The incumbent Assembly Republicans in the conservative 9th Legislative District, along the South Jersey shore, are technically among the small group of legislators facing competitive races in the June primary.
But their primary challengers have done no real campaigning, easing the path to an expected primary win for Assemblyman Brian Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove. Given the district’s long dominance by Republicans, the incumbents also appear well positioned for another blowout victory over the Democratic candidates this fall, reprising their sweep of two years ago.
A geographically large district, the 9th includes 20 municipalities in Ocean County, the most populous being Berkeley Township, as well as Galloway and Port Republic in Atlantic County and three towns in a western spur in Burlington County.
Residents of the district are predominantly white and somewhat older than the state as a whole, and the 44,200 registered Republicans easily outnumber the 33,322 Democrats. Another 79,730 voters are unaffiliated.
“They are a fairly conservative community, comprised of many seniors, and taxes are always one of our primary concerns,” Rumpf said in an interview.
The challengers are Howard Height, of the West Creek section of Eagleswood Township, and Fredric R. Kociban, a Little Egg Harbor resident and a supervisor at the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management. They are running under the slogan of the Common Sense Conservatives, a group that has also fielded a slate in the Stafford Township mayoral and council primary.
The Democratic candidates are John Bingham, a recent college graduate from Beachwood who has worked for the Ocean County Board of Elections, and Fran Zimmer, a former speech therapist in the public schools who lives in Little Egg Harbor.
Kociban said he and Height decided to run during a Common Sense Conservatives meeting hosted by Erik Libenschek, a Stafford council candidate. Kociban said the group came together over their disenchantment with Stafford Mayor John Spodofora, who in 2012 was revealed to have embellished stories about his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
Spodofora had claimed he was a combat veteran, but during his service actually never went to Vietnam. He also had the town police conduct an extensive investigation, including grand jury subpoenas, of a political opponent who criticized his service claims. No charges were ever filed in the case.
Kociban said he has no quarrel with the incumbents and called Rumpf a “pretty good guy.” But after having volunteered for the local Republican party in the past, he grew disillusioned with the party and decided it was important to challenge elected officials who had gotten “too comfortable” in their positions.
“The same people keep on getting voted in, over and over,” Kociban said. “Everybody complains, but they vote the same people in, who have become a machine to take our money and make more and more laws, and take more and more freedom.”
He described himself as libertarian who favors marijuana legalization, though he does not use it himself, and thinks it ridiculous that governments ban gay marriage. If elected he would work to cut taxes and shrink the size of state government, and to end New Jersey’s assault weapons ban and its restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.
“Right now we have a concealed carry permit system in New Jersey where you can only get a concealed carry permit basically if you’re friends with a judge,” he said. “If you’re considered important by the elite, you can get a concealed carry permit to protect yourself. But the common man cannot.”
Kociban said he did not know Height very well. Height could not be reached for comment.
Rumpf and Gove said they knew little about the challengers. Rumpf noted Kociban and Height have never held elected office, while he, Gove and Sen. Chris Connors (R-Ocean) all previously served as mayors before joining the Legislature.
“It’s very helpful when you’re in the Legislature to have some training for the position. We each bring a large amount of experience from the local level and understand the concerns within the local communities and the impact of state action on our local governments,” Rumpf said. “I’m not aware of our opponents having any experience of any nature that would give them background that I think is very important.”
Rumpf lives in Little Egg Harbor and has a law firm in Tuckerton. He served on the township committee and as mayor until he was appointed to fill a vacant Assembly seat in 2003. In his most recent reelection race, in 2013, he won with about 46,000 votes, compared to about 20,000 votes for the leading Democratic challenger. He serves on the Assembly transportation committee.
Gove is a retired Southern Regional High School teacher who served as a commissioner and mayor in Long Beach Township, where she lives. In 2009, she was appointed to the Assembly, where she serves on the military and veterans affairs committee and the higher education committee. She garnered about 44,000 votes in the 2013 general election.
Rumpf and Gove said tax bills are voters’ main concern in the district. They have called for cuts in government spending to keep taxes in check, for example by supporting a Republican plan to cut the number of state workers over a four-year period.
They’ve also taken an equivocal position on the the Democrats’ proposed rescue package for nearby Atlantic City, noting the resort’s “critical importance” to the regional economy but questioning the impact on residents’ taxes in neighboring towns like Galloway.
One bill would have the casinos make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) rather than regular property tax payments, which could lead to a sharp hike in county taxes for other towns. To prevent such increases Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian agreed to share a portion of the PILOT with the county. Rumpf and Gove said they supported the rescue package conceptually but won’t decide on their votes until they see the bills’ final language.
“We need to help, but at the same time I do not want to spend money on Atlantic City that’s going to cost money for the people of Galloway and Port Republic. They’re our first and foremost concern,” Gove said. “I’m not going to commit on these bills until I read them again. A bill can change ten times before it gets voted on.”
What keeps the incumbents busiest, though, is not taxation or Atlantic City but helping constituents managing their ongoing recovery from Superstorm Sandy, they said. That has meant encouraging affected residents to apply to the state for rental assistance and for funding to elevate their homes, and then handling thousands of individual requests for help preparing and submitting paperwork.
“There’s still quite a few folks that have not responded within the communities, either because they’ve abandoned their homes — and that presents a whole other set of difficulties for the local governments — or they simply need help navigating the system,” Rumpf said.
Gove, who got a foot of water in her home and four feet in her garage during Sandy, said that while many homeowners are still deep in recovery, she’s seen assistance efforts gradually improve.
“It’s a long process. I know it’s been three years, but there’s been a lot of issues,” she said. “When you have that many layers of bureaucracy, I’m happy we’ve come this far.”
Other important issues include pollution and the environment, which Rumpf described as a key concern given the importance of a healthy Barnegat Bay to residents and the regional economy. Gove highlighted her involvement in veterans’ issues, such as her support for a 2012 law creating a fast-track teacher training program for vets at Stockton University.
The incumbents also noted what Gove, a state retiree, called the “huge, scary” problem of New Jersey’s pension funding shortfall, and the budget crisis that would result if the Supreme Court rules in the coming weeks that the state must make a massive contribution by the end of June.
“I truly don’t know how that is going to be resolved, if the court were to rule next week that New Jersey needs to find $1.6 billion additional for the present fiscal year, and then an even greater amount to add to next year’s budget,” Rumpf said. “I don’t know where that would come from without impacting other areas of the budget.”
For more more information on Rumpf and Gove, visit district9.senatenj.com.