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Assembly District 16 Hopefuls Both Stress Education, Economic Issues

Incumbent GOP assemblywoman appointed last year faces teacher who clashed with Christie.

Maria Corfield, Democratic challenger for the Assembly seat in District 16.
Maria Corfield, Democratic challenger for the Assembly seat in District 16.

Marie Corfield, the Democratic candidate in Assembly District 16's special election this November, names three issues that she believes are most important to New Jersey's middle class: jobs and the economy, taxes, and education.

"Those, I think, are issues that resonate with people all over the state," Corfield said, adding that the three issues are intertwined.

Donna Simon, Republican Assemblywoman for District 16.
Donna Simon, Republican Assemblywoman for District 16.

They are, of course, issues that most candidates would name, but the last one -- education -- is especially important to Corfield, who is facing Republican incumbent Donna Simon, who likewise is stressing education reform, economic development and tax relief.

Simon was selected last year to fill the seat of the late Assemblyman Peter Biondi, who died two days after his re-election.

An art teacher from Flemington, Corfield came to prominence two years ago after publicly calling out Gov. Chris Christie and his education cuts at a town hall meeting in Raritan Township.

The video of their confrontation attracted widespread attention via YouTube and other online media outlets. And Corfield has made education a centerpiece of her campaign.

"We can't slash education funding and at the same time complain about our, quote unquote, failing schools," Corfield said.

"I see first-hand what goes on in the classroom every day," Corfield added. "I see it all, kids coming into school who are in homeless shelters, not getting enough to eat at home, kids who have parents who are very hands-on -- those parents can be rich, middle-class, poor, it runs the gamut. I see what cutting funding and narrowing education to performing on standardized tests is doing to our kids."

"Do we want to raise the next generation of children to be creative thinkers, to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?" Corfield asked, "Or do we want people who just know how to give rote responses and who are drilled and skilled in practicing to take standardized tests?"

Corfield supports tax breaks for small businesses, earned income tax credit, women's right to health care, and raising the minimum wage, but she brings it back to education reform, alluding to a "symbiotic relationship" in which good schools yield healthy communities -- and vice versa.

Simon, a former member of the Readington Township Committee, is also focused on the schools, with a particular interest in steps to improve education for autistic children. There is, for instance, legislation, with a companion bill in the Senate, that Simon said would put in place consequences for aides in classrooms who do not report teachers' verbal abuse towards autistic children.

Simon points out a slew of local issues important to District 16, including flood control (a particularly relevant topic in the wake of Hurricane Irene), economic development and property tax relief.

"We have a bill asking the governor to appoint experts in flood control," Simon said. The Hunterdon-Somerset Task Force, as it is called, would be responsible for figuring out how to make towns in the district less prone to flooding.

Simon said he is also working to revitalize the Flemington area. "There's a lot of empty storefronts," she said. "We have to put our heads together and figure out how we can rejuvenate the area and create jobs."

Although Simon acknowledged that there is no single answer to economic rejuvenation, she mentioned a potential bill -- which she would like to create -- that would give a special liquor license to the historic Union Hotel on Main Street in Flemington. Simon explained that developers feel that if there is a liquor license, the hotel would be more likely to be restored, which would bring more activity to the town.

"One of the major things I'm working on," Simon added, "is a property tax relief bill. It's a bill I'm very proud of, which has bipartisan support from Senate Democrats and our side of the aisle."

The bill, Simon said, "would relieve our burdened taxpayers 10 percent, or (capped at) about $1,000 a home," for those earning a maximum of$400,000 a year.

Simon was sworn into her Assembly seat in late January She is also sponsored to make it easier for municipalities to merge, cutting overlapping costs.

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer focusing mainly on politics and culture. He is an editorial assistant at Community News Service, a local newspaper group in Mercer County.

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