Without a doubt, the legislature’s vote to reduce pension and healthcare benefits for state workers is going to be a marquee campaign issue in districts around New Jersey.
Nowhere is it likely to be more of a factor in the outcome than in the 14th District, where Linda Greenstein, the incumbent Democratic senator, is facing a stiff challenge from Richard Kanka, who is a member of the Hamilton Board of Education but better known as the father of the girl for whom Megan’s Law is named.
The battle at the top of the ticket will likely dictate how the Assembly races go.
Until last year, the district had split representation with Republican Bill Baroni serving in the Senate. When he moved on to the Port Authority as deputy executive director, then-Assemblywoman Greenstein won a hard-fought battle in a special election for his seat.
She won with support from labor, who saw the race as an opportunity to demonstrate the impact they can have on a campaign and send the message that defeat awaits those who oppose their agenda and support Christie’s policies.
Tom Goodwin, who had been appointed to the seat after Baroni resigned, felt that impact.
A year later, the unions are still smarting from their battles with Christie and they’ll do all they can — in terms of money and manpower — to help Greenstein return to Trenton.
Greenstein is teamed with incumbents Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson. This is DeAngelo’s second term. Benson replaced Greenstein in the Assembly.
Kanka is paired with two other Republicans who have not sought legislative seats before, but in this case, his name recognition may be enough to attract attention to the ticket. He’s the father of Megan Kanka, the seven-year-old who was abducted and killed by a convicted sex offender who lived in the neighborhood. He and his wife campaigned to get the legislature to pass Megan’s Law, the first law in the nation to require officials to make public information about where convicted sex offenders live.
On the ticket with him are Wayne Wittman, a former mayor of Cranbury, and Sheree McGowan, a member of the Robbinsville Council. She replaced Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried, who dropped out of the race in August citing health reasons.
More than any other race, this one will test labor union strength. A glance at the district tells why.
The district straddles Middlesex and Mercer counties — home to thousands of state workers, many of whom relish the opportunity for some payback. They can’t vote against Christie because he’s not on the ballot, but other Republicans are. And unlike other districts, where the Democrats gave Christie the votes he needed, those in the 14th opposed his pension and health benefits reductions last June, making union endorsements of them an easy call.
Just how bad the unions want Greenstein to win is evident in the endorsement Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 9 gave her, even though Kanka is a member.
Although the district has nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans (45,026 to 23,970), independent voters (63,990) outnumber both and will determine the outcome.
Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s polling institute, gives the Democrats a slight edge in the race, but it’s so slight that either party could win.
Redistricting may have a small impact with the elimination of South Brunswick and West Windsor and the addition of East Windsor, Hightstown, and Robbinsville.
East Windsor and Hightstown both voted Democratic two years ago, but in much smaller numbers than South Brunswick and West Windsor — about 4,200 votes vs. 10,000 for the top Democratic vote-getters in those communities in 2009. Robbinsville voted Republican, by not quite a 2-to-1 margin. Still, the top GOP candidate got only 2,547 votes.
There may be other factors besides the numbers, though. Greenstein has ties to West Windsor — she cut her political teeth on the West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education in the early 1990s — that likely helped her polling there. And with a population of more than 88,000, Hamilton Township is by far the largest municipality in the district, which could help Kanka, who is from Hamilton.