In the 7th District’s races for the New Jersey Legislature, incumbents from both parties are forecast to be re-elected despite strong challenges, particularly from Republicans who hope to benefit from Gov. Chris Christie’s popularity.
Political analysts expect the current occupants in the split district to prevail on the basis of long service, personal popularity or simple incumbency but GOP challengers argue that popular discontent over scarce jobs and high property taxes indicate the time is right for them to overturn the Democrats’ modest margin of victory in the last election.
Contenders on both sides of the aisle agree that the top priorities for the next Legislature will be job creation through tax incentives or regulatory changes, and continued property tax relief.
The district spans an area south of Trenton and north of Cherry Hill. It includes the towns of Moorestown,Willingboro, Burlington, and Bordentown.
In the Senate race, well-known Republican Sen. Diane Allen is defending a seat she has held since 1998 against Delran Township Council President Gary Catrambone, a Democrat who highlights his record in controlling property taxes.
Allen’s longevity has at least as much to do with her personal popularity as with her party, an affiliation that she plays down, saying that she wouldn’t survive without some votes from the district’s registered Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by almost two to one.
In an interview, Allen said that jobs, taxes, open space and health care are the issues on the minds of most voters.
While property taxes are set locally, Allen said she and other elected officials at the state level can help to reduce the need for tax hikes by encouraging the sharing of services by adjacent municipalities. She said she has been working on service sharing with local leaders in Democrat-dominated Beverly.
Allen, a former TV news anchor who now runs her own media production company, said she works with people regardless of who they vote for. “People say to me: ‘Why are you working in Willingboro? They don’t vote for you there,’” she said. “I put people before politics.”
That’s why she is counting on some Democratic votes on Nov. 5.
“If I don’t get any Democratic votes, I won’t win,” she said.
But she acknowledged that this year, party affiliation is likely to help her and other Republicans because of the popularity of Christie. “I think he will have some coat-tails, and I think that will help me,” she said.
In an interview, he accused Allen of lacking the independence valued by local voters, and said she backed away from a bill that would have provided $7.4 million to fund women’s health programs. Allen initially supported the bill but did not vote for an override after it was vetoed by Gov. Christie in July, Catrambone said.
“She is not an independent voice for the people of this district,” Catrambone said.
Catrambone, a marketing executive for a technology company in the mortgage industry, said his experience as a small businessman, and as Delran council president since 2008, puts him in touch with the concerns of most voters.
To attract new employers, the council has expedited planning applications from businesses such as Dollar Tree, which recently built a new store on an abandoned site in Delran, drawing shoppers and at least one other business, he said.
Catrambone said he would also consider providing tax incentives to attract new businesses, a policy that he acknowledged was in line with that favored by Allen. “That’s an issue that we might agree on,” he said.
On property taxes, he said Delran homeowners are paying little more now than they did five years ago – although there have been fluctuations from year to year – and that he would seek to continue to keep property tax increases to a minimum if he is elected to the Senate.
The council stabilized taxes in part by consolidating departments and sharing services with other towns, Catrambone said. It also sought lowest-cost solutions such as purchasing a small piece of land for the creation of a turn lane to relieve congestion at a local intersection. The land cost about one-fifth of the alternative, a traffic light, and eased the traffic problem, he said.
“This is everybody’s money,” he said. “How are we going to be prudent?”
Asked how he would overturn the incumbency of a popular senator, Catrambone said Allen’s victory in the 2011 election was by about 7,000 votes out of some 47,000 cast, a margin he sees as indicating the seat is winnable.
With only one term in the Assembly, Singleton faces a tougher re-election challenge than Conaway but supporters point to his activism as a member of the legislature’s Budget, Education, and Commerce & Economic Development committees, and his work on behalf of higher education while also finding construction-industry jobs for unemployed ex-soldiers.
According to the Election Law Enforcement Commission, Singleton was the best-funded candidate at the time of primary, with a closing balance of $246,341. He is followed by Allen with $179,034, Conaway with $112,634, and Catrambone with only $10,050.
Banasz and Ogozalek show a joint balance of zero in their primary filing, reflecting a transfer of $44,625, since when they have raised about another $30,000, Ogozalek said.
Singleton’s re-election is important to the Democrats, who have high hopes for him, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
For that reason, he’s a prime target for the Republicans, Dworkin said. “He doesn’t have the benefits of years of incumbency, and if they are going to beat him, this would be the time to do it.”
In the predominantly Democratic district, Singleton and Conaway are likely to prevail, Dworkin said. But that could be upset if their Republican challengers attract more support from Christie or if the GOP decides to spend aggressively on TV advertising.
Singleton said voters are concerned mostly with jobs and the rising cost of living, both areas where he claims success as an assemblyman.
He and Conaway are primary sponsors of the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, which provides tax credits for employers to encourage them to expand their operations.
In Burlington County, the law provided $40 million in tax credits to two major local employers – Burlington Coat Factory and the defense contractor Lockheed Martin – helping to save more than 1,700 jobs, Singleton said.
To ease the property tax burden, Singleton has proposed a bill that would return to municipalities some of the $1 billion a year they collectively pay the state for the use of public lands. The bill would pay local governments $300 million over five years, easing the pressure for higher taxes, Singleton said.
He called the 7th District race “very competitive” and said the Republicans are mounting a “very spirited challenge” but that the incumbents are “cautiously optimistic.”
With a Republican state senator and two Democratic assemblymen, the 7th is a swing district where voters don’t necessarily adhere to one party, Singleton said.
“Voters don’t just vote along party lines,” he said. “They make value judgments.”
One such voter is Burlington resident Umesh Shah, a registered Democrat who said he will vote Republican for both Senate and Assembly because he thinks they stand a better chance of reducing the $10,000 he pays annually in property taxes on his 2,800-square-foot, four-bedroom home.
Shah, who owns a local convenience store, said he also will vote Republican because he likes Governor Christie.
“He understands New Jersey’s problems better,” Shah said in an interview outside the Walgreens on Route 130 in Burlington. “He has balanced the budget and cut down on a lot of stuff that wasn’t necessary.”But Connie Danley said she would vote Democratic, despite her approval of Allen’s record, because she is a “die-hard Democrat.”
“I know she (Allen) does a good job, and I would probably vote for her if she was a Democrat,” said Danley, a medical secretary.
Even if some towns have stabilized property taxes, the GOP’s Ogozalek said he believes the Democratic incumbents in the Assembly are vulnerable because of voters’ concerns over taxes and overregulation of business.
He said nonresidential real-estate developers should not have to pay a 2 percent fee to support affordable housing, and that businesses are often deterred from setting up in New Jersey because of regulations imposed by the state. He blamed heavy regulation for Ocean Spray’s recent decision to relocate from Bordentown to Pennsylvania.
Asked whether he expected to benefit from belonging to the same party as the popular governor, Ogozalek said he would campaign on his own merits but would welcome any support that he gets for sharing a party affiliation with the governor.
“People want Chris Christie to follow through on his reforms, and he needs a Republican Legislature,” said Ogozalek, a former investigator in the Burlington County Sheriff’s Department and a graduate of Rutgers School of Law in Camden.
His running mate, Jeff Banasz, said the two Assembly seats are winnable by Republicans because, unlike in 2011, this is a gubernatorial election year, and both GOP candidates will benefit from Christie also being on the ballot.
The Republicans are also encouraged by the fact that Singleton beat his nearest Republican challenger by only 1,259 votes in 2011, suggesting that it won’t take much to turn the result around this time, Banasz said.
He said attracting job-creating businesses to New Jersey is his top priority, and that would help to solve other pressing problems, notably education funding.
“A lot of other things can be fixed if we have a favorable business climate,” said Banasz, who led a platoon of 58 Marines in Iraq in 2003.
By advocating tax incentives for New Jersey businesses, in line with Gov. Christie’s policies, Banasz said he and Ogozalek will be able to tap into popular discontent with the high taxes and red tape left over from the administration of Governor Jon Corzine and earlier Democratic administrations.
Banasz accused Conaway of representing the tax-and-spend regimes of the past, suggesting he can be beaten, despite his long incumbency. “He never met a tax he didn’t like,” Banasz said.
But Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, predicted the incumbents will be re-elected. She said Conaway is well-known and long-serving, and that Allen has personal popularity that transcends party loyalties.
Singleton’s survival is “a bit trickier,” Harrison said, but he, too, is likely to prevail simply because of his incumbency.
The odds of a Republican upset could be shortened if Christie ramps up his support for the local candidates but there’s no evidence so far of that happening, Harrison said.
Christie’s apparent reluctance to give stronger support to local Republicans may reflect his contentment with having a Democrat-controlled Legislature because it gives him a scapegoat when things don’t go his way, Harrison argued.
And showing that he can work with the dominant party in the state house would burnish the governor’s bipartisan credentials if he runs for president in 2016, she said.On specific policy positions, all six candidates say they are in favor of allowing gay marriage. But it is unclear whether the Republicans would vote to override the governor’s veto on the issue.
The candidates were also unanimously in favor of funding open-space preservation with existing revenue -- as proposed by a recent bill to dedicate a fifth of a cent of every dollar in sales tax revenue to preservation, up to a maximum of $200 million a year -- rather than with any new taxes.
Singleton said preservation should have a stable source of funding. “I would support a carefully crafted, realistic and reliable stream derived from current revenue, as opposed to creating some new tax or fee,” he said.
Ogozalek and Banasz said in a joint statement that they support the current proposal to amend the state constitution and provide $200 million annually for open-space preservation.
Asked whether New Jersey should have set up its own health-insurance marketplace to implement the Affordable Care Act, rather than choosing to have the exchange run by the federal government, candidates were split along party lines. The Republican Assembly candidates said Gov. Christie “made the right choice” by allowing the federal government to operate the program, while their Democratic opponents said a state-run exchange would have been a better choice.
Conaway, who wrote a bill that would have established a state-run exchange, said it would have provided additional dollars in federal tax credits to properly educate people on all of their healthcare options under the federal law.
Asked whether local communities or school boards should have the final say over whether a charter school can open in a district, the Democratic candidates called for local approval while the GOP candidates favored centralized control.
“I do think the Board of Education in each district should be involved but should not have the final say,” Allen said in an interview. The GOP Assembly candidates said charter schools “can serve an important role” in districts where public schools are failing.
Asked to name budget priorities for the next legislative session, candidates for both parties identified job creation and further property tax relief as their top items.
Allen said she wants to cut business taxes to make it more attractive for companies, particularly in manufacturing, to set up in New Jersey, while Ogozalek and Banasz said their first action, if elected, would be to pass property tax legislation to reduce homeowners’ bills by $1,000 over four years, as already proposed by Christie. The cut would be paid for by excess revenues, Ogozalek said.
Conaway also called for tax incentives for small businesses, as well as boosting education funding.
“Innumerable studies have shown that an educated populace is a successful and prosperous one,” he said.
Catrambone predicted that the Legislature and the governor will focus on job creation in the coming session.
“The most important issue facing New Jersey today is ensuring that middle-class families have good, stable jobs,” he said.