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Assembly Race: Legislative District 37

Is a school funding plan the key to unseating the Democrats in the 37th?

The Republican challengers for Assembly seats in the 37th District have pinned their hopes for unseating the incumbents on the school funding plan being pushed by one of the Senate’s most conservative members.

Gregory John Aslanian and Keith Jensen have made the Fair School Funding Act promoted by Sen. Michael Doherty the centerpiece of their campaign in this Democratic-leaning Bergen County district.

They are the underdogs in their battle against Democratic incumbent Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson. Two years ago, Huttle and Johnson beat their GOP opponents by 2-to-1 margins.

Further spicing up the race this year is Libertarian Julian Heicklen, who is also seeking a seat in the lower house.

The Democrats in the 37th are no friends of Gov. Chris Christie. They did not vote last June for the pension and health benefits reform program and so got the endorsements of the New Jersey Education Association, state Fraternal Order of Police, and NJ AFL-CIO.

The Republicans are not running with Christie so much as they are running with Doherty, having embraced his funding plan and making it virtually the only issue discussed on their website. Doherty’s bill seeks to amend the state constitution to provide an equal amount of school aid per student regardless of district, so the so-called Abbott low income and city districts would no longer get more aid. Aslanian and Jensen said that would bring $163 million back into the 37th District and that money could help get the economy moving.

“We have been spending a vertiable fortune on the urban schools,” Aslanian said.

Some of the $30 billion spent in the last decade in the 31 Abbott districts has built elaborate pools and ball fields, “the kind of stuff you see in Beverly Hills, that not even Alpine and the richest towns in New Jersey would do,” Aslanian added.

The current system supports bloated and sometimes corrupt school administrations, Jensen contended, saying the Fair School Funding formula could reduce property taxes in the 37th District by as much as a third.

Aslanian said Doherty’s formula would still be progressive, because wealthier communities would pay more in taxes. But it would be fairer, because those communities would get more money back from the state in aid.

“I’ve knocked on doors in this district and there are a lot of seniors on fixed incomes, poor people barely making ends meet,” he said. “I feel our money should not be traveling out of our district. “We have to have people in there looking out for their constituents,” Jensen added.

Both Republicans are self-described entrepreneurs. Jensen lives in Fort Lee, while Aslanian is from Englewood Cliffs.

Aslanian, who was unsuccessful in his bid as a “Tea Party Republican” for the GOP nomination for Congress last year, said he thinks his more than 30 years in business qualify him to help the state solve many of its problems.

“We are all a product of our experiences,” he said. “My life experience is a little different. I know what it takes to get government back on its feet.”

Jensen, who served nine years in the military and has traveled to 50 countries, said frustration made him decide to run.

“I saw how government was working as a businessman and a home owner; the taxes are just insane,” said Jensen, who has volunteered with the Fort Lee Fire Department and Hackensack Riverkeeper. “I decided to get involved to find a way to fix the problems.”

Aslanian also blamed New Jersey’s tax policies for at least part of the state’s economic woes, citing a 2010 study by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College that found the wealthy moved out of state in large numbers between 2004 and 2008, taking more than $70 billion in assets with them, to escape higher taxes here.

“We need to really adjust the tax code,” said Jensen.

He said he called the state’s Economic Development Authority several months ago asking if there were any incentives to bring his small company, employing fewer than 50 people, back to New Jersey from Pennsylvania and was told there were none.

“We need to change the way businesses look at New Jersey,” Jensen added. “We have to be friendlier.”

Aslanian fired the only shot in this race, criticizing one of Huttle’s major legislative accomplishments, New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law, as government over-regulation and said students should be spending their time in class studying rather than talking about bullying.

“I can think of a dozen better things to do with the limited time our children are in school,” he wrote in a post on Fort Lee Patch in response to comments on an article on his and Jensen’s call to repeal the law.

Huttle, who chairs the Assembly Human Services Committee, said she is proud of the new law, which had more than a dozen Republican co-sponsors, including the GOP leaders of both houses.

She finds the challengers’ position on the law incomprehensible.

“This affects all kids,” said Huttle, who is finishing her third term in the lower house. “We are trying to change the culture of kids today.”

The measure seeks to incorporate the recommendations of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools. It does not cost the state any additional money, using instead existing school resources to get students to understand the impact of bullying and make sure schools deal with problems swiftly, so that school can be a safe place for children.

“This is probably the biggest piece of legislation I have ever done,” said Huttle, a former Bergen County freeholder who has sponsored 36 bills signed by Christie this term.

Even though the law took effect September 1, the Department of Education has been slow in implementing parts of it and some school officials have complained that it creates a paperwork burden, she conceded.

“To me, even if it does cost time and money, it is worth it,” said Huttle, who manages the Vainieri Funeral Home in North Bergen.

Rather than supporting Doherty’s formula, Huttle blamed problems with school funding on state cutbacks, saying the district has lost $27 million in aid because of the governor’s priorities and that has led to larger class sizes.

New Jersey’s longstanding problem with high property taxes is “hard to resolve,” Huttle said. She sees the solution to higher property taxes in shared municipal services.

She also supports the Senate Democrats’ jobs package. And she favors the state’s bailout to help complete the American Dream Meadowlands shopping and entertainment complex, formerly called Xanadu, because it provides “a unique opportunity to create jobs and an economic engine for the region.”

Johnson, deputy conference leader for the Democrats in the Assembly, said it is the legislature’s duty to work to improve the economy.

“It’s our responsibility to do all we can to alleviate this situation,” said Johnson, a former Bergen County sheriff finishing his first decade in the Assembly. “At the state level, I try to advocate for those people who are really hurting.”

He said while the 2 percent cap on municipal spending was a way to make municipal officials budget more responsibly, when coupled with state aid cuts, the cap really hurt cities in particular, forcing worker layoffs.

Like his colleagues, Johnson did not support last spring’s public pension and benefit cuts.

“I couldn’t vote for that,” he said. “It should have been handled at the table, with people negotiating.”

Johnson also said Christie should have vetoed the Port Authority’s toll increases, saying they are hurting many Jerseyans and were “uncalled for.”

He said he is most proud of his legislation that helps law enforcement and first responders do their jobs better. For instance, he sponsored a law allowing junior firefighters – those under age 18 – to work in support positions at the scene of a fire.

“My responsibility is to give first responders the tools they need,” said Johnson, who chairs the Law and Public Safety Committee and is vice chairman of the Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee in the Assembly.

While he has an independent consulting business, Johnson said his work as a legislator is really a full-time job.

“A lot of my colleagues call this a part-time job,” he said. “I find it takes a lot of my energy to serve the people.”

The fifth candidate for the Assembly is Heicklen, a chemistry professor emeritus at Penn State University who is a Libertarian. A resident of Teaneck, Heicklen is pledging to reduce regulations and eliminate the income tax in favor of a higher sales tax and sin taxes.

“Nine states have no income tax,” he said, “there’s no reason why New Jersey should have one.”

Heicklen also supports doubling the amount the state spends on infrastructure as a way of both improving roads and infrastructure and creating an estimated 10,000 jobs. He would raise “use and pollution” taxes to pay for the work.

His positions generally differ from those the other candidates are discussing. For instance, Heicklen said New Jersey’s public schools generally do a good job educating students and he would leave them alone.

He is confident he would be successful at bringing about change by working with other Assembly members because of his past achievements in social causes.

Heicklen has a long history of civil disobedience, including numerous arrests, dating back to 1962.

At that time, he was a leader with the Congress of Racial Equality in Los Angeles and “stole a house” that a developer was refusing to sell to a black couple by occupying it. The group’s actions got them arrested but also got the judge to order the builder not to discriminate based on race.

Since then, Heicklen said he has helped get Soviet refuseniks out of Russia, held numerous marijuana “smokeouts” outside the gates of Penn State, and conducted pro-Jewish protests outside the United Nations and the New York Times.

For the past three years, he has been traveling to federal courthouses across the country to hand out pamphlets that say it’s not a jury’s job to uphold the law, but to see that justice is done.

A recent leafletting in Orlando led to his most recent arrest because it is illegal to pass out literature or take pictures directly in front of a courthouse. He said he spent three weeks in jail and was sentenced to a total of 140 days, but is fighting that sentence in court.

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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