The race for Assembly seats representing Monmouth County’s 13th District is among the most contested in the state, featuring four candidates trying to unseat the Republicans in the lower house.
Incumbent Amy Handlin is seeking re-election with Declan O’Scanlon, who currently serves the neighboring 12th District. They face Democrats Kevin Lavan and Patrick Short, and Frank Cottone and William Lawton, representing the Constitution Party.
Handlin, who has been in office since 2006, said that while the 13th has leaned Republican, she sees the party’s popularity on the rise.
“Our supporters are growing every day,” she said. “I'm more and more frequently getting phone calls and emails” from Democrats who say they “can no longer live under the policies supported by the Democrats over the years.”
Specifically, business-owners are complaining that “over-regulation” has made the cost of doing business in New Jersey prohibitive, she said. “People are concerned about paying bills and keeping their jobs.”
The first step required is to reduce property taxes, and to do that, Handlin said, the legislature needs to pass the rest of Gov. Chris Christie’s “tool kit.”
“These will reform or eliminate major mandates and cost drivers that are standing in the way of long-term relief,” including civil service reform, eliminating payouts for unused sick days, and banning non-public employees from the state pension system, she said.
Handlin is seeking better, more predictable taxing on businesses.
“When businesses have no idea when new taxes or regulation may be coming around the corner, they think twice about if they want to expand in New Jersey or move to New Jersey if they are not already here,” she said. “By lowering property taxes we can help stimulate consumer demand,” which would help businesses and the economy.
Handlin has been the deputy Republican leader since 2008 and sits on the Health and Senior Services and Law and Public Safety Committees. Although she often echoes Republican Party doctrine, she sees related problems facing residents.
“Regardless of voter registration, the citizens of New Jersey are more and more coming together as just citizens with the same needs and concerns,” she said.
O’Scanlon, meanwhile, the other Republican assemblyman on the ballot, lost some of the benefit of incumbency when his hometown of Little Silver was moved into the 13th. But the district isn’t entirely strange, since he has represented four of the municipalities in the past. “I always really felt like a Monmouth County legislator,” he said.
Having started his political career on the Little Silver Council in 1994, O'Scanlon said he's been motivated in part by how he perceived politicians’ jobs.
“Over the years I've become a student of government and policy, and realized there was a need for additional people who generally care about policy and didn't just care about politics,” he said.
O’Scanlon said he has tried to work to bring more sanity to government spending. “For a long time we had policies in the state that were leading us to disaster,” he said, citing the state’s public pension and health care benefits programs revised last June.
In addition to pension reform, O'Scanlon is proud of working with Christie to cap property tax increases at 2 percent, as well as a 2007 ethics bill law that banned public officials from receiving dual health benefits.
“Our overarching policy is forcing the state to live within its means and to cap increase in spending in a number of categories,” he said.
On the Democratic ticket, Lavan, a former mayor of Hazlet, echoed Handlin’s belief that residents are frustrated, but believes it is a call for change in the reliably Republican district. “A lot can be done that hasn't been done, that's why I'm running for office,” he said.
Lavan was elected in 2005 and pushed for a number of cost-saving measures “that made sense” for the town, including entering into shared services agreements with Monmouth County for police, court and public works services, garnering a savings of nearly a half-million dollars.
“There was a surplus of almost $855,000 when I left office,” he said, “and stabilized property taxes.”
A member of the International Longshoreman Association, Lavan said Christie’s school funding decisions that affect property taxes frustrates people. “I don't understand why he took away all the school funding,” he said. “We should be putting more people back to work, not getting rid of jobs like teachers.”
This has become a main theme for Lavan, who said he sees too many closed businesses at a time when a Republican governor is purportedly pro-business. “There are 34 stores along Route 36 that are closed,” he said. “That's a lot of stores along a major road. We have to look at how we can help them out with tax incentives and put them back in business. We're losing the middle class.”
Government’s propensity to keep increasing taxes is devastating, he said. “We just go for a constant raise in taxes. The question we have to look at is how do we find other sources of revenue to change the tax structure.”
Running with Lavan is Short, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
“I've got to fix problems,” said Short, a certified project manager. “That's my job … That's what makes me different. It's how I put food on my table.”
Short said one reason why property taxes are so high is because the public schools, which are expensive, are so heavily dependent on them.
“School funding is tied to property tax is limited to homeowners, so I say why restrict it?” Short said. “Why only limit it to homeowners when there are many residents out there, many components that can help solve this problem other than just the homeowners.”
He suggested using the income tax and sales tax to fund schools, as well. “Each of those or a combination is more equitable than the current way of funding of schools through property taxes.”
Getting revenue from homeowners, non-homeowners, and out-of-state residents who spend money in the state will be a priority, he said.
Short's political career began in local government in Middletown, where he saw the “same problems arise over and over again.” He finally decided to run for office himself. At first he ran as an independent and lost. Ultimately, he joined the Democratic Party and became the first Democrat elected in Middletown in 18 years.
“To show I was only there to serve, I never took health benefits, I refused to enroll in the pension program, and I didn't take a salary in my last year,” he said. “There's no trust in government or confidence that politicians aren't only out for themselves. I wanted to lead by example, as I have in the military.”
The district was hurt when Fort Monmouth closed, Short said. The military installation brought in $3.4 billion a year primarily because of its technology projects, and $30 million went to pay for salaries that stimulated the economy.
As a member of the Constitution Party, Cottone has adopted a “less-government-is-more” outlook. A self-described Democrat in college, Cottone grew tired of increasing taxes that, to him, did not solve the state's problems. That's when Cottone “saw the light, and decided that the answer to the state's problems was eliminating much of the government's involvement in everyday life.”
A teacher and electrical engineer by trade, Cottone said he has ideas to increase voter awareness and participation by taking what he sees as unnecessary powers away from the state and putting them directly in residents’ hands. One way he would do this would be to require voter approval for issuing bonds, a key reason he says New Jersey has such high taxes.
This would be part of Cottone's plan to hold politicians who violate the public trust more accountable and do away with frivolous spending.
Following his party's namesake, Cottone believes there are violations of New Jersey's Constitution in many laws that he describes as “it's for your own good.” One specific governmental intrusion is the seatbelt law, which Cottone sees as the government “usurping its power and violating our freedoms.”
His running mate, Lawton, also points to high taxes and restricted liberties as his impetus for running for office. Lawton's early days also found him a Democrat, but he now describes himself as “the Democratic, Republican, Liberal-Progressive's Worst Nightmare.”
Opposed to taxes and government intrusion in everyday life, Lawton takes a hard stance on citizenship. On his Web site he writes, “I believe if you don't like the way things are here, go back to where you come from and change your country.”
A real estate agent, Lawton said many people “losing their homes unfairly” due to “judicial rulings based on corruption and bias.” He would use the state lottery revenues to pay for school funding and reduce property taxes.