In the 1st Legislative District, Democratic Sen. Jeff Van Drew is running for reelection under the cloud of an ethics scandal he didn’t cause and wasn’t directly involved in. Republicans vying to unseat him and his two Democratic General Assembly running mates — incumbents Nelson Albano and Bob Andrzecjzak — are trying to cast doubt on Van Drew’s integrity because of his alliance with Albano, who is under investigation by the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards. Albano is accused of distorting the truth in an attempt to seek retribution against a state trooper who refused to let him out of a speeding ticket.
The Cape May County Regular Republican Organization, which supports Republican challengers Susan Adelizzi-Schmidt for Senate and Kristine Gabor and Sam Fiocchi for Assembly, has run attack ads against Van Drew because his name appears on the district letterhead Albano used to write a formal complaint about the officer to State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes.
Police video of the traffic stop shows Albano lied to the superintendent about the officer’s conduct. The GOP also accuses Van Drew of misleading voters by placing a “dishonest” newspaper ad announcing that the ethics committee had declined to find wrongdoing by Albano when in fact, the committee had agreed to review the case and rule by January.
With polling numbers that place him ahead of his Republican opponent 58 percent to 29 percent, race watchers don’t expect Van Drew to lose his seat. The signs are less clear for Albano and Andrzecjzak, who are beating Gabor and Fiocchi by a margin of four-to-eight points.
“The Assembly seats are a little bit more of a mixed bag as to who’s more vulnerable. They’re pretty much within a margin of error [in polling], but all of them have relatively low name recognition. Less so Albano, but part of that is on the negative side,” said Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “You don’t want to be running with an allegation like that hanging around your neck.”
Republicans in Trenton say they believe they have a strong chance of picking up seats in the 1st District.
But Democrats in this Republican-leaning district, which includes all of Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties, do hold a distinct advantage in addition to their incumbency: money.
The Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, a Washington, D.C., Super PAC that was founded earlier this year with big union money and is widely believed to be supported by powerful South Jersey democrats like Cooper University Health Care chairman George Norcross, is pouring unprecedented amounts of money into competitive districts. By October 9 the fund had spent $2.57 million to lobby for candidates and ballot questions, with $16,000 going to support District 1’s incumbents during the primary campaign season.
Joe Donahue, deputy director of The Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), said last week that he believes outside spending will be astronomical this year, likely to exceed the 2011 elections by at least several million dollars. Earlier this month, news reports predicted the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security will raise up to $20 million for the state’s democratic candidates this election cycle.
“Easily we’ll set a new record,” Donahue said last week.
Some of the campaign money in this district is being directed toward attack ads against both Senate candidates. The ads funded by Adelizzi-Schmidt’s campaign, the Republican party and by outside Democratic groups like the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security come despite a request by Van Drew to his opponent to run a clean campaign and to forgo campaign signs. In a letter Adelizzi-Schmidt sent to Van Drew in June, she agreed that negative ads have no place in a political race and asked him to set limits for the amount of money spent on his campaign. Van Drew responded to the letter but skirted the question.
“Attack ads do work to some degree . . . We’ll see in the second poll [to be conducted by Stockton in a few weeks] if the ads have penetrated,” said Douglas. “Sometimes there’s some public resentment that stems from too much outside money but frankly people aren’t paying that much attention yet.”
Republican Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Republican senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Monmouth) have injected their names, if not necessarily their money, into this race. Kean reportedly helped personally recruit Adelizzi-Schmidt, and Allen and Casagrande have publicly appeared with 1st District Republican candidates and are targeting their support toward females running in districts they consider up for grabs.
Adelizzi-Schmidt — an Upper Township wife, mother of two, corporate trainer, and owner of a public relations firm who holds memberships in several civic organizations — is the first woman in a major party to run for state Senate from the 1st Legislative District. Allen has been quoted trumpeting Adelizzi-Schmidt’s support for female-friendly initiatives like rape-shield laws, concessions for working mothers, and reconstructive breast surgery that’s free of sales tax.
“We don’t have enough women to push these things through,” Allen said.
But Adelizzi-Schmidt may have muddled her pro-woman credentials when she confused the definition of “suffrage” in a quote published by a newspaper in her district. According to Shore News Today, Adelizzi-Schmidt said her decision to run breaks “through a glass ceiling . . . Suffrage for women ended 80 years ago . . . It’s time for suffrage to end for women in the 1st Legislative District.”
“Suffrage” means the right to vote.
Allen is also supporting Gabor and Fiocchi, both of whom also said if elected they’ll vote for Allen’s Family First Employer Act, which would encourage employers to provide daycare, sick leave, flexible scheduling, and workplace advancement programs for women.
Gabor is a Cape May County freeholder who works as a client advisor for an insurance brokerage firm. She’s married to a retired state trooper and has two sons. Fiocchi is a Cumberland County freeholder awarded the NAACP Political Courage Award in 2011. He retired from an entrepreneurial career in real estate, investments, and agricultural services and currently holds board and executive positions in various professional and community organizations.
With Adelizzi-Schmidt, they champion an eight-point plan to boost South Jersey’s business and technology position within the state by fostering a high-tech corridor; creating an advisory board to write a regional business recruitment and retention master plan; improving communication and connectivity with the state and collaboration between colleges and universities.
Republicans are hoping Gabor and Fiocchi can ride Gov. Chris Christie’s coattails to a victory over the Democratic incumbents, especially considering Republicans, including Fiocchi, narrowly lost to Albano and his 2011 running mate, Matt Milam, in the last election. Plus, 27-year-old Andrzecjzak has never been tested in an election, having been appointed to his position after Milam abruptly resigned seven months ago.
Andrzecjzak’s appointment angered some fellow Democrats who complained that Van Drew and local party leaders had surprised them by announcing Andrzecjzak’s nomination minutes after Milam unexpectedly stepped down. Cumberland County Democratic Committee member Paul Sungenis threatened a lawsuit and quit the party in protest, causing Andrzecjzak’s backers to quickly withdraw their nomination and endorsement and instead add him to the ticket during county conventions the following month.
Republicans view the young Middle Township husband and first-time father as a potentially easy target. His vulnerability comes despite earning a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star with Valor, and almost a dozen other military awards for his time as an Army soldier in Iraq – a job that cost him part of a leg and scored him a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Running mate Albano is considered slightly less exposed, even though his ethics investigation tarnishes his record as a four-term assemblyman who serves as deputy conference leader and chairs the assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The 59-year-old shop steward from Vineland had a teenaged son killed by a drunk driver and is known for his advocacy for victims’ rights.
Andrzecjzak, Albano, and Van Drew are promoting a plan to protect South Jersey jobs, grow the state’s economy, cap state spending, bar lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists, improve access to affordable healthcare, and ensure that South Jersey receives a fair share of state resources.
Van Drew, a dentist and two-term senator from Cape May Courthouse who previously served as assistant majority leader in the General Assembly, currently chairs the community and urban affairs committee, holds the title of vice-chair of the Veteran and Military Affairs Committee and is a member of the budget committee.
In addition to Adelizzi-Schmidt, he runs against Independent Tom Greto, who calls himself “an ex-Republican who’s conservative but not to the point of being extreme.” Greto, who lost a bid for the seat in the Republican primary two years ago, is a retired veteran, Lower Township committeeman, and real estate services professional who spent two years in a Pennsylvania prison in the 1990s for deceptive business practices.
The married father of two says greed and a political vendetta put him behind bars for the misdemeanor conviction and he claims to have learned some valuable lessons since then.
“I look back at that as a positive. It took me away from greed,” he said. “I picked myself up, got married, had children. Now I know a little bit about a lot of things.”
Among the things he says he knows are leadership skills, punctuality and the importance of delivering on promises. He’s championing a five-point plan to flatten income, sales, and corporate taxes; consolidate government agencies; and cut legislative paychecks by 20 percent.
None of the major-party candidates responded to repeated calls for comment.