This year’s race in the 14th Legislative District is shaping up as one of the most contentious and expensive in the state. The district includes the Mercer County municipalities of Hamilton, East Windsor, Robbinsville, and Plainsboro townships and extends into southern Middlesex County to include Cranbury Township, Hightstown Borough, Jamesburg Borough, Monroe Township, and Spotswood Borough. The 2011 reapportionment removed West Windsor and South Brunswick townships from the district, and Democratic and Republican candidates in the 14th both say they have lost support as a result.
The district is home to large numbers of state employees who once lived in Trenton. Hamilton Township, especially, became a destination for people who left Trenton in great numbers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The population of Hamilton Township grew steadily during that time and today ranks as the state’s ninth most-populous municipality, with 88,464 residents, according to 2010 census data. According to the 2011 New Jersey Legislative District Data Book, published by Rutgers University’s Center for Government Services, population in the 14th district is growing at more than twice the state average, and voter turnout is consistently high.
Voters in the 14th district have shown their independence in recent elections by giving majorities to John Kerry and President Barack Obama in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections and to Gov. Chris Christie in 2009 against Gov. Jon Corzine. Chris Smith and Rush Holt represent the 4th and 12th Congressional districts, respectively, which share this area of the state. In the 2010 congressional contests, voters here sided with Republicans 58.8 percent to 41.2 percent, according to the Legislative District Data Book.
In recent weeks, according to data from the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, nearly $2 million has flowed from Democratic and Republican political action committees into this race to pay for mailings and advertising on radio and television.
At the top of the race in this district is the contest between state Democratic Sen. Linda Greenstein and Republican former state Sen. Peter A. Inverso. Greenstein won the seat in 2010 in a special election after Gov. Christie appointed then-Sen. Bill Baroni to a seat on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he is deputy executive director. She was elected to her first full state Senate term in 2011 after having served six terms in the New Jersey General Assembly, beginning in January 2000.
Greenstein is assistant Majority Leader of the State Senate and vice chair of the Law and Public Safety Committee and the Environment and Energy Committee. She also serves as a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Joint Committee on the Public Schools.
Greenstein earned a bachelor’s degree at Vassar College, a Master’s in Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, and her law degree at the Georgetown University Law Center. Before becoming a legislator, she was a senior staff attorney at the Community Health Law Project and served as a deputy attorney general in the Division of Criminal Justice in Trenton and as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. She also served as a clinical associate professor at Seton Hall Law School.
Greenstein’s full-time focus is on being a legislator. Her husband, Michael, is a mechanical and industrial engineer who teaches at the Polytechnic University of NYU. They have a grown son, who is a lawyer in Baltimore.
Greenstein got started in politics in the early 1990s, when she served on the West-Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education. She was then elected and reelected to the Plainsboro Township Committee.
She won a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly and served 6 terms, a total of 11 years, before winning her state Senate seat in 2011.
Greenstein recently discussed the characteristics of the 14th district, which has become a coveted electoral prize in recent years.
“When I think of the district I think of it as definitely a district with a lot of senior citizens who are very active. So that’s a factor.”
She also sees a growing Asian-American population in the 14th, which it certainly had when West Windsor Twp. was part of it before redistricting took place in 2011.
“There’s a large union population. That’s great for me because I am a strong believer in collective bargaining. It was very easy for me to be against the way they dealt with pensions,” she said, referring to the legislation Christie signed early in his administration, enacting pension reform affecting public employees.
Greenstein says her allegiance to unions is deeply held, going back to her father and grandfather who were retail merchants in Brooklyn. “To me, it’s part of my value system,” she said. My father was a member of what here in New Jersey is Local 108 (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union), and my grandfather was a union member. I think the governor has a very different sensibility. He doesn’t like unions. He wants to get rid of them. I just think the governor is coming from a very different place.”
“I think this district is competitive because Hamilton is a swing town,” she said. “It can go either way. People know us and they know they can depend on us. I think in this district legislators do it the way it’s supposed to be done.”
During her years in the General Assembly, Greenstein served as deputy speaker in 2006, and for four years was assistant majority leader. She also chaired the Assembly Judiciary Committee and was a member of the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee.
The Democratic state Assembly candidates in the 14th district are Dan Benson and Wayne DeAngelo, both incumbents. Benson served on the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders 2008-2011 and on the Hamilton Township Council 2002-2005. He is a member of the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee and is vice chair of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.
Benson, 38, is married, and he and his wife have two children and live in Hamilton Twp. His wife is a professor at Drexel University’s LeBow School of Business in Philadelphia. Benson is a Telecom and Regulatory Consultant for Erricsson, the multinational Swedish telecommunications corporation, whose USA headquarters is in Plano, TX.
DeAngelo, who will be 48 on Election Day, was born and raised in Hamilton Twp. where he says his family has lived for four generations. He has been married 24 years and he and his wife have two daughters, one in high school and one attending Rutgers University. The president and assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 269 in Trenton, DeAngelo is vice chair of the Assembly Labor Committee and is a member of the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.
Greenstein’s opponent for her state Senate seat, Peter A. Inverso, served the 14th district for 16 years from 1992-2008, and while in the state Senate served as vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He was assistant majority leader from 1998-2001, and deputy minority leader from 2004-2008. The Republican slate for General Assembly includes Steven Cook of Hamilton Twp. and Ronald Haas of Monroe Twp. Libertarians are represented in the 14th district election by state Senate candidate Don DeZarn of East Windsor Twp., and General Assembly candidates Sean O’Connor of Hightstown Borough and Steven Uccio of East Windsor Twp.
Inverso, is president and CEO of Roma Bank, the longtime Mercer County financial institution that recently moved to Robbinsville Township. He said recently that he decided to leave politics after the bank went public in 2006 and his “fiduciary responsibilities changed.”
He decided to try to return to the Legislature after seeing what Christie accomplished after taking office in 2010.
“I thought I had been there and done that.” Inverso said recently. “I enjoy government. I thought I’d be retired, but the prospect of being part of the change that Gov. Christie has put into place was very appealing. It was a desire to be part of public policy and being part of the changes Gov. Christie has put into place.”
There are three important issues that legislators are likely to confront when the next Legislature convenes in 2014. In public education, more charter schools open every year, but they are not always welcome, especially in suburban communities. Candidates were asked whether they would support amending New Jersey’s charter school law to allow a local community or school board to grant final approval before a new charter school can open there.
The new federal Health Care Reform law is going to affect everyone in 2014. Christie chose to have the federal government operate the new health insurance marketplace or exchange in New Jersey, citing potential costs and a lack of information from federal officials. Many legislators believe that the state would benefit from operating its own marketplace, allowing the state to receive more federal money to promote the exchange and more control over the insurance that’s offered through it. Candidates in the 14th district were asked for their views on this issue.
State courts appear to have settled the issue of Marriage Equality in New Jersey, with the state Supreme Court on October 18 refusing to stay a September 27 Superior Court ruling that same-sex couples were being denied equal rights in New Jersey. Christie said his administration would oppose the ruling before the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court appears to have decided by taking no action on the lower court’s September ruling.
Meanwhile, overriding the Governor’s veto of a 2012 bill that passed both houses of the state Legislature is still an option, as is placing the issue on a future statewide ballot as a constitutional amendment.
The question posed to the candidates was, in light of recent developments in the courts, and the fact that marriages of same-sex couples are taking place, what is your opinion of gay marriage in New Jersey and what would you as a state legislator like to see done on the issue if you are elected?
The issue of open-space preservation has been a long-standing concern in New Jersey, which is famous for being the most densely populated state and where the entire state is considered to be “urban” because of its location between the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. But the state’s open-space program has languished in recent years as state officials looked in vain for a stable source of funding for land purchases as a way to prevent urban sprawl from uncontrolled residential development. This past year, a proposal to allocate a portion of sales tax revenue to open space preservation stalled in the Legislature just as it appeared poised for passage. Another option, to levy a “water tax” on the amount of water used by customers of public water systems has not gotten far, and it is opposed by many city and suburban communities, which use public water supplies exclusively.
The Republican candidates for General Assembly in the 14th are Steven Cook and Ronald Haas.
Cook, 45, said he is a lifelong resident of Hamilton Twp. and is executive director of ARC of Mercer County, which serves people who have developmental disabilities. He once served as Inverso’s chief of staff and he mentioned that if elected he would be the first openly gay Republican to serve in the Legislature.
Haas was born and raised in Milltown and is married. He and his wife have one son and two grandchildren, and live in Monroe Township. He is CEO of Haas Pharmaceuticals and claims ownership of 10 patents, including the one for liquid Ibuprofen.
The question for candidates on the open space issue was “New Jerseyans have historically supported the purchase of land to preserve open space in our densely populated state. How should the state renew the funding: a new bond issue or creating a new stable source of funding from a new revenue source? If the latter, should it be a dedication from an existing source, such as the state’s sales tax or a new surcharge, such as a new tax on water bills to be dedicated to preservation efforts?”
Each candidate was also asked for his or her legislative priorities upon taking office next year.
“Generally what I talk about is jobs and the economy and property taxes,” said Greenstein. “Democrats have introduced 30 bills on jobs and the economy, and the governor vetoed most of them.”
“In 2006,” she continued, “we had a special session on property taxes. We brought in speakers from all over the country, about a hundred bills came out of it. One on shared services, another on the school funding formula.”
Greenstein is particularly concerned with school funding, which she called “the real issue,” adding, “Do we want to continue to fund schools with property taxes?”
By Greenstein’s count, the Democrats introduced 30 bills in the past session by Democrats — including ones that would have given tax breaks for businesses and the film industry.
One measure, “back-to-work New Jersey,” paired unemployed people with jobs, and if the match worked out, “they would get to keep that job.”
“That was our attempt as Democrats to address the issue of jobs,” she said. “And he (the governor) pretty much thumbed his nose at it.”
On the way the federal Affordable Care Act is being administered in New Jersey, Inverso said, “I think the governor’s position on that was that he’s not enamored of he Affordable Care Act. I think he’d rather have the federal government handle it. I think he made the right decision. So far only 14 states have set up their own exchanges, or marketplaces. That means 36 states decided not to. He (Christie) didn’t have the confidence that the federal government could handle it and so far it looks like it’s a bit of a boondoggle.”
On the charter schools issue, as it relates to possible future action in the Legislature to amend state law to allow local referendums on deciding whether a charter school should be established in a community, Greenstein said, “Not only would I support it but I think I was the first one to support it in the Assembly.
“I’m not a big fan of charter schools,” she said. “My attitude is call them public schools, try out some new things, then let’s make all public schools better. The area where I live I see zero need for charter schools. I say let the community vote. It should be something local people get to vote on.
On healthcare reform, Greenstein said “I want to assist people on that. At this point we’re referring people over to U.S. Rep. (Rush) Holt’s office. It’s interesting, because what I do is ask public health officials, ‘do you think the Affordable Care Act will be a good thing?’ They’re guardedly optimistic.”
On setting up health care exchanges in New Jersey, a key part of implementing the new law that Gov. Christie decided to forego, Greenstein said, “From what I have read, I believe if we did it locally it would be a good thing. One thing I read is that if we did it locally we’d save money. I think we have to do it and see how it works out.”
On potential referendums on charter schools, Inverso said, “That’s an interesting question. My perspective is, the state is the body that issues a charter. From the standpoint of democratic access it’s certainly appropriate to give the public a say. My concern is that if you put it up for a vote the NJEA could squash it. We do need to hold charter schools to high standards. The record has been good so far, even though some charters have failed.”
Open space funding was an issue Greenstein said she followed in the last Legislative session. She said she favored a bill that “would create a constitutional provision dedicating a portion of sales tax revenue to preservation of open space, including lands that protect water supplies and flood-prone areas, farmland, and historic properties.”
“They were going to vote on it over the summer, the sales tax option. There was a coalition in support, but for some reason it split along party lines. I’m not sure why that happened.”
Benson said he was a cosponsor of that open space funding bill, and that he expected “a vigorous debate on bringing it up in the next Legislature.
“I think there were some other questions, concerns on the price tag. There were other concerns on using the sales tax, or the water tax, which I opposed. Some legislators on the Senate side were away for the summer and could not vote.”
For Benson, priorities for the next legislative session come down to property tax relief and making sure New Jersey’s economic recovery becomes more robust.
On the Governor’s decision not to establish a exchanges in New Jersey under the Affordable Care Act, DeAngelo said, “I don’t know his reasoning. There was uncertainty about how this would play out in New Jersey. I know I have questions about how it is going to work out. It’s going to be a challenge. I can honestly say I’m learning more about it. Right now I’m concerned at the union hall where I work what the impact is going to be. I don’t know.
“I’m going to a conference to hear how the Affordable Care Act is going to affect multi-employer benefit funds. (In the construction industry, individual workers sign up and pay into multi-employer benefit funds , which are held in trust during the time they are working, since any given job may last for only a few weeks or months and they may work for more than one employer during that time. While they are working these employees receive credit for money they pay into the trust fund, for which they receive credit toward health care and other employee benefits.)
Discussing his priorities in the next session, if elected, De Angelo said he favors “continued investment in higher education and in transportation infrastructure.” He said the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) Tunnel between Secaucus and Penn Station in Manhattan, which was canceled in 2010 in one of Christie’s earlier decisions after being sworn in, would be “something we have to look at again.”
On the issue of permitting local referendums on new charter schools, DeAngelo said, “I agree that it should be brought to a vote of the people. I’m not a strong proponent of charter schools. We have a great public school system, but the resources are not going to them. Money doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. But we need to make sure the financial resources are going to our school systems in light of the 2 percent (state-mandated spending) cap. We need to do a little better than we are doing now.”
On the charter school issue, Haas said, “I applaud the record of Gov. Christie and his record on public school funding. In the current public school system, if it’s failing, charter schools provide an education to all students regardless of ZIP code. I want to get into the Assembly and support (the governor) in that effort. I believe it should be a vote of the people, and let the chips fall. I also support what the governor is doing and I will back him.”
On the governor’s decision on foregoing a direct state role in administering the health care exchanges. Haas said, “I agree with Gov. Christie that the federal government, should operate the healthcare exchanges. Due to lack of federal information, the state should not be on the hook and the federal government should pick up the tab.”
Cook also said he supported the governor’s decision not to set up health care exchanges in New Jersey.
“I agree with the governor’s decision for two reasons. First, as a national law, the website used should be a single, nationwide site to allow for portability, should people move from state to state. I agree that the potential cost of the site would be borne by New Jersey taxpayers and now it is a federal cost. Given that New Jersey already sends more dollars to Washington than we receive back, it is only correct to let Washington maintain the site.”
Inverso said that if elected, his immediate legislative goal would be to promote job creation and economic development. He said his perspective on the subject took shape during his prior tenure in office, when he was among those who advocated the state Scholars Recruitment Program, which was designed to encourage New Jersey’s best students to pursue higher education opportunities within the state, rather than leaving New Jersey to pursue a college degree and employment.
“I talk to a lot of students and their future isn’t as bright as when I got out of school,” he said. “Young people don’t have the same opportunities because the jobs aren’t there. When I was in the Legislature, I pushed the Scholars Recruitment Program, which awarded scholarships to students who stayed in New Jersey.”
“We were experiencing a brain drain. The way were we going to attract the best and brightest was through this program, which was based solely on academic achievement. But it fell victim to a lack of funding and I hope that we can replicate that program to keep our best students here in New Jersey.”
Inverso had pointed observations about the level of debate in the 14th district, given the amount of money the race has attracted.
“This is not just competitive. It’s become the most vile you can imagine,” he said of recent campaign ads targeting him. “It’s despicable, it demeans the stature of the office we seek. They have completely tried to change the character of the person I am. People are starting to get turned off by it. The last year I ran (2004) I don’t think I spent more than $400,000-500,000 and that was excessive.”
Haas, who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 40 years and is CEO of Haas Pharmaceuticals, said one of his top goals, if elected, would be to “bring that industry back” in New Jersey. He said that New Jersey, still home to pharmaceutical giants like Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick and Merck & Co. of Whitehouse Station, among others, was once called “The Medicine Chest of the World,” and that the state can be called that again.
Among the libertarian candidates, state Senate hopeful Don DeZarn of East Windsor made news in September when he was arrested a second time during a demonstration outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. DeZarn was cited after a similar incident in May for smoking marijuana in public. DeZarn recently explained that he suffers from symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military tour of duty during 2005-2006 in Iraq and Afghanistan. He sees the “SmokeDown Prohibition VIII” events at Independence Hall, which were organized by a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), as acts of civil disobedience in support of extending help for patients who need medical marijuana, which, he says, while legal in New Jersey, does not serve enough people who need it.
“I believe it is a moral responsibility to fight unjust laws,” DeZarn said. “Every day 22 veterans commit suicide. Not all of them are because of PTSD, but I in good conscience cannot wait until politicians get into office who want to change the laws.”
He advocates legalization of marijuana on personal freedom grounds consistent with public views that are adopted by most Libertarians. “I believe it should be regulated and taxed. Looking at Colorado and Washington where they have legalized it, it’s going to be a substantial increase in revenues to state coffers.” DeZArn believes those additional revenue from taxes on marijuana use should be applied in New Jersey for property tax relief.
A senior operations manager at Princeton University. DeZarn, a Kentucky native, and his wife of 22 years have a son and have lived in East Windsor for 18 years.
On the question of allowing public referendums in communities where charter schools are planned, DeZarn said, “I strongly support charter schools. My position on charter schools is we should clear the way of anything stopping them from operating. I support the current state position on charter schools and I would be against anything standing in the way of more charter schools opening.”
On whether the state should resurrect its open-space program and find a stable funding source for future land purchases, DeZarn said sees accumulating more state debt, which he says totals $280 billion, as a major obstacle.
“My position is with $280 billion in debt (in New Jersey) I think our No. 1 priority should be paying down that debt. I don’t think we should take anymore taxpayer’s money to pay for anything else but essential services and public safety. I support the concept of open space, but until we get our arms around this debt I don’t want to add any more for future generations to pay.”
On recent developments on Marriage Equality, DeZarn said, “I 100 percent supported it. I think it’s a shame it took a 10-year fight to give freedom and liberty to people who love each other and want to be together. One hundred years from now people are going to look at us and think we were living in the dark ages.”
His legislative priorities, if elected, start with addressing the state’s debt, which he said tops $280 billion. “I think the first step should be freezing property taxes,” he said. “A lot of politicians are saying there should be a 10 percent cap on property taxes. Those plans count on the economy making a miraculous comeback (as a way of generating more revenue).”
Among the 14th district’s Libertarian candidates for General Assembly, Sean O’connor, 27, is not married, and has no children. He is a Robbinsville native who now lives in East Windsor. This is his first attempt at running for election to public office.
He said he agreed with permitting local referendums on whether to allow he establishment of new charter schools. “If the communities vote on it and agree then of course. That’s their right” he said.
On open-space preservation he expressed a unique approach. “I would hope we could sell off open space to the private sector, (such as farmers or other private owners).
O’Connor said he was “very happy” with how the marriage equality issue was resolved by state courts.
“At this point nothing needs to be done in the Legislature because the courts did the right thing.”
His legislative priorities, if elected, include sponsoring a bill to freeze property taxes at the local and county levels, eliminating all unfunded state mandates, and abolishing core educational standards that have been issued by the federal government.
Steven J. Uccio, is also running for an Assembly seat on the Libertarian ballot. He is 27 and a native of New York City who has lived in East Windsor since 2010. Also a political newcomer, he said he decided to run because he thought he could do better job, especially “after the presidential election. I was very unimpressed with the Democratic and Republican candidates. I said, ‘We need a better candidate,’ and I decided to do it myself.”
On the charter school referendum issue, Uccio said, “I think the cost of schooling is a major concern in New Jersey. If there is no cost savings I would be against (allowing a public vote). I would definitely have to know why the town didn’t want to have a charter school there.”
On open space, he said, “Honestly, I don’t have an opinion on that. I would want to look into it further before giving an opinion on that.”
On marriage equality, he said, “The Libertarian Party universally supports marriage equality. I would support any ballot measure or legislation supporting marriage equality.”
He listed his legislative goals, should he be elected: “The No. 1 concern is property taxes. A lot of the state mandates on schools (are) driving up costs. Repealing the (federal) Common Core standards would help. I believe if we had counties absorb more towns that would eliminate redundancy and lower property taxes in New Jersey.”