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Candidates: Legislative District 36

A diverse district, the 36th is more than slots and Snooki.

Casino gambling in the Meadowlands and film tax credits are high-profile issues in the 36th District where Democratic-dominant towns and powerful incumbents have their rivals staging a campaign with long odds.

Still, the GOP is gambling that a 25-year-old Rutgers graduate, Sara Rosengarten, and a repeat office seeker, Donald DiOrio, might just have a chance against a Democratic slate with deep pockets.

The blue ticket is led by state Sen. Paul Sarlo. Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer and Marlene Caride are running in the lower house. And while debate over slot machines to prop up horse racing and tax credits for “Jersey Shore” reality TV grab headlines, the candidates are campaigning on a broad range of issues.

“My district is very diverse,” said Schaer, “rich and poor, ethnic and non-ethnic and everything in between. It’s really what New Jersey is all about and what America is all about.”

Schaer is a three-term incumbent and advocate for the developmentally disabled and autistic children. That’s an issue he’s taken on because of his growing awareness of special needs locally as council president in the City of Passaic.

“It’s easy enough to see the problems,” said Schaer, who serves as the Chair of the Committee on Financial Institutions and Insurance and as Vice-Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee. “The difficulty is finding the appropriate solutions.”

Sarlo, the mayor of Wood Ridge, has been legislator for the past 10 years and is the Senate’s Deputy Majority Leader. He’s often gone head-to-head with Gov. Chris Christie, and in a new television commercial, promises to work to restore middle-class tax breaks, while taxing the state’s most wealthy and fully funding schools.

The incumbents added diversity and strengthened the ticket, both from an ethnic and geographic viewpoint, by adding Caride, a Cuban-American lawyer. She is the municipal prosecutor in Ridgefield, a town added to the 36th after redistricting, and member of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey.

Full funding for education is among Caride’s top priorities, she said in response to questions posed by the NJ Principals & Supervisors Association.

“While I understand the extraordinary challenges our state is facing … cuts to funding of our public schools should be a last resort,” Caride said.

The 36th has been hard hit by the loss of state aid, forcing school districts to cut programs, fire staff and charge student athletes to pay to play, Schaer said.

“New Jersey’s future lies in an educated work force and I’m concerned that we’re not fulfilling that dream.”

Rosengarten, the Republican Assembly rival, has made education and lowering taxes cornerstones of her platform. She favors school choice and vouchers.

“Many families send children to private schools, yet pay property taxes for public education they don’t use,” she said during a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Northern New Jersey Chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Rosengarten graduated magna cum laude in 2008 from Rutgers University, with a double major in political science and women’s studies. She graduated earlier this year from Rutgers-Newark School of Law.

She interned with the NJ Supreme Court and was a fellow at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She also worked in Trenton in the Office of Legislative Services. At 25, she is the youngest person running for an office in Trenton this year.

“The youth vote and voice is often ignored and the time has come for that to change,” Rosengarten said is a press release. She did not answer requests to discuss her campaign, but her Facebook page and website say she is committed to reducing property taxes and creating jobs.

The name of a second GOP candidate for Assembly, John Genovesi of Rutherford, appears on the ballet but he dropped out of the race in September.

DiOrio, who has run for Assembly before, leads the Republican ticket in his quest to unseat Sarlo. He was an events manager before taking a new job with the Department of Public Works 10 month ago in Bergen County.

“I’m one of us,” DiOrio said. “I want what everyone else wants. We want more jobs and control over our real estate taxes.”

As a former member of the Carstadt Board of Education, he was criticized for his support of school vouchers.

“It’s a matter of choice,” he said, “and forces districts to be better at educating students.”

DiOrio supports the Fair School Funding Plan, which would provide schools with equal funding on a per pupil basis. In prepared remarks, he said too much of the state’s $8 billion in education aid goes to urban areas and never reaches the classroom.

“We’re not helping the children of Newark, Paterson and Passaic by throwing money at their school districts,” he said.

DiOrio says the timing was right to contest Sarlo. But he’s relying on limited mailings, social networking and knocking on thousands of doors to canvass votes. It’s a bare bones campaign compared to the senator’s TV ad and $790,000 war chest as of 11 days before the election, according to campaign finance records.

“My opponent has deeper pockets by a long shot,” DiOrio said. “That doesn’t dissuade me.”

Sarlo, who chairs the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, was a prime sponsor of legislation that reformed New Jersey’s workers compensation system, established the “Main Street Business Assistance Program,” and upgraded penalties for identity theft. He also sponsored laws dealing with ethics reforms, energy efficiency, environmental protection, homeland security and consumer protection.

Last month, Sarlo joined film advocates and industry professionals to urge Christie to support a film tax credit to preserve New Jersey’s motion picture legacy.

“New Jersey’s film and media tax credit was a proven success, creating job opportunities and encouraging private investment in our economy,” Sarlo said in a press release promoting his legislation to reinstate the film tax credit to its previous level. His legislative office did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.

DiOrio has hammered him for “flip flopping” on the film tax after the reality TV show “Jersey Show” nearly benefitted from the law.

Gaming at the Meadowlands has emerged as one of the campaign issues that separates the candidates. DiOrio is opposed to casino gambling at the Meadowlands at the moment. First, the state needs to make good on its commitment to Atlantic City, he said, and focus on development of the American Dream at Meadowlands, formerly known as Xanadu, as an attraction for South Bergen and source of tax revenues and jobs.

“I would support (casinos) in the future, but not now,” DiOrio said.

Schaer, however, is a proponent of gambling in the Meadowlands.

“People scratch their heads and wonder why this isn’t happening,” Schaer said, noting it is shorter for North Jersey residents to drive to slots in Pennsylvania or New York than to Atlantic City. “Why not take advantage of the tax revenues and job creations? … I’m astounded we haven’t gone in this direction already.”

Marilyn Joyce Lehren was editor of Livingston Patch in Essex County. She has written on a variety of issues, including education, and has worked as a copy editor at The Times of Trenton and as a reporter for The Philadelphia Business Journal.

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