Pitched battles are nothing new in Bergen County. During the American Revolution, patriot and loyalists struggled to gain ground here.
So it seems almost appropriate that the 38th Legislative District — which covers a dozen Bergen towns plus Hawthorne in Passaic — once again finds itself among New Jersey’s major election battlegrounds.
Democratic state Sen. Bob Gordon and Assemblyman Tim Eustace are joined by Paramus Councilman Joe Lagana in trying to maintain their party’s hold on the hearts and minds of local voters. Lagana replaced Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, who resigned after winning renomination, citing family reasons.
Republicans countered with a strong challenge from Senate candidate Fernando Alonso, a lawyer and law professor who made a solid run for Assembly two years ago. This time he’s paired with Rochelle Park Mayor Joe Scarpa and Joan Fragala, a retired high school principal, for Assembly.
It’s a contest that offers voters clear ideological differences, but with a twist — the opposing slates both profess their willingness to work across the aisle. It also demonstrates the importance both parties place on the high-profile district.
As early as October 7, before a closing advertising blitz, their campaign committees had reported raising more than $1.9 million while spending almost $1.8 million, higher than any other legislative race except the 14th.
Outside groups that legally finance local efforts also have targeted the 38th, including the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security on the Democratic side and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity for Republicans.
The Democrats present themselves as moderates who have supported some of the measures taken by popular Republican Gov. Chris Christie, whose appeal may or may not shape the race.
The Republican ticket spoofs their opponents’ professed respect for the governor, but also portrays itself as willing to reach for shared goals in a bipartisan manner.
Both sides show some nerves about how partisan gridlock in Washington — the nicest word any of them offers is “dysfunction” — is affecting voter attitudes and potential turnout.
“People are really disenchanted from politics and from government,” said Lagana. “They don’t want to talk to politicians.”
He should know. The Democrats said they had knocked on more than 15,000 doors by October 8. Much of the campaign here is retail politics, requiring lots of shoe leather. While the candidates are polite and personable, the district’s extensive media campaigns are not.
One Alonso ad claims Gordon “isn’t telling the truth” on taxes and fees. A pro-Democratic piece darkly suggests Alonso was suspended from the state bar a few years ago, although the reality is that it resulted from a routine matter of filing his annual fee late.
With outside groups chiming in on both sides — the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision freed corporations, unions, and lobbyists from significant spending restrictions — candidates suggest the increased chatter may be more confusing than helpful.
“Citizens United hasn’t done anything for me,” said Eustace, a chiropractor and former Maywood mayor. This year’s fundraising has been “a heavy lift,” he said.
Alonso is sanguine about outside money. In the New York media market, campaigns are expensive, but it has balanced out, he said. Gordon is “on TV, I’m on TV.”
But when it comes to money, even the candidates themselves often do not know who is paying for what, according to Scarpa. He has been frustrated trying to trace contributions and spending on the state Election Law Enforcement Commission’s website, he said.
“I agree that as free speech, there shouldn’t be restrictions on contributions,” Scarpa said. “But if we’re going to have that system, then there should be full disclosure and transparency.”
In ticking off the issues, the two Senate candidates show both the overlap and the wide gaps between the parties.
“The big issue is the affordability of New Jersey, and close behind that, jobs,” said Gordon, the co-owner of a solar energy company. “And in this district and some other places, we have flooding issues.”
Government spending, and the Legislature’s failure so far to follow through on a proposed property tax cut, are the first things Alonso brings up. They underlie the economic problems that Gordon mentions, he said.
But Alonso also quickly mentions floods, saying the district needs more outside help as well as fewer restrictions on countermeasures. They could take the form of having the Army Corp of Engineers dredge the “entire” Passaic River, he said.
Alonso disputed Gordon’s claim of working with Christie on property taxes. Indeed, his ads even feature a clip of the governor enthusiastically talking about getting Gordon out of Trenton.
One way to provide property tax relief would be to try again to overturn the school-funding formula that favors failing districts, he said. “I’m not saying there should be charter schools everywhere,” but they certainly can help in struggling districts, Alonso said.
Christie did accept the property tax relief plan put forward by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). The body delayed action after state revenues came up short. Democrats maintain the interruption is temporary while Trenton gets its fiscal house in order, but Republicans consider that an excuse, not an explanation.
“We don’t have the money for property tax aid?” Alonso asked. “Well, where can we cut from?”
Otherwise, he said, the money “is coming out of your pocket.” While a 2 percent cap on municipal spending seemed like a good idea, “they left enough wiggle room” that it has not controlled property taxes, Alonso said.
Gordon agreed, but said some of the cuts Christie has made, like cutting homestead rebates, have made the property tax burden worse. In a time of growing financial inequality, Gordon said that restoring higher marginal tax rates on income above $1 million could “fully fund the school funding formula and provide additional municipal aid.”
New Jersey’s high taxes do reflect excessive government costs, but they need to be fixed on all levels, he said. The state should not pass its budget problems along to towns and schools, but it should do more to make them control costs, he said.
“Part of the problem is the large number of jurisdictions, and the duplication and inefficiency that results from that,” Gordon said.
Rather than simply advocate for towns, counties. and other bodies to share services, Gordon said he has worked to make it easier for residents to push them into such deals, and even into consolidations, such as the two Princetons becoming one.
While such moves often face opposition from the local power structure, Gordon said, “I sponsored the legislation to make it easier for citizens to circumvent their local government and petition the state directly” to start regionalization or consolidation of municipal functions.
Another measure that Gordon sponsored requires land-use boards to use updated flood-zone maps. One lesson from Sandy, Irene, and other recent storms is that local bodies often have made planning and zoning decisions based on flood maps from the 1970s that do not reflect current hazards, he said.
A bond issue for the state Blue Acres program could help protect waterways and provide more flood protection, Gordon said. Much of his focus in Trenton has been this sort of thing, “very unsexy stuff” that still can have a direct impact on constituents, he said.
On a national issue, Gordon says that by leaving New Jersey’s health insurance exchange to the federal government, Christie has missed out on a chance to offer residents more competition and lower premiums. Under state control in New York, “some people are experiencing 50 percent reductions in their premiums, but I suspect that’s not going to happen here,” Gordon said.
Like many people, Alonso said, he is unsure whether the Affordable Care Act is going to be an improvement. He praised provisions to require insurers to cover pre-existing conditions, but the Oradell resident questioned whether federal or state control of the exchanges makes any difference.
“I get nervous when government gets involved,” Alonso said.
Despite Christie’s popularity, the Democrats’ internal polling for the local race continues to be promising, Gordon said. Voters seem happy with the situation in Trenton, and the governor’s coattails look short, he said.
But Alonso may have an ace in the hole. The son of Cuban immigrants directs both the Puerta al Futuro (Gateway to the Future) program for adult immigrants at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and Latino Promise, designed to reach students who might not otherwise have access to higher education. His activities have raised his profile with the party and among ethnic organizations, he said.
Scarpa demonstrates the dilemma and the opportunity for New Jersey Republicans in their party’s changed climate. As the town administrator in Emerson, he has made a career in government and does not shy away from terming it “public service,” anathema in some GOP circles. But he also favors smaller government, and sees places to cut.
That background, and especially his “fiscally responsible” approach to finance, means “I wouldn’t need on-the-job training” in Trenton, Scarpa said. “I’ve done over 40 budgets,” and Emerson did not increase municipal taxes this year, he said.
Emerson is known for colorful politics, and after14 years Scarpa is on the firing line when his current appointment expires at the end of the year after being ensnarled in the town’s tangled web of feuds and lawsuits over political and personal matters.
But he pointed to his continued success as Rochelle Park mayor despite being in the political minority. As “a Republican in a Democratic town,” he has worked cooperatively but also let people know where he stands, Scarpa said.
In Trenton, Scarpa would like to serve on the budget committee because in a $33 billion budget there is bound to be waste and inefficiency, he said. He also wants to limit the number of bills that legislators can introduce. Some are merely posturing or promotional, but almost all have costs to prepare, he said.
Like Alonso, Scarpa sees the lifting of some environmental regulations, such as streamlining permits for clearing debris from streams, as part of the solution to flooding. But as for funding open-space purchases, “I would look very hard at anything that involves any new tax, he said.
The candidates said that except for some disagreements over stiffer gun control, where Democrats want to reduce magazine sizes, social issues have been largely absent from the campaign and from voter feedback.
“I’m an interesting mix on those issues,” Scarpa said. “I’m pro-Second Amendment, pro-life and pro-gay marriage.”
In an educated district, Eustace said gay marriage has not been an issue except for some lingering regret that the Legislature left it to the courts rather than overturn Christie’s veto.
But like his running mates, Eustace believes that gun violence poses a continuing threat to their densely populated communities. The Democrats also chide the Governor for cutting funds for women’s health clinics, something the Democrats all said they will work to restore.
Eustace suggested the Republicans should talk less about the potential 10 percent property tax reduction and do more to make such a property tax break possible by retaining jobs in the state. Eustace supports steps to prevent companies from outsourcing jobs. “At the very least,” they should not get state contracts and tax breaks while shipping jobs out of state, he said.
In the meantime, legislators continue to monitor state revenues and have kept the property tax cut plan alive, Eustace said.
“If the money is there, I think it’s going to move forward,” he said. “It’s not very conservative to say we’re going to do something even though we don’t have the money to pay for it.”
Similarly, he said discussion continues on how to provide more stable funding for the state open-space trust fund, possibly by dedicating a share of sales tax revenues. That also could produce results next year, he said.
The other piece of flood control is the state’s neglected infrastructure, Eustace said, and continuing to ignore problems only increases their costs. He praised Bergen County for stepping up to commit $4 million to relieve chronic flooding from the Marcellus Bridge in Garfield, where debris collects during storms. Christie vetoed a state contribution sought by the 38th District Democrats, but Bergen County provided the funds.
When it comes to charter schools, Eustace finds procedural questions about siting and approvals a distraction.
“The real question is whether you want big business running public education,” he said. “That’s something that’s up to the voters to decide.”
Like other candidates, Lagana points to a history of bipartisan cooperation on issues like local budgets and taxes.
“If you came to a council meeting in Paramus, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was on which side of the aisle,” he said.
He acknowledged that Christie, with his sizable lead over state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) could play a role in legislative races. But talking to voters about the governor produces some “interesting” results, Lagana said.
Enthusiasm for Christie, “goes to his persona, how he talks” and his reaction to Hurricane Sandy, Lagana said. “But when you remind them about education, women’s health, gun control, property taxes, they disagree with him on the issues.”
“We have to reduce property taxes,” Lagana said, adding he supports the 10 percent cut.
The Governor touted a 2 percent cap on municipal spending as a step forward, but it has not worked, Lagana said. In Trenton, “there’s been very little real cost control, because the Administration ducked hard choices by cutting aid to schools and towns, he said.
Lagana sees the Blue Acres program as one vehicle to address flood problems, including debris removal from waterways and purchases of flood-prone homes.
But the problem with permanent funding mechanisms, whether for transportation, open space, or pensions, is that governors continue to raid them for short-term budget fixes, Lagana said.
As a first step toward fiscal prudence, “leave the dedicated money where it is,” he said.
Charter schools are another area where “there’s not enough oversight,” Lagana said. “Public money should be dedicated to public education.”
Fragala, a retired principal of Lodi High School, ran for Fair Lawn council two years ago. This time around, she again presents herself as a fiscal conservative concerned about the economy.
“People are very supportive of the Governor,” and want legislators who will support his programs, Fragala said. In particular, the Republican slate will push the 10 percent tax cut, she said.
In brief remarks at a campaign stop in Hawthorne, she said that as a legislator, she would “work for business.”
Compared to the past, “what we’re seeing today is less people and more vacant stores on downtown Main Street,” Fragala said. The Democrats “have not allowed the American Dream to take place.”
“We have seen with a Democratic-controlled Legislature that unemployment has risen,” Fragala said, adding, “we need to reverse that.”
For most voters, the main issue “is always property taxes, and school funding is the other issue,” she said.
As an educator, Fragala said she believes charter schools can be helpful in some areas. But local districts “absolutely” should have a say in the process, “because money for charter schools comes out of public school funding.”
“We have to preserve our public schools, because they’re what our property values are based on,” Fragala said.