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In South Jersey’s 2nd, a Surprisingly Tight Race for State Senate Seat

A sudden death, a last-minute switch in the ticket — and the obligatory attack ads — bring Democrat and Republican within striking distance for contested Senate seat

colin bell
Democratic Sen. Colin Bell

For Democrats, at least, the state Senate race in South Jersey’s 2nd Legislative District didn’t always look this close.

It began with Democratic state Senator Jim Whelan’s decision late last year to retire, an announcement that set in motion a search for his replacement. Both of Whelan’s district-mates, Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown and Democratic Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, stepped up to succeed the incumbent, winning their respective parties’ backing to run in June’s primary.

But Democrats, fearing for Mazzeo’s chances against a more formidable Brown, at the last minute decided to flip the ticket, substituting for Mazzeo former Atlantic County Freeholder Colin Bell. Bell defeated a series of primary challengers to secure the nomination, but his prospects against the better-known Brown remained uncertain.

News of Whelan’s sudden death — which resulted in Bell’s being sworn in to the Legislature’s upper house just last week — helped complicate the picture.

Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown
Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown

Now, with just under a month until Election Day, the odds have narrowed. Brown and Bell have spent the past several weeks making their cases to voters, issuing attack ads, and raising considerable sums of money toward their campaigns. The two also met for the first official debate of the race in Egg Harbor last week, where they sparred along party lines over such issues as school funding, property-tax relief, and tax rates for millionaires.

Neck and neck

All that has brought them nearly neck and neck, with one recent Stockton University poll showing the two candidates in a dead heat. Though it may have gotten off to a rocky start, the contest shaped up to be one of the most competitive — if not the most competitive — contests in the state this election year.

“The 2nd Legislative District is seen as one of the most competitive districts in the state of New Jersey, and the Senate race is living up to that billing,” said Sharon Schulman, executive director of the Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton.

Electoral battleground

Of course, as Shulman notes, it was always expected to be a race to watch. Democrats and Republicans hold similar clout in the Atlantic County-based district, with the former outnumbering the latter by almost 14,000 registered voters, but the rest remaining unaffiliated. Those dynamics have made it one of the only districts in the state that sends members of both major parties to Trenton, which it’s consistently done since Whelan was elected to the state’s lower house there in 2006.

It’s also made it one of the most expensive: according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the 2nd attracted more political spending than any other in the state since 2003, with more than $25 million having been dropped on legislative races there from 2003 through 2015.

“Overall, the district has tended to be Republican, especially at the county government level. It’s had a Republican county executive for decades, a lot of the freeholder board has been controlled by Republicans, so there is a strong Republican tilt to the district,” said John Froonjian, senior research associate at the Hughes Center. “But on the state ticket, it has been a swing district. And I think that’s why it’s been so competitive.”

Indeed, Democrats have wasted no time in trying to gain the advantage, at least in legislative races. The state’s 2011 reapportionment was seen to have strengthened the party’s hold on the district, as it picked up Democratic Somers Point, Buena Borough, and Buena Vista Township and lost Republican Galloway Township. Involvement from outside interest groups has also ratcheted up in recent races, including those backed by George Norcross, the South Jersey power broker and political benefactor of many of the region’s elected officials.

Those changes have led to a series of Democratic victories in recent years, including Whelan’s re-election to the Senate in 2011, in what was the most expensive race in the state that cycle. Mazzeo barely beat Assemblyman John Amodeo for his post in 2013, and won his own re-election in 2015 — a race that saw $5.2 million spent on the district, according to ELEC.

Bell was also in that race, though both incumbents ultimately prevailed. Democrats, led by Norcross, dumped millions of dollars on both legislative contests that year, outspending Republicans nearly four to one. They’re expected to spend a similar amount this year.

“Some of these races have been extremely close over the years, and I think this one is no exception,” Froonjian said.

Top vote-getter

Still, all that has made a tougher candidate out of Brown, who’s held on despite the being the lone Republican. The three-term incumbent has worked to forge positive relationships with groups in the district, including with many public- and private-sector unions but also local organizations like the NAACP, of which he’s a member. And he’s sought to champion opposition to the state’s recent push to expand casino gaming into North Jersey, pleasing voters who fear the effect such a move might have on an already beleaguered Atlantic City.

As a result, the Army veteran and former prosecutor has become the top vote-getter in the district, beating Mazzeo both in 2011 and in 2015 by over 700 points. That popularity has carried into this cycle, winning the Republican a few key endorsements, including one by the powerful New Jersey Education Association, which listed Brown as one of a few GOP candidates it would support this year.

“I’m seeking to be your senator for the same reason I became your assemblyman, and that’s public service,” Brown said at Wednesday’s debate. “When you’re someone who was activated for war on two occasions, you take your commitment to our county and our country very seriously.”

According to the Stockton poll, Brown has plenty of name recognition in the district going into November, with only 39 percent of voters — a relatively minor number at this stage, Froonjian noted — saying they were unfamiliar with the official. Of those that did know of him, 51 percent said they had a favorable opinion, with nine percent saying they had an unfavorable one.

Froonjian added that Brown is also showing more strength than the rest of the Republican ticket this year, which includes Brigantine resident Vince Sera and former Margate Commissioner Brenda Taube. Sera and Taube received 17 percent and 16 percent support in the poll, respectively, while Mazzeo and his running mate, Buena Vista Township Committeeman John Armato, earned 34 percent and 25 percent.

Brown’s reputation is what ultimately convinced Democratic party leaders earlier this year to swap Mazzeo, a two-term incumbent, with Bell, a comparatively little-known Freeholder from Margate. Early polling apparently showed Mazzeo faring poorly against Brown, convincing Atlantic County Democrats in March to endorse Bell for the seat.

The move initially left some observers scratching their heads, since Mazzeo was considered an obvious heir to Whelan. When the two ran together against Brown for the Assembly in 2015, Mazzeo was the second-highest vote-getter in the district, with Bell coming third. He also lost an earlier re-election for Freeholder.

And Bell’s name recognition continues to lag behind the others this cycle, with 58 percent of voters responding to the Stockton poll saying they didn’t really know the newcomer.

A capable challenger

But Democrats maintain they have a capable challenger in Bell, pointing to a list of factors that are working in the party’s favor this year. One of the biggest is a high-profile gubernatorial contest between former ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy and Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, which experts say is expected to have an effect on down-ballot races across the state.

Froonjian notes that Murphy, considered by many to be the odds-on favorite, is leading in the district 53 percent to 31 percent. At the same time, two of the state’s highest-profile Republicans — Gov. Chris Christie and President Donald Trump — have extremely low approval ratings.

“We know that a number of people vote the ticket,” said Froonjian. “And if it is a Democratic year, some people may not know Colin Bell, but if they know they’re voting Democratic, that might be an explanation for what we’re seeing in the race.”

Christie, Froonjian added, has even become a liability in elections this year, with 58 percent of voters in the Stockton poll saying they were less likely to vote for a candidate if the governor were to endorse that candidate. But he also said it found that 32 percent of voters were not following the 2nd District race closely, which could impact the number of votes cast at the ballot box.

“Turnout is always a factor in any race, really, but in a tight race, turnout is huge,” he said. “And if there is a sizeable group out there who are not following the very race closely, whoever gets their base out will have the advantage.”

Other factors have to do with Bell himself. He is well-liked among those voters who know him, and according to the Stockton poll has a solid 32 percent to 9 percent favorability rating. And unlike Mazzeo, the Democrat has never served in the Legislature, which means he has no voting record that his Republican opponents might target. That was another worry with the incumbent, whose handling of certain issues was seen as potential baggage by party leaders.

Last year, Mazzeo was widely panned after his signature was found whited-out on a draft resolution by Brown aimed at stalling a referendum that asked voters to expand gaming into north Jersey and outside Atlantic City, to which it’s been limited for the past 40 years. The Democrat had publicly voiced his opposition to such a referendum, but said he rescinded his name from the resolution after deciding Brown wasn’t serious about the issue.

The incident continues to be a point of contention in the district’s Assembly race this year. Taube, who suggested Brown is the only official in the district who’s stood strong against the prospect of north Jersey gaming, said Mazzeo has too often been swayed by special interests, identifying the resolution as one example.

The four Assembly candidates also participated in Wednesday’s debate alongside Brown and Bell.

Missed opportunity

“[The Democrats] had an opportunity to diversify our economy and lower taxes, but they haven’t yet,” Taube told NJ Spotlight. “So, if we can get in there, we can make a difference. We’re in it for the right reasons, which is the people, whereas the other side has a lot of special-interest money funding them.”

Bell, for his part, contended that Brown has been too inconsistent in his own leadership. The Republican presents himself as a stalwart defender of Atlantic City and its gaming industry, but Bell said that contradicts his voting record. He points specifically to Brown’s “yes” votes on the county’s PILOT program, which would allow casinos to provide fixed payments in lieu of property taxes, even after outwardly criticizing it.

According to the version of the legislation the state passed earlier this year, Atlantic County will get a 10.4 percent share of the $120 million the casinos will collectively pay under the program. Brown and other officials, however, had asked for 13.5 percent, which reflected a historical average of more than 15 years.

Brown could not be reached for comment on this story, but in the past he’s defended his votes, arguing the bill represented the best deal he could get after months of working on the issue.

“When you go out and tell the voters that you fought for something but then voted for it — you know, I think people are starting to recognize that, and that’s not what people want in politics,” Bell said.

Bell was unanimously selected by the Atlantic County Democratic Committee to serve out the remainder of Whelan’s term last week, after the former Atlantic City mayor and South Jersey powerhouse passed away of a heart attack. He said he’s already introduced a flurry of bills aimed at addressing problems in the district, including legislation to limit “Quick Draw” games by the New Jersey Lottery and expand the county’s terrorism statute in the wake of recent domestic attacks in places like Charlottesville, VA. He also became a prime sponsor of an economic package authored by Whelan that would designate Atlantic City’s airport and a one-mile radius around it as a “Garden State Growth Zone” to attract businesses to the area.

Carrying on Whelan’s legacy — though a “bittersweet” experience, Bell said — could be viewed as another advantage the Democrat has gained in the race.

“In the district, Jim Whelan was extremely popular, extremely well-known, and pretty much a beloved politician, who died,” Froonjian said. “And Colin Bell replaced him, so that’s another factor.”

“When you talk about Senator Whelan’s legacy, one thing about him is he was honest — maybe some people would say too brutally honest — about where he stood on this, and that’s also how I’ve tried to conduct myself,” Bell said. “People appreciate that even when they disagree with you.”

Other issues

On other issues, both Republicans and Democrats vying for seats in the 2nd District this year agree. All candidates have said they want to lower property taxes for cash-strapped residents in the county, as well as strengthen Atlantic City’s casino industry. Bell and Taube also said they want to help diversify the district’s economy, mainly by growing new industries there, such as its aerospace and aviation fields.

“We need to lessen the burden we’ve had on our taxpayers so that they stop exiting the state,” Taube said. “How I say that we do that is by lessening the property tax burden on all of us and by building up our casino industry so that’s it’s as strong as it can be.”

Both cited recent reports that found aviation technology a ripe area for growth, including one commissioned by Angelou Economics that recommended the county create a maintenance center for airplanes and complete the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park. The county broke ground on the first of seven buildings for the park this summer, Taube said, though more economic incentives are needed to finish it.

Bell notes that Atlantic County is home to the Federal Aviation Administration’s technical center, which he said holds unique research-related opportunities for exploring things like drone technology and aircraft cargo maintenance.

“Everyone is united in their opposition to North Jersey gaming — we know it would be a killer for the local gaming industry down here,” Bell said. “So we will continue to fight against that with everything we have, while at the same time looking to diversify our economy. Because even though I believe we will be successful at stopping casinos in North Jersey, we still face expansion in other jurisdictions, in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, so we need to create other industries here in Atlantic County, so that we can keep our residents employed even when we face that expansion.”

“This industry drives, or should I say flies, a 1.5 trillion-dollar nationwide industry,” Taube said. “So if we can capitalize on that, it’s going to be great, because it’s going to bring in different jobs and skilled work.”

With election day approaching, Bell said he hopes to continue taking his case to the voters, who he said have responded positively to his message. Brown, meanwhile, said at Wednesday’s debate that, though officials were successful in fending off last year's North Jersey casino referendum, the fight isn’t over.

The two candidates are set to meet at a second debate in the district on the 25th.

“We’ve accomplished a lot since we got in, from stopping North Jersey casinos, and bringing the Hard Rock down here, knowing that they were prepared to open in the Meadowlands,” he said, referring to initial plans to locate the casino in north Jersey. “Now they are here, and that’s a 500 million investment, and 4,000 permanent jobs. But we have to keep on top of it, and we have to remain vigilant.”

Money is also expected to play a major role in the race. Though the candidates have reported no spending in the general election yet, during the primary Brown had the edge, raising more than $427,000 to Bell’s $32,000. Much more is expected to be spent by special interest groups on advertising, which Froonjian said could go soon go negative.

Considering all that, Froonjian stressed that his poll’s results should be taken with a grain of salt. “It's just a snapshot in time,” he said, adding that “a lot can change between now and November 7.”

Chase Brush is a freelance writer and editor based in the greater New York area. He is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and Rutgers University alumnus.

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