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Candidates: Legislative District 21

Republicans line up behind Gov. Christie reforms 'to right New Jersey's ship of state.'

The line between the Republican incumbents in the 21st District and their Democratic challengers is quite clear.

The Republicans are solidily behind Gov. Chris Christie's efforts to move the state forward, and the Democrats say the governor is going about it all wrong.

The race for Senate pits Republican incumbent Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. against Paul Swanicke.

In the Assembly race, incumbent Republicans Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz face Darren Young, the Libertarian from Summit, and Democrats Bruce Bergen and Norman Albert.

The 21st District has a marginal Republican majority of registered voters, but the municipal makeup is centered in the older suburbs of Union, Essex, Morris and Someret counties, including Watchung, Summit, Westfield and Warren, all solid GOP territory.

Leading the Republican ticket is Kean, the Senate Majority Leader who joined the Assembly in 2001 and moved up to the Senate two years later. He is the son of well-respected former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, but his political lineage dates back even further, as Kean Jr.'s grandfather, great-grandfather and great uncle all served in the state legislature.

Kean Jr. touts efforts by Christie to spur the state's economy through regulatory reform, changes to the pension and health care programs for public employees, and budget cuts.

"For the past two years my colleaugues and I have been working with Gov. Christie to right New Jersey's ship of state," Kean said. "During that time we have made great progress toward making New Jersey more affordable."

He said the public pension and health benefits reform is projected to save governments $267 million in the first year.

"Republicans continue to be willing and ready to work at a moment's notice on any legislation that creates permanent, private sector jobs in the state. We must reignite our state's competitive advantage and attract businesses and create jobs," said Kean.

Swanicke said that the Republican approach is wrong because it includes attacks on teachers and union workers and favors the well-off. The candidate, an attorney from Warren, did not respond to requests to discuss issues further.

The Assembly race features the incumbents versus Democratic candidates familiar to the ballot.

Bramnick, the Assembly Conference Leader, was chosen to replace Kean Jr. in 2003. He has sponsored legislation that made lawmakers ineligible for the state Public Employees Retritement System and backed Christie's reduction of the property tax levy cap to 2 percent.

Bramnick lives in Westfield and has strongly supported Christie's efforts to cut state spending. He's also been encouraged by recent reports that the state's business leaders are expressing more confidence in the direction of the state's economy.

"Putting out fiscal house in order and improving government's relaltionship with businesses will result in creating jobs," Bramnick said is a recent release.

Munoz was appointed to replace her late husband, Dr. Eric Munoz. The Summit resident is seeking her second full term in office this November.

A nurse, Munoz sponsored the bill that banned the use of bath salts and one that contained the Christie's administration's Medicaid overhaul to allow non-profit agencies to offer medical treatment in certain areas.

Both Munoz and Bramnick have been critical of Elizabeth school officials who were charged with enrolling their ineligible children in the federally sponsored free and low-cost school meals program designed for low-income children. In response, Munoz has sponsored legislation that would require indicted public officials to be removed from office.

"We will continue to see officials erode the pubic trust and confidence in their elected officials until legislation is passed that will restore ethical standards in government," she said. "Public officials should be held to a higher standard than private citizens, especially when their alleged crime is directly tied to the office they hold."

Facing off against Bramnick and Munoz are two veteran Democratic also-rans, Bergen and Albert.

Bergan, a Springfield attorney, ran unsuccessfully for Assembly in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and Albert, a lawyer from Cranford, tried in 2003, 2007, and 2009.

Bergen said the top issue in the race is "taxes, taxes, taxes."

Cuts in the state budget as part of Christie's austerity plan have not lowered local property taxes, but help raise them, Bergen said. At the same time, the 2 percent tax levy cap is forcing towns to cut staff, like police and public works employees, said Bergen, who fears this trend will continue. Towns will be forced to choose between cuttting services or working around the flawed cap, he said.

He also disagrees with the Republican notion that cutting taxes, especially for the rich, will create jobs. "There is no correlation between tax cuts and job creation," Bergen said.

Albert said the Republican approach to pension reform was incorrect because it punishes workers while failing to address the larger issue that the state neglected to make its legally required pension contributions for years, beginning with former Gov. Christine Whitman. He said he would introduce a bill that would make such payments mandatory "There is a flaw in the system," Albert said.

The Libertarian candidate, Young, a software developer, could not be reached for comment.

Michael Daigle is a freelance writer and journalist from Phillipsburg. He has worked for newspapers in Massachusetts, Maine, and for the past 20 years, in New Jersey. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting on housing policy, politics, environmental issues and as a columnist.

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