Spirited Debate Enlivens State Assembly Race in 24th Legislative District

Meir Rinde | May 29, 2015
Former mayor, incumbent legislator and county freeholder spar over issues ranging from Common Core to costly solar project

Assemblyman Parker Space
Unity among 24th District Republicans has been disrupted by an occasionally fractious primary contest following the decision by Assemblywoman Alison McHose (R-Sussex) not to seek reelection this year.

McHose, fellow incumbent Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Sussex), and the party establishment endorsed Sussex County Freeholder Gail Phoebus for the job, but she and Space face an energetic opponent in former Green Township mayor and New Jersey School Boards Association executive director Marie Bilik. Also in the running is recent college graduate and aspiring lawyer Nathan Orr.

Gail Phoebus
The unopposed Democratic primary candidates are Michael F. Grace of Newton and Jacqueline Stapel of Augusta.

As they seek votes in the sprawling, rural 24th District in the state’s northwest corner, the GOP hopefuls have sought to reinforce their conservative credentials, arguing against regulatory overreach, wasteful government spending and restrictive gun laws. Republicans make up 38 percent of the electorate, with just 17 percent registered as Democrats and about 46 percent unaffiliated.

Marie Bilik
The candidates have also sparred over the state’s controversial rollout of Common Core educational standards and PARCC testing, as well as over an $88 million, multi-site solar-panel project whose finances fell apart in 2012, costing taxpayers in Sussex, Morris and Somerset counties millions of dollars in added expense.

The district includes 25 towns in Sussex County, 11 in Warren County and one in Morris County. McHose, who has represented the 24th since 2003, announced in January that she had been hired as Franklin Borough’s business administrator and would quit the Assembly, but she has so far not stepped down.

McHose immediately endorsed Phoebus, a former Andover Township mayor and first-term freeholder who co-owns Farmstead Golf & Country Club. Phoebus teamed up with Space, who is running for his second full term. He’s a former freeholder, and a farmer who runs Space Farms Zoo and Museum in Wantage.

Nathan Orr
Bilik has served as a committee member and mayor in Green Township, but left politics in 1993 to work for the NJSBA, including five years as executive director. In 2012 she became chief operating officer of the National School Boards Association in Virginia, where she has been living part-time. She plans to retire in the fall.

Orr, of Branchville, recently graduated from Centenary College in Hackettstown and has been volunteering for a rescue squad while he waits to begin law school in the fall.

Space and Phoebus tout endorsements from the area’s Republican congressmen and state senators, a long list of local officials, the NRA, New Jersey Right to Life, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the NJ Outdoors Association. Bilik’s supporters include Sussex County Freeholder Richard Vohden, a fellow Green Township resident.

Space and Phoebus own small businesses and have made the easing of business regulations and taxes prominent in their joint platform. As a member of the Assembly’s labor committee, Space says he tries to stem a steady flow of proposals that would only make it harder for employers to prosper.

“Everybody wonders why businesses are fleeing across the state line into Pennsylvania. Obviously, all these bills that they’re putting in, the restrictions and regulations — they want more control,” he said in an interview. “Let businesses do what they do best: Run their own business. Government should keep their nose out of it.”

Space spoke from his farm zoo, where he had just stepped away from a newly delivered box of rattlesnakes and copperheads. “That comes in handy in Trenton, a background in snake handling,” he quipped. “Everyone has their own expertise and that’s mine.”

Bilik has tried to differentiate herself as the slightly more moderate candidate — while still proclaiming her support for 2nd Amendment gun rights and smaller government — and as a relative political outsider compared to Space and Phoebus. She emphasizes education issues, and notes her experience at the state and national school boards associations.

At the NSBA, she helped negotiate a solution to the organization’s underfunded defined benefit plan, giving her useful experience as the governor and Legislature struggle to manage New Jersey’s massive unfunded pension liability, she said.

“I do not claim to have the answers for New Jersey, but I know the process, I know the questions to ask. So I could be a valuable player in the conversation,” she said. “I believe the state has a legal, financial, and moral responsibility to the pensioners.”

Bilik, along with Space and Phoebus, has spoken supportively of a bill Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren) has been pushing unsuccessfully for years that would provide an equal amount of school aid per student in all districts. It would boost funding in most towns, including in rural Sussex County, but slash the large amounts of special aid the state sends to 31 poor, so-called Abbott districts, which include cities like Hoboken and Jersey City.

“We cannot continue to tax everyone in the state the way we’re taxing them for the school funding. That has to change,” Phoebus said during a candidates forum at Sussex County Community College this week. “When you take a look at the fact that Hoboken is an Abbott school district, it’s kind of like, how did that happen? We’ve got to get a handle on how we fund schools in New Jersey.”

But Space and Phoebus have also attacked Bilik over her work experience, saying she lacks their personal understanding of the difficulties faced by small business owners. They also describe her as a “lobbyist for Common Core” in her school board association jobs. Bilik responded that she has never been a lobbyist, though other NJSBA and NSBA employees do lobby government officials.

A muddled discussion of the Common Core math and language standards New Jersey adopted in 2010, and the related PARCC testing program, has run through the primary campaign. Space says he’s voted against measures supporting Common Core, while Bilik says her opponents are confused about the issue, since the standards were adopted by the state Board of Education, not the Legislature.

At the same time, she has subtly shifted her position as Gov. Christie and other conservatives have criticized the standards for supposedly being forced upon states by the federal government. In one early interview Bilik said she supported Common Core, while at the forum this week she joined Space and Phoebus in calling for an end to New Jersey’s participation.

The candidates have also jousted over the solar panel issue, though again it’s unclear if a complicated matter unrelated to the Assembly will have much impact on the race.

In 2011, Morris, Somerset and Sussex counties agreed to issue bonds to pay for 71 solar installations at schools and other locations that would generate electricity and revenues, according to newspaper reports. But the value of renewable energy credits fell, the developer and the builder sued each over alleged cost overruns and unpaid bills, and the counties are paying millions more to settle the dispute and finish the work. Sussex is on the hook for $7 million.

Bilik said the solar matter is not a concern of the Legislature, but she also criticized Space for voting for the project when he was a freeholder and Phoebus for opposing the settlement agreement. Bilik said Sussex County would end up owing much more without the settlement.

Space blamed the imbroglio on an evaluation committee that recommended the project, saying that freeholders did not know the panel included people who stood to gain from its approval. He said he has met with federal investigators who are probing the project and expects criminal charges to be filed. He and Phoebus described the settlement as a “shady, backroom” deal that should not include hold-harmless and anti-disparagement clauses, and she has called for Sussex County to pull out of the agreement.

The 23-year-old Orr, meanwhile, conceded that he has little chance of winning a spot on the November ballot, but said he’s pleased with the level of interest he’s attracted to his candidacy, especially among younger people who might otherwise not pay attention to an Assembly race.

“I’m a fresh voice, I have new opinions on some issues, and I’m not politically connected at this point,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of good response…that a younger person’s running. They’re very enthusiastic to see somebody of a young age trying to make a difference in the government.”

He described himself as libertarian on the model of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), saying government should not get involved in projects like the solar program. If elected, he would push to cut state spending by reforming New Jersey’s expensive educational, criminal justice and road-building programs, he said.

“Government needs to play a smaller role in everyday lives and everyday activities, and we need to get back to focusing on the basics and really only that. Get the government out of all the other entities. Try to cut the waste,” he said. “People are pretty receptive to a lot of those ideas.”