For years, Mercer County has been a politically divided area, with Democratic votes from Trenton often offset by Republicans in surrounding suburbs.
The 14th District, which extends into southern Middlesex County, retains some of that aura of unpredictability. But with two Democratic incumbent assemblymen on the ballot again, this off-year election will test whether the district remains in play.
Neighboring District 15, however, is much more reliably Democratic and less likely to change hands.
In the 14th, incumbent Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer) is seeking his fifth two-year term and Daniel Benson (D-Mercer) is seeking his third. Opposing them are Republicans David C. Jones, a retired State Police major from Robbinsville who last year lost a bid for Mercer County sheriff, and Philip R. Kaufman, a lawyer from Monroe who is well-known in Middlesex County legal circles, as well as two Green Party candidates, Joann Cousin of Hightstown and Steven Welzer of East Windsor.
The 14th includes East Windsor, Hamilton, Hightstown and Robbinsville in Mercer, and Cranbury, Jamesburg, Monroe, Plainsboro and Spotswood in Middlesex. Although traces of its agricultural heritage remain, the district is bisected by highways and home to office parks and bedroom communities, including some sizeable ones with age restrictions.
So far, the campaign atmosphere has been “scary quiet,” DeAngelo said, with attention being drawn off by next year’s national election. But voters who are knowledgeable about local issues are not necessarily happy, he added.
“There’s not a lot of animosity directed at the Legislature like there was last time when the governor was around,” said DeAngelo, who is the deputy Assembly speaker.
He and Benson have been engaging voters about “services we can provide them, energy assistance, help with rebates,” as well as fielding municipal and school board requests, such as funding for playgrounds.
As an officer in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and chairman of the Assembly’s telecommunications and utilities committee, DeAngelo is also promoting a “utilities job fair” at Mercer County Community College on Oct. 19.
A champion of “green” jobs, the former Hamilton councilman sponsored legislation to provide tax credits for investors in emerging technology firms and to use environmental technologies in building state facilities, as well as a bill to establish the VetTeach program aimed at bringing more military veterans into teaching.
With New Jersey continuing to recover slowly from the Great Recession, DeAngelo said voters “want to hear what government can do for them,” and are receptive to employment initiatives and tax cuts targeted at businesses with growth potential.
A former Mercer County freeholder and Hamilton councilman, Benson is a consultant on energy and telecommunications. He was first appointed to the Assembly in 2011 after Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) was elected to the state Senate.
In the Legislature, Benson has advocated for tax cuts for clean energy and high-tech businesses, and sponsored the “Helmets to Hardhats” job program for veterans. Benson also was a principal sponsor of a recently signed law to raise the cap on “net metering,” allowing New Jerseyans with solar power systems to sell more electricity to the utility grid.
Benson is among about 15 candidates who have signed a pledge with the Anti-Poverty Network, acknowledging that some residents of the district and state live in “true poverty” and promising to partner with groups working for solutions.
Despite his personal electoral success, Gov. Chris Christie has helped make the area tougher ground for Republicans. His drive to reduce pensions for police, firefighters and teachers dismayed some of the district’s large contingent of public workers. More were antagonized by the governor’s subsequent attempts to back out of the pension deal he reached with legislative Democrats.
Making his second consecutive run for office, Jones said he always had a “keen interest” in issues and policies, but as a law- enforcement professional was precluded from getting involved.
“I absolutely understand and agree with that restriction. When I see active police officers running in places like Jersey City, I think that’s absolutely inappropriate,’ Jones said. “But now that I’m retired I’m talking about things that I believe in wholeheartedly.”
At the top of his list is the state’s “unfair” school-funding formula, which he said leans heavily upon suburban areas to send funds to Trenton, Newark and other urban districts. They are called “Abbott districts” after the state Supreme Court rulings that established educational funding requirements, which have been tweaked over the years but are often not fully funded.
“The 14th District doesn’t have one Abbott school district,” Jones noted. “As a legislator, you’re supposed to represent the interests of your district but the Democrats aren’t doing that here.”
Vested in the state pension system, Jones said he opposes “double dipping,” which remains a common practice among the state’s political careerists and law-enforcement brass. This happens when a someone retires from one government job, starts collecting a pension, and then takes another post on the public payroll.
If elected, Jones said he would limit his combined pension and legislative pay to what he was making as a State Police major, about $135,000 a year. While the pension system needs further reform to maintain its solvency, changes should not penalize those already employed and vested, he said.
Kaufman is maintaining an active law practice, which has left him less time to campaign. In issues statements and discussions with reporters, he has said his entry into the race was prompted by a desire to leave a better future for his granddaughter by improving the state’s business climate.
Welzer was a founding member of the Green Party in New Jersey in 1997 and has served on the party’s national steering committee. He is an editor of Green Horizon Magazine and is working to establish an “ecovillage” of minimal environmental impacts in New Jersey. He has also signed the Anti-Poverty Network pledge.
Cousin is an administrator of a biotech firm and was active in the Green Party of California before moving to Hightstown five years ago.
The two Green candidates emphasize economic and social justice, gender equality and protecting natural resources.
“It is essential to create a vibrant and sustainable economic system which provides a decent standard of living for all people while maintaining a healthy ecological balance,” the Greens said in an issues statement.
Building a third party is a long process, Welzer said, but “people are very green-minded these days.” Voters are receptive to the Greens’ opposition to Christie’s decisions to allow fracking waste into the state and to pull out of regional compact to control greenhouse gases, Welzer said.
The state capital of Trenton is the major city in the neighboring 15th District, which extends into southern Hunterdon County and includes East Amwell, West Amwell and Lambertville in Hunterdon, as well as Ewing, the Hopewells, Lawrence, Pennington and West Windsor in Mercer.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) of Trenton, the deputy majority leader, has held his seat since 1996. This is the first time his running mate, Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio (D-Mercer) of Pennington, will appear on the general election ballot — she was appointed to replace Bonnie Watson Coleman, who was elected to Congress last November. But Muoio has a strong political base in the area.
Gusciora and Muoio face Republicans Anthony Giordano of Trenton, who fell short as a challenger two years ago in the same election cycle that saw his current running mate, Peter Mendonez Jr., win a seat on the West Windsor council.
The incumbent Democrats have been leaders in the backlash against new hospital designations proposed by Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NJ that some say exclude hospitals in urban areas, including Trenton, from priority insurance coverage.
“We are disappointed and concerned that Horizon took this unilateral action without any public airing or transparency,” Gusciora said.
“While this is an issue affecting residents across the state, we are greatly concerned about insured individuals in the capital city area having readily affordable access to quality health care,” said Muoio, who is Mercer County’s director of economic development and Democratic Party chairwoman, as well as a former freeholder.
Like Benson and Welzer in the 14th District, Muoio is among roughly a dozen candidates who have signed with the Anti-Poverty Network, acknowledging that some residents of the 15th live in “true poverty” and pledging to work for solutions.
As an advocate of humane programs, Gusciora has been prominently involved in fighting an attempt by the state Fish and Game Council to authorize the use of enclosed foothold traps by hunters. He said the rule violates a 1984 state law, and stems from presidential politics — Christie’s efforts to appeal to Republican primary voters in other states — rather than the wishes of New Jerseyans.
Making his second try for the Assembly seat, Giordano said he is better prepared this time. While victory would be an “upset,” he is concentrating on “getting my message out there,” he said. In what is certain to be a low-turnout year, he, too, believes suburban voters can be energized by opposition to the school-funding formula.
Giordano supports one of two alternatives being discussed by Republicans. Advanced by state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), the proposal would attach a set amount of funding to each student, regardless of what school the student attends.
“The money would follow each child wherever they go, whether to public school or non-public school,” Giordanao said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people in Trenton who want more charter schools.”
Giordano has served on Trenton’s zoning board for 12 years and believes decisions on such issues as affordable housing are best left to municipalities. “I don’t necessarily think there is a lack of good affordable housing in New Jersey,” he said, adding, “maybe it’s not all in the right place.”
Giordano opposes gay marriage, saying that gay couples should instead “enter into contractual arrangements” for hospital visitations or bequests.
His opponent, Gusciora, was the first New Jersey legislator to come out publicly as gay,
Giordano believes abortion should be illegal and opposes any taxpayer funding for it. In a campaign statement, he said, “Our government needs to be leaner and more efficient, and it needs to stay out of our day to day lives.”
An auditor for the state Department of Community Affairs, he would promote privatization of government services and believes pension reform should treat state employees fairly.
Mendonez is an executive of A.F. Mensah Engineering, which uses battery storage and control systems to improve solar energy systems. At age 30, he’s concentrating his campaign efforts on the millennial generation, saying, Wwe need change.” In a brief YouTube ad, he links such 1996 icons as the flip phone and the O.J. Simpson trial to Gusicora, who first took office that year.
“We’re not the “me, me, me” generation but the Greatest Generation 2.0,” he said in an issues statement. “We’ve grown up together in two wars, through 9/11, and the Great Recession.”
Like other candidates of various philosophies, Mendonez opposes the federal Common Core education standards and the state’s use of what he calls the “inherently flawed” PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests. The testing-heavy approach penalizes student creativity while lacking substantive science, technology, engineering and math elements, according to Mendonez.