High unemployment in Paterson is the dominant issue in the 35th District, where Assemblywoman Nellie Pou is poised to step up to the Senate.
Pou says she’s prepared to tackle the challenges as a state senator. If she wins, Pou would become the first Latina to represent Paterson and the rest of the heavily Democratic 35th in Trenton.
Standing in her way is Republican challenger Kenneth Pengitore. The one-time mayor of Haledon concedes, however, that his campaign is a long-shot.
“I’m going into a battle where I’m really outnumbered,” said Pengitore.
Pou’s fundraising — more than $273,000 according to campaign finance records — provides a potential advantage. So does her track record in the Assembly. She has served in the lower house for the last 14 years and chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee. She also sits on the NJ Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Pengitore resigned last winter as chief financial officer of the embattled Passaic Valley Sewage Commission (PVSC). Gov. Chris Christie cleaned house there in the wake of a reported criminal investigation of the commission’s operations, but Pengitore has defended the PVSC, calling it “an honorable operation.”
“I’m not deterred being the underdog,” Pengitore said. “In the next week, we’ll push as hard as we can across the goal line.”
He doesn’t use sports metaphors lightly. Pengitore was captain of the Clemson University football team, played a year in the World Football League, and tried out with the Jets before hanging up his cleats.
Pou’s Senate opportunity comes in the wake of last spring’s redistricting, which shifted the hometown of incumbent senator John Girgenti, a Democrat, outside the boundaries of the 35th. He opted to retire rather than move.
Paterson’s ills have made canvassing for votes in the district a challenge, Pengitore said. Crime, ailing schools, and unemployment are not as prominent in the five suburban municipalities that help comprise the 35th District.
“There’s no cookie-cutter approach to the different issues for the different areas,” he said.
The issue of property taxes, however, concerns voters in all the towns in Passaic and Bergen counties, Pengitore noted.
“New Jersey has an image problem, one which is not aided by the TV constantly showing Snooki, pollution, corrupt government, and/or organized crime,” Pengitore told the League of Women Voters NJ Education Fund. “New Jersey needs to get its own house in order to make this an attractive place to be.”
Capping property taxes and cutting government are the cornerstones of his platform: “It’s easy to raise taxes; all that needs to be done is to pass a law. It is much harder, however, to reduce spending or to find ways to spend more efficiently.”
Pou, in her response to the League, said controlling property taxes from Trenton is difficult.
“The new 2 percent cap will help to slow the increases of property taxes. Municipalities must be encouraged to cut costs and to consolidate services with other municipalities,” she said.
She also backs the so-called millionaire’s tax.
“I’ve been very vocal in that regard, fighting to see real shared sacrifice and real property-tax relief,” she said.
Pou said that job creation and maintaining and sustaining small businesses in the communities top the issues for the 35th.
“Small business is the engine that allows our community to prosper,” she said.
Pou lives in North Haledon and works as the assistant business administrator in Paterson, which she said is still reeling from the summer’s “horrific” flooding. About 2,500 residents are not yet back in their homes, and many children have been displaced from their neighborhood schools since Hurricane Irene struck in August.
Pengitore spent 23 years in elected office, beginning on the Haledon school board. He spent three terms on the council and two terms as mayor — a Republican mayor with six Democratic councilmen, he pointed out, citing his ability to get things done across party lines.
“If I win it will be a miracle,” Pengitore said. “But everyone who knows me knows I’m not going away.”