Pitched battles are nothing new in Bergen County. During the American Revolution, patriot and loyalists struggled to gain ground here.
So it seems almost appropriate that the 38th Legislative District -- which covers a dozen Bergen towns plus Hawthorne in Passaic -- once again finds itself among New Jersey’s major election battlegrounds.
Democratic state Sen. Bob Gordon and Assemblyman Tim Eustace are joined by Paramus Councilman Joe Lagana in trying to maintain their party’s hold on the hearts and minds of local voters. Lagana replaced Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, who resigned after winning renomination, citing family reasons.
Republicans countered with a strong challenge from Senate candidate Fernando Alonso, a lawyer and law professor who made a solid run for Assembly two years ago. This time he’s paired with Rochelle Park Mayor Joe Scarpa and Joan Fragala, a retired high school principal, for Assembly.
It’s a contest that offers voters clear ideological differences, but with a twist -- the opposing slates both profess their willingness to work across the aisle. It also demonstrates the importance both parties place on the high-profile district.
As early as October 7, before a closing advertising blitz, their campaign committees had reported raising more than $1.9 million while spending almost $1.8 million, higher than any other legislative race except the 14th.
Outside groups that legally finance local efforts also have targeted the 38th, including the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security on the Democratic side and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity for Republicans.
The Democrats present themselves as moderates who have supported some of the measures taken by popular Republican Gov. Chris Christie, whose appeal may or may not shape the race.
The Republican ticket spoofs their opponents’ professed respect for the governor, but also portrays itself as willing to reach for shared goals in a bipartisan manner.
Both sides show some nerves about how partisan gridlock in Washington -- the nicest word any of them offers is “dysfunction” -- is affecting voter attitudes and potential turnout.
“People are really disenchanted from politics and from government,” said Lagana. “They don’t want to talk to politicians.”
He should know. The Democrats said they had knocked on more than 15,000 doors by October 8. Much of the campaign here is retail politics, requiring lots of shoe leather. While the candidates are polite and personable, the district’s extensive media campaigns are not.
One Alonso ad claims Gordon “isn’t telling the truth” on taxes and fees. A pro-Democratic piece darkly suggests Alonso was suspended from the state bar a few years ago, although the reality is that it resulted from a routine matter of filing his annual fee late.
With outside groups chiming in on both sides -- the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision freed corporations, unions, and lobbyists from significant spending restrictions -- candidates suggest the increased chatter may be more confusing than helpful.
“Citizens United hasn’t done anything for me,” said Eustace, a chiropractor and former Maywood mayor. This year’s fundraising has been “a heavy lift,” he said.
Alonso is sanguine about outside money. In the New York media market, campaigns are expensive, but it has balanced out, he said. Gordon is “on TV, I’m on TV.”
But when it comes to money, even the candidates themselves often do not know who is paying for what, according to Scarpa. He has been frustrated trying to trace contributions and spending on the state Election Law Enforcement Commission’s website, he said.
“I agree that as free speech, there shouldn’t be restrictions on contributions,” Scarpa said. “But if we’re going to have that system, then there should be full disclosure and transparency.”
In ticking off the issues, the two Senate candidates show both the overlap and the wide gaps between the parties.