expressed frustration that their ideas may be getting lost in the tide of negative commercials and flyers.

The pressure is on to win, and it shows.

"My opponent has always had a public paycheck throughout his life," Polistina said of Whelan at a debate.

“His business is public contracts, no-bid public contracts,” Whelan fired back, saying Polistina's engineering firm has earned millions from area government agencies.

“I was told the two people I'm running against would say or do anything to get elected,” Brown said in an otherwise earnest interview where he expressed a desire to build consensus.

“I don't know how it devolved into that, but they were out with attacks on Alisa Cooper very early,” Tyner said.

Cooper does seem the most upset by the “vile lies,” and with some reason. Republican ads accuse her of missing long stretches of work, without mentioning she underwent five surgeries after a fall on the job. Other flyers blame her for a contract problem at the bipartisan State Council on the Arts, of which she is a member, but that went through Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno's office.

Amodeo regretted the tones adopted by both sides, and shed some light on the dynamic.

“Every time I talk to political consultants, I say, ‘I want to be positive, run on my record,’” Amodeo said. “And they fight me! They say, 'That won't work, you've got to be negative.’”

In three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists in to promote transparency.

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