Bruce Springsteen may sing, “Down the shore, everything’s all right,” but thanks to this year’s legislative redistricting, voters in the mostly ocean-hugging 30th are humming a more Dylanesque refrain: “The times they are a-changin.'”
The newly reconfigured 30th now comprises parts of Monmouth and Ocean counties. Avon-by-the-Sea, Belmar, Bradley Beach, Brielle, Lake Como, Sea Girt, Spring Lake, Spring Lake Heights and Wall Township all made the move from the 11th. Also added were Point Pleasant and Manasquan, formerly of the 10th. Only Farmingdale, Howell and Lakewood remain of the former 30th.
One of the most obvious consequences of this will be a new ballot lineup. When Wall was moved from the 11th to the 30th, Sen. Sean Kean and Assemblyman David Rible, Republican incumbents, found themselves residing in the home territory of GOP incumbent Sen. Robert Singer.
To avoid a primary fight, Kean decided to run for Assembly, fixing the battle lines for the fall. Singer, of Lakewood, will defend his Senate seat against Democrat Steven Morlino of Howell. Kean and Rible will face off against Democrats Howard Kleinhendler and Shaun O’Rourke, along with Libertarian David Schneck for the two Assembly seats.
Although district borders have changed, party allegiance largely has not – the 30th remains a Republican stronghold, with the new towns generally falling into the GOP column.
Kean, an attorney who began serving in the Assembly in 2002, and who has served in the Senate since 2007, sees more demographic homogeneity in the towns he hopes to represent in the new district.
“We’ve been making the rounds in the new towns, and the reception has been good,” Kean, 48, said. “In the old 11th District, we had some real extremes on the wealth scale – Rumson and Spring Lake, then Asbury Park and Neptune. The new district is probably much more Republican from a political point of view.”
By contrast, Kleinhendler, an attorney from Lakewood, thinks that the changes in the 30th District result in a more nuanced political dynamic that has its up side.
“I think the district is less Republican. The towns we lost west and south of Lakewood … those are very hard-right Republican towns,” Kleinhendler, 48, said. “Lakewood and Howell have put in Democrats before. Together those two have over half of the 220,000 people in the district. Win those towns, and you’re in.
“Nobody in Lakewood and Howell know who Kean and Rible are. They’re from Wall Township,” Kleinhendler added. “They’re coming in totally cold.”
The issue that arguably strikes the hottest for New Jersey voters is property taxes, which are higher here than anywhere else in the nation. But all forms of taxes are up for scrutiny this year.
“It’s not just property taxes; it’s taxes all the way across the board,” Kean said. “We’ve lost business opportunities to other neighboring states. The pension and healthcare reforms, as well as the 2 percent property tax cap spurred by Gov. Christie, were a good step in that direction. We still need to cut income taxes and state spending more.”
Kleinhendler, on the other hand, supports the so-called millionaire’s tax to address what he sees as deteriorating public services.
“There are 16,000 New Jersey residents that earn over $1 million a year; bumping up their taxes 2 percent will bring in $700 million in revenue,” he said. “That’s not going to hurt anyone, and nobody is going to run away. Bad schools and no police protection – that’s going to drive high-end earners away.”
Kleinhendler also calls for pension reform that would not involve “scaring teachers and beating up on police,” but that would focus on eliminating waste.
“There are people getting multiple pensions, people working and getting a pension at the same time, and people who are getting disability pensions who shouldn’t,” he said. “We can’t afford that.”
Rible, a retired Wall Township police officer who also was a Belmar firefighter, said he believes that New Jersey truly cannot afford to drive revenue-producing businesses away through too much regulation.
“Over the past two years, we’ve been trying to encourage business owners by reducing fees and regulations,” said Rible, 44, first elected to the Assembly in 2007. “We’re making the DEP more of an effective office, rather than an obstruction. By doing this, we’re creating an incentive for businesses to come here and create jobs.”
According to Rible, these incentives involve cutting corporate business taxes.
“I’m all for cutting any taxes,” Rible said. “We should try to reduce our sales tax eventually.”
The traditional partisan divide is in evidence among the other Assembly candidates as well. O’Rourke, a Democrat and retired teacher from Point Pleasant, has proposed yet another change in how New Jersey taxes.
“We should base the system on income tax, not on property taxes,” said O’Rourke, 56.
He said 70 percent of property taxes fund schools and the schools are the responsibility of the state legislature “based on the state constitution,” so lawmakers should not blame communities when property taxes go up.
“Change the income tax, and get rid of property tax funding for schools,” he continued. “You have to raise the income tax in order to get rid of the property tax … This would tax primarily your wealth, not your income, not your pension.”
O’Rourke, the former Ocean County chief park naturalist, is also a strong advocate of green energy development as a way to raise revenue. This form of growth is one way he believes the state can address debt, which he identifies as its greatest scourge.
“We are billions and billions in debt,” O’Rourke said. “We have to decide what services we want, and how we’re going to pay for it, or we’re not going to have good services.”
Libertarian Schneck, a technical writer for an auto parts company, has a different perspective. For example, while the other candidates cast a cautious eye at consolidation to eventually reduce the current number of 566 municipalities in the state, Schneck, of Belmar, vehemently argued that government should play no role in the process.
“I don’t believe in the use of force, or coercion, to achieve any goals,” he said. “Legislative force is still force.”
“New Jersey has had a lot of small towns for a long time, but we used to have low taxes,” continued Schneck, saying his property taxes have more than doubled in 18 years. “Trenton’s policies have driven up our property taxes, not local control or self-determination. They should not be telling us whether or not to merge or share services.”
Schneck also pointed to the divide between urban and suburban New Jersey as a major source of the state’s fiscal woes.
“The suburbs are being forced to carry the weight of the cities, because the cities are either not capable or unwilling to support themselves,” said Schneck, 54, who supports the Fair School Funding plan pushed by Sen. Michael Doherty. “The cities need some tough love. This would be the first step towards my plan to eliminate income taxes in the state.”
Singer, a bank vice president hoping to retain the seat he has held in the Senate since 1993, is another fan of the Doherty’s proposal to distribute state school aid on a per pupil basis, regardless of where a student lives. He said this would lower property taxes in most communities by as much as 45 percent.
“We have to look for a better funding formula for education that is more reasonable to the whole state,” said Singer, 63.
He said more than half of the $9 billion distributed in school aid goes to the 31 Abbott districts. Lakewood has six failing schools, with a population that is more than 80 percent minority in the lower grades, but it is not an Abbott district.
“There are disparities all over the place, because we left this in the hands of the courts,” Singer continued. “If we stabilize school funding based on the child, not where they live, so that it’s equal, people would be more willing to go forward with consolidation because in many cases property taxes won’t go up.”
Singer, who said he also supports spending and tax cuts, linked his Senate challenger Morlino, who works for the Newark school system, to the state’s education and fiscal problems.
“The discussion about school funding and our communities has always been about getting our fair share,” he said. “Our fair share means taking away from the Newark schools … Looking for additional taxes to fund programs is not the answer.”
Morlino, executive director of facilities for the Newark public school system, said Singer’s comments are hypocritical.
“If he felt so strongly about it, perhaps he shouldn’t have tried to pass bills in the past to make Lakewood an Abbott district. In one breath he criticizes Abbott districts, in the next he’s trying to make Lakewood one,” said Morlino, age 58.
He maintains that to control costs, New Jersey needs a statewide, uniform core curriculum, creating a standard to which all students must be educated.
Morlino also proposes saving money by trimming the size of the legislature itself, reducing the current number of 40 senators and 80 Assembly members to 21 in each house.
“We have too many layers of government,” he said. “The current state legislature was set up in 1776 before modern technology and transportation. Let’s reduce overhead in the legislature by going back to what was done in the 1800s and base representation on the number of counties, not population. Each legislator has an office staff with salaries and medical benefits.
“There are too many people in Trenton getting themselves into trouble looking for things to do.”
While the focus this November is on the state egislature, Gov. Chris Christie is a factor in many races, including the 30th.
“We Republicans have been the minority for years, but for the last two of them, we’ve had a voice because of Christie,” Singer said. “Having Christie as our champion helps us work on issues. We wouldn’t have been able to do pension and health care reform without him. These changes are not a negative, but a positive for everyone. And the same people who are angry about it now will thank [Christie] later when they still have their pensions and health care.”
Kleinhendler, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against U.S. Rep. Chris Smith last year in the 4th Congressional District, disagreed.
“The state of the state is worse now than when he [Christie] took over,” Kleinhendler said. “He’s not running now, but his head is on the White House. You can’t govern the state to please Republican primary voters. The teachers and the union members will be coming to the polls in numbers that we’ve never seen before in an off-year election like this.”
Kean is optimistic about his ticket’s chances at reelection this year, but less certain about his party’s ability to take control of the legislature. Still, he wants to be part of the action in Trenton, even though it means having to move from the upper to lower house.
“I had three options after redistricting: retire and get out, run in a primary, or the option I chose,” Kean said. “One reason that I decided to go back to the Assembly was that I thought I was very lucky to get to the legislature in the first place. I liked the old district, but I probably would have regretted throwing in the towel. I’ve always been a member of the loyal opposition, and that might not change for the foreseeable future, especially with the legislative district map that got approved.”
Morlino knows best that the Democrats have an uphill battle in the 30th: He is facing off against Singer for the third consecutive time. Despite his prior losses, Morlino is philosophical about entering the fray.
“I can’t carry on about what’s wrong with government if I’m not willing to get involved,” Morlino said. “Even though I’ve lost, I’ve brought issues to light that people needed to see. I think even losers win.”