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Candidates: Legislative District 26

Colleen O’Dea | November 4, 2011

Incumbent Republicans retain edge for voter registrations, fundraising.

In one of New Jersey’s most Republican districts, three GOP incumbents with six-figure war chests apiece and five challengers with little or no money make for a ho-hum campaign.

There has not even been a non-partisan debate in the 26th District, covering portions of Morris, Passaic and Essex counties, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

The Republican incumbents – Sen. Joseph Pennacchio and Assembly members Jay Webber and Alex DeCroce, who is the GOP leader in the lower house – not only have incumbency on their side, but their party has a significant edge in voter registrations even as redistricting re-jiggered the municipalities in the 26th.

They face a full slate of Democrats in Wasim Kahn for Senate and Elliot Isibor and Joseph Raich for Assembly.

Two independents are also running: Joseph Scafa of Rockaway Township for Senate and Michael Spector, a Mount Tabor retiree representing the Green Party, for Assembly.

Pennacchio, a dentist from Pine Brook, said that because the 26th has six new municipalities, the incumbents did not “take anything for granted” and have been campaigning in the new communities.

Jobs, taxes and the state’s business climate are inextricably connected and reforms are needed to improve the economy, he said.

“If we want businesses to come into the state, we have to stop overtaxing and over-regulating them,” said Pennacchio, who is finishing his first term in the upper house.

He was a co-sponsor of last June’s public employee pension and health benefits reform bill, which requires additional payments by and cuts payments to workers. Pennachio called the compromise “a fair, honest, balanced and measured solution” to a longstanding problem.

Prior to moving up to the Senate, Pennacchio spent seven years in the Assembly. Before that, he was a Morris County freeholder. He serves on the Senate Budget and Appropriations and Labor committees.

His opponent, for the second election in a row, is Parsippany doctor Wasim Kahn. In 2007, Pennacchio beat Kahn by a 2-to-1 margin. Kahn said he knows he is facing an uphill battle again. Still he said he is running to provide voters with a choice.

“To use a medical term, politics is really sick,” he said.

Kahn said his platform focuses on jobs and education. He lamented the poor economy that has hurt the middle class and left many unemployed or underemployed. If elected, he said he would take only a $1 salary “in recognition of these hard times.”

He suggests that governments budget proportionally, based on the amount of money available, and introduce “some rationality” into government borrowing decisions.

Kahn also supports widespread municipal consolidation to reduce the number of communities in the state by about a third. “This would provide significant tax savings and reduce the tax burden,” he said.

Kahn is passionate in discussing democracy and the need for people to get more involved in the political process. He supports putting a greater emphasis on teaching civics in schools.

“I’d like to lower the voting age to 16, that would give them a sense of responsibility before they get out of high school,” Kahn added.

Scafa, of Rockaway Township, said he is running to try to improve life for his children. “I’m not here to fix the blame, I’m here to fix the problem,” said Scafa, who owns his own technology business.

He supports efforts to create jobs, including the elimination of regulations that are no longer needed and stifle businesses. “How do we keep the costs down for some of these companies?” Scafa asked.

Property taxes are burdensome, Scafa said. He supports the 2 percent cap as a good start at keeping increases minimal. Additionally, Scafa said governments need to look carefully at budgets, cut programs that are not working and tie budget and salary increases to inflation so to keep government affordable.

Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, a 21-year lawmaker from Parsippany, is seeking a return to Trenton to help Gov. Chris Christie’s agenda.

“I want to work closely with the governor’s office on the legislation he deems necessary,” said DeCroce, a realtor. “We want to be able to put together a program to encourage companies to come back to New Jersey.” Improving the economic climate for businesses will create more jobs, he added.

“The big concern here, frankly, in the business community is our tax structure,” said DeCroce, who has worked on legislation to advance organ transplants and the rights of crime victims. “Everyone around us has lower taxes … That’s not helping us attract businesses into the state and bring in more jobs.

DeCroce also supports revamping job training programs to give workers the skills that would further make New Jersey more attractive to businesses. He also said the state needs to put in place strong road construction and home building programs. “When you have those two, the state picks up jobs,” said DeCroce.

Webber, a Parsippany lawyer who joined the Assembly in 2008, did not return repeated requests to comment about his campaign.

Isibor, an educator, pledged to sponsor legislation to reinvigorate the state’s economy and create jobs. The bill would include “incentives to businesses for new hires but must include not firing existing workers to scam the offered tax incentive system,” he said. It also would encourage large service, merchandising and manufacturing businesses to stay in New Jersey to help stabilize the tax base.

A former school board vice president, Isibor also said he would work for “realistic and affordable funding for our schools” and to lower the state’s high property taxes. “I am running because for too long, the residents of the 26th Legislative District have had no leaders, but rather we have rulers who have taken our residents for granted,” he said, criticizing the Republicans for following their party line “religiously.”

Isibor, who lives in Rockaway Township, also said he would review state regulations to eliminate those that are counter productive.

In addition to teaching mathematics in the special education department in Newark’s public schools, Isibor is an adjunct professor in business at Essex County Community College and worked as director of Newark’s Multi-Phasic Rehabilitation Center.

His running mate, Raich, had similar reasons for getting in the race.

“What have these guys done?” asked Raich, a limousine driver from Parsippany who was unsuccessful in his first effort at unseating DeCroce a decade ago.

“I’m running to survive, to stay in my home,” he continued. “They went ahead and balanced the state budget and let property taxes go through the roof. They are not looking out for the middle class.”

To try to lower property taxes, Raich agreed with Kahn about pushing municipal and school consolidations. He proposed Morris County be the pilot project for the test of a countywide school system and if it is successful, the state could pare down to a system of 21 countywide districts.

“Do we need 39 directors of curriculum, one for each town in Morris County?” he asked. “We need to eliminate these school districts because they cost a fortune.” Spector, of the Green Party, would provide property tax relief by “establishing educational expenses as a separate, progressive tax.”

He also supports changes in the school aid formula and greater regionalization to lower property taxes.

Spector said he would provide “additional state aid” to schools, and wants to encourage “shared services among less populated districts, including education administration” and shared police functions.

He also supports a state-funded public works program to create jobs for the unemployed.

Raich said the 26th could create numerous jobs by fixing the flooding problems along the Passaic River.

“The state can’t afford buyouts, so let’s fix the problem,” said Raich, whose own home flooded from the two late summer storms. “We could put people to work here. It would be a golden opportunity.”

All the candidates agreed finding a solution to the flooding in communities along the Passaic River is imperative.

“We have to do something,” said Pennacchio. “It’s all about dollars and cents. I want to see this flood tunnel built.”

In the 1990s, a $2 billion flood tunnel with a system of channels and levies gained traction as the preferred method of flood control, but it never advanced due to concerns about its impact on the environment.

Pennacchio has proposed a $2 billion bond issue to provide relief that he said the residents “so desperately need.”

Kahn said he would form a committee of experts, municipal officials and citizens to propose “practical solutions” within three months. “I don’t have a magic bullet,” he said. “Before the next rainy season, we should have a solution ready that should be implementable ... There would be no politics involved.”

Scafa agreed that a new study is needed, but then wants to see the work contracted out. “Thus, it would create private industry jobs,” he said.

Scafa also suggested that any area that gets too much worst flooding in the basin should simply become a lake. That would both alleviate flooding in and enhance the property values of neighboring properties.

“It’s an opportunity to take lemons and make lemonade,” he said.

Like Pennacchio, DeCroce said he would support the flood tunnel, although he estimates its cost today likely would be closer to $5 billion.

“It’s nice to get the SBA (Small Business Administration) to come out and give 2-or-3 percent loans, but after four or five flood events a year, that’s not enough,” he said, saying those in the region need grants and the federal government needs to step in and help.

In addition to their advantage in voter registration numbers, the Republicans have a huge money advantage.

According to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission a month before the election, DeCroce had raised about $262,000 and spent $169,000, Pennacchio had received $181,000 and spent $28,000 and Webber had taken in $156,000 and spent $12,000. Isibor reported raising $7,000 and spending $2,400. All the other candidates had filed forms indicating they planned to spend less than $4,000.

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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