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In Democratic 18th, GOP Hopes to Pick Up Seat Once Filled by Sen. Buono

18th District Composite

In their quest to gain control of the state Senate, New Jersey Republicans are hoping Gov. Chris Christie's coattails are long enough to carry them to victory in an unexpected district, the overwhelmingly Democratic 18th, where state Sen. Barbara Buono's gubernatorial bid has put her seat in play.

The state GOP thinks it has a shot with former Democrat and Mayor of East Brunswick David Stahl. There's also an independent on the ballot, which could further split the difference.

The Democrats are backing Assemblyman Peter Barnes, an attorney who has served in the lower house since 2007.

The 18th is 40 percent Democratic vs. 14th percent Republican.

Thanks to the ripple effect, Barnes’s decision to run for the Senate has created an Assembly vacancy. His running mate, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr., is paired with fellow Democrat Nancy Pinkin, a councilwoman in East Brunswick. Opposing them are Republicans Robert Bengivenga, a councilman in South Plainfield, and Lisa Goldhamer, who unsuccessfully ran for Edison Township Council in 2011. There is also one independent, Sheila Angalet of Edison, on the Assembly ballot. Angalet has been a Committeewoman in Edison's 23rd District since 2007.

david stahl
David Stahl

The district encompasses seven municipalities in Middlesex County: East Brunswick, Edison, Helmetta, Highland Park, Metuchen, South Plainfield, and South River. East Brunswick, Stahl's bailiwick, is the second-largest town in the district. And until earlier this year, Stahl was a Democrat himself.

"There is some chance for the Republicans. They are running a strong candidate for Senate," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "The district has also showed strong support for Christie in the past, so Christie is likely to have coattails. It's a very competitive race." The Republican ticket is also spending money, though not as much as the Democrats, according to the most recent campaign reports. Both sides have been advertising on cable TV.

According to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission, Barnes has received $240,144 in contributions thus far and spent $211,336, while Stahl has raised $184,219 and spent $166,511. Together the GOP slate, Stahl and the Assembly candidates, have raised $332,262 and spent $238,283 as a joint committee. Goldhamer and Bengivenga have raised additional amounts for their individual campaigns. The Democratic party, filing as a joint committee, has raised $541,474 and spent $428,298, not including individual contributions to each candidate. Independent Sheila Angalet has received $20,150 in contributions.

Peter Barnes
Peter Barnes

According to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, all candidates in the 18th have raised about $1.6 million for the general election thus far.

Money has been the source of some controversy. In June, Democrat Pinkin, who has raised $151,688 for her campaign to date, was accused of violating state election laws by Republicans Bengivenga and Goldhamer. Pinkin had accepted a $20,000 contribution from her husband, which is greater than the $2,600 limit on an individual contribution, and later refunded the excess amount and filed an amended campaign finance return.

The money, the popularity of Gov. Chris Christie, and the presence of Stahl in the race have made this one interesting.

"The district normally elects Democrats but the hope is that a Democrat turned Republican a few months ago could help sway voters,” Murray said, “but Democrats have been hitting hard and it should prove effective in retaining the seats.”

Patrick Diegnan Jr.
Patrick Diegnan Jr

Barnes, an attorney in private practice, serves as the chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee and vice chair of Appropriations.

"I have enjoyed serving in the Assembly the last seven years,” said Barnes, a lifelong resident of the district. “I enjoy public service. I believe I have done a lot of good things and want to continue to serve."

Barnes has sponsored bills that imposed the current 2 percent property cap, sought to ban .50-caliber rifles in the state, which Christie vetoed, and economic stimulus legislation that he hopes will create jobs.

Stahl, who received a law degree from George Washington University, and his running mates, Bengivenga and Goldhamer, say they are hoping to provide property tax relief for middle class families and boost job growth in central Jersey. They also say they are Republicans who support marriage equality, community approval of charter schools, a referendum to fund the preservation of open spaces ,and a 10 percent reduction in property taxes.

Nancy Pinkin
Nancy Pinkin

"The first step is passing Governor Christie’s plan to provide the middleclass with a 10 percent reduction in property taxes," Stahl said. “Peter Barnes has done nothing but put up roadblocks to Gov. Christie’s property tax reform plan.”

The Democrats had originally proposed a 10 percent reduction in property taxes, rather than Christie’s across-the-board income tax cut. But they backed off that plan when revenues were lower than the Christie administration had projected, saying the state could not afford a tax cut without first identifying budget cuts.

"We need to end jackpot payouts for unused sick and vacation time and need independent representation in the Legislature focused on securing our fair share of school funding," Barnes said. "Making sure our suburban communities get their fair share of education aid will not only provide our children with the opportunities they deserve, it will also lessen the burden of property taxpayers."

Barnes said he is looking for a more comprehensive approach to the problem of high property taxes.

"We need to hold a constitutional convention to address the single issue of property tax dilemma," said Barnes. "The convention would address how we raise revenue, because right now we rely on property taxes. Whatever the experts come up with, we have to have the courage to adopt. New Jersey also needs to start thinking about shared services among municipalities. I would not force it, but definitely recommend it."

Robert Bengivenga
Robert Bengivenga

Goldhamer, who has an MBA in finance from Pace Unversity and previously worked in financial services, agreed with Stahl on the tax reduction and sympathizes with the middleclass, being part of it herself.

"While my opponents made millions off taxpaye-funded jobs, I lost mine. Now I work fulltime in retail to provide for my family. After voting for taxes that make the middleclass pay more for healthcare, our mortgages and even our utility bills, it is clear that Trenton politicians have forgotten about families here at home," said Goldhamer.

Diegnan, a child of Irish immigrants, said he also believes in a strong middle class and in supporting residents. He has introduced a bill that would cap property taxes at a maximum of 7 percent of a resident's reportable income on his or her New Jersey tax return. "The reason that I like that idea is because when people retire and their income goes down they would be able to afford to stay in their house," said Diegnan, who chairs of the Assembly Education Committee, and is vice chair of the consumer affairs committee. "If you are laid off, you don't end up losing your house because of property taxes. It is an understandable way to fix the issue."

Lisa Goldhamer
Lisa Goldhamer

All three Democrats also said they support marriage equality and community approval of charter schools and open-space preservation efforts. Barnes in July supported an open space bill that would have the state dedicate one-fifth of one cent of the 7 percent sales tax for open space preservation over the next three decades. That bill did not receive enough backing in either house to make it on the ballot this year, however.

Angalet, a lifelong Edison resident, does not back that effort and was not specific about how she would fund open-space preservation.

"I would like to look for alternate sources of funding to preserve open space without burdening the state with more financial burden," said Angalet. "I don't think it could come from sales tax or a surcharge or anything like that. T here has to be another way."

Like the other candidates, she backs marriage equality, property tax stabilization, and giving districts a say in the approval of charter schools. One issue on which the candidates clearly disagree is how New Jersey is implementing the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The GOP candidates all stated that New Jersey is fully compliant with the newest provisions of the ACA, but the states needs to provide tools to help businesses provide health insurance options for their employees.

"Competition is an essential variable in ensuring that consumers get the biggest bang for their buck, and I believe we need to allow people to buy their healthcare across state lines," Bengivenga said.

Sheila Angalet
Sheila Angalet

Barnes criticized Christie for not setting up a state health insurance exchange, saying he should have used money from the federal government to explain the ACA to residents.

Pinkin, who has a masters degree in health administration from New York University and is a healthcare advocate, has served on the East Brunswick council for nine years. She agreed with Barnes about setting up an exchange.

"Our governor could have chosen to have the our state implement an exchange," said Pinkin. "Most of the states that are doing their own exchange are having a smoother process of enrollment." "I think it's really got to come from the top down. The governor's position has been reluctant acceptance," agreed Diegnan. "The state has to be an advocate of the Affordable Care Act, which we really are not. If this is going to be the future of healthcare, which I believe it will, the state has to be embrace it. Obamacare is here to stay. The need is there and the citizens approve it. "

The views of Angalet, the Independent candidate, closely mirror those of the Democrats.

"Gov. Chris Christie has not approved of enlarging the Medicaid program here in New Jersey," she said. "Had Christie not vetoed increasing Medicaid, more people would have an option to choose it. The site right now for the Affordable Care Act is not running properly. It's sending people to tell them to apply for Medicaid when in New Jersey they can't. If there was a way to overrule Christie's decision, I would."

Maya Chung is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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