For a legislative race that political pundits do not see as in play, the campaign in South Jersey’s 1st District is nasty.
Each side – Democratic incumbents Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam and Republicans David DeWeese, Samuel Fiocchi and Suzanne Walters -- is making charges against the other in campaign literature. And each side is complaining that the charges leveled by its opponents are unfair, or outright lies.
This was especially evident at a debate late last month in the Cape May Courthouse before a packed audience. The candidates, especially Van Drew and DeWeese, often cut one another off and tried to talk over one another. At one point, Van Drew said DeWeese had put out a press release declaring the senator “was responsible for Hurricane Irene.”
“Over the past six months, this should have been a campaign to let the people know what we stand for,” said Albano, who is finishing his third legislative term, in his opening statement. “But my opponents have distorted the truth, and on a couple of occasions they have stated outright, blatant lies.”
After the Republican assembly challengers charged Democrats are responsible for the state’s poor economy, Milam complained about the tone of the campaign.
“Is this other side just going to be so negative?” asked Milam, who is seeking his third term in the lower house. “They’re going to go to Trenton and be negative, negative, negative? The Bible tells you not to be negative.”
Later, he lashed out at Fiocchi for what he called personal attacks.
“What have you done, Sam?” he asked. “You were elected freeholder and 20 minutes later you want to be an assemblyman. Don’t say I’m not doing anything, you don’t live in my shoes.”
Walters, the mayor of Stone Harbor for the last 15 years who is active in the League of Municipalities, complained that she requested – and was denied -- a meeting with Milam and Albano to discuss the tighter, 2 percent property tax levy enacted by Gov. Chris Christie. Albano denied her assertion. Later, he criticized Fiocchi for voting against Cumberland County’s budget as a freeholder without recommending budget cuts.
“I promised I would not vote for a tax increase and I didn’t,” shot back Fiocchi, a member of Christie transition team who said he stepped down from his family’s business three years ago to devote all his time to public service.
One of the contentious issues in the 1st, as in much of New Jersey, was last June’s pension and health benefits reform bill that is forcing public employees to pay more.
Van Drew, who was among a Democratic contingent that supported the bill, said the pension system was on the verge of “collapse” and the Legislature needed to act. He conceded that the pension funds are still in trouble because the state is only paying a small portion of its share.
“To fund immediately 100 percent of our obligation would mean a tax increase and that was something we could not do,” said Van Drew, a dentist who has represented the 1st District in Trenton for the last decade.
DeWeese, a lawyer and a former judge and municipal prosecutor, contended the Democratic party created the problem – although Republican Gov. Christine Whitman was the first to withhold state payments to the fund. While action was necessary, he said he didn’t like the way it was “crammed down people’s throats.”
Both agreed that the changes in health benefits should have happened as part of the collective bargaining process. However, Van Drew said the state’s actions were necessary as “an emergency measure in emergency times,” while DeWeese said the benefits “got caught up in the pension reform, where they shouldn’t have been.”
In discussing the economy, Fiocchi blamed the last two Democratic governors for creating an anti-business climate. Walters said the state needs to examine its major programs, including taxes, to make sure they support job growth.
“There is not going to be any investment in the state of New Jersey, until people believe in the state of New Jersey again,” she said.
Albano said New Jersey’s economy is a reflection of the nation’s troubles and the Democratic team is pushing legislation to provide tax credits to new businesses that open or relocate in the state, to companies that reuse existing buildings and to firms that give their employees health benefits.
Milam said the corporate business tax is a problem and he supports cutting employees’ payroll taxes.
Despite saying, “I do not agree with Gov. Christie all the time,” Van Drew sounded decidedly Republican during most of the evening, even reading a letter from Christie thanking him for voting for the state budget.
However, one area in which he does disagree with Christie is on the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” which would raise the income tax rate on the state’s wealthiest citizens.
“Only one group has gotten a tax cut,” said Van Drew. “They’re not just millionaires, they’re multi-millionaires and they don’t live down there, they live up in the suburbs of North Jersey.”
That prompted DeWeese to criticize Van Drew’s decade-long voting record on taxes in Trenton.
“Jeff, tell the truth,” he said. “You voted 35 times to increase taxes and fees $3 billion.”
“They’ve obviously distorted my record in many different ways,” countered Van Drew.
The two also clashed over the state’s announced closing of the Vineland Developmental Center. Van Drew said the closing caught him by surprise and DeWeese said the Democrat should have been paying more attention. This prompted Van Drew to stand and try to shout over DeWeese to be heard.
“Calm down, Jeff,” DeWeese said. “Relax.”
The moderator asked both men to sit.
DeWeese said he decided to run because he is unhappy with the way Van Drew has been representing the district. To try to drum up support he asked the audience rhetorically, “Are you happy with your taxes? Are you happy with the unemployment rate in the district? Are you happy with out of control spending by the Legislature?”
Fioicchi told the crowd he was running because “I want to fight for the state of New Jersey, for this district and for you.”
Walters wants to give municipalities greater representation in Trenton.
“You know, municipalities are having a very hard time meeting their budgets,” she said, noting that the Legislature imposed a 2 percent property tax cap, but did not also pass the rest of the bills in Christie’s “toolkit” of companion bills to help them keep to that cap. “We should be getting better leadership in Trenton.”
Milam said the Democratic team is seeking re-election to continue the work they have begun.
“We have many many more things to do,” said Milam. “We will continue in a bipartisan way to keep this state moving forward.”
Although neither party expects any of the seats in the 1st to change hands, it is somewhat fickle politically. Until six years, ago, the district had split representation. And the number of registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats.
The Richard Stockton College/Zogby Poll conducted earlier this week found DeWeese gaining on Van Drew, but still trailing by about 18 percentage points among likely voters. Van Drew had 49 percent, compared with 30.5 percent for DeWeese.
The Democrats had a comfortable lead in the Assembly race, as well. Albano had the support of half of likely voters, compared with 42 percent for Milam, 31 percent for Fiocchi, and 29.5 percent for Walters.
The district stretches from historic Cape May City up to Ocean City along the shore and Stow Creek in Cumberland County. It includes all of Cape May County.