For Jersey Shore voters, all eyes are on the 2nd District in Atlantic County, where each party holds one Assembly seat and the race is considered one of the most competitive in the state. The neighboring 9th District, which sprawls from northern Atlantic up into Ocean and Burlington counties, is likely to remain safely in Republican hands.
Political Action Committee money is partially financing the Democrats running for Assembly in the 2nd district, backing incumbent Vincent Mazzeo of Northfield and his running mate Colin Bell, an Atlantic County freeholder.
With Mazzeo and incumbent Republican Chris Brown of Ventnor leading in the polls, the New Jersey Educational Association (NJEA) teachers union is among the groups generously funding the General Majority PAC, whose $3.1 million raised for Democrats in the 1st and 2nd districts will likely be the most raised by an outside group this year. So far, the PAC has spent more than $2 million on television ads in the Philadelphia and Atlantic City markets to back Mazzeo and Bell, and the Democrats running for Assembly in District 1, just to the south.
But observers predict all that money won’t be enough to knock out Brown in a low-interest election that puts Assembly candidates at the top of the ticket for the first time since 1999. At the same time, they predict the anticipated abysmal turnout will also bode poorly for Brown’s running mate, Freeholder Will Pauls.
The 2nd District draws its voters from 17 Atlantic County municipalities that have grown increasingly destitute since Atlantic City’s fortunes started sinking in 2008.
With the highest home foreclosure rate in the country and economic indicators dragging them down, Atlantic County voters have just two things on their minds: jobs and the economy. A Stockton University poll released October 16 shows that slightly more than half of likely district voters feel the candidates are talking about the specific employment and economic topics that matter to them, including casinos and taxes.
All four candidates stand firm against the expansion of casinos to North Jersey. Pauls calls it the single greatest threat to the county and launched a freeholder-sponsored committee to study the possible effects last summer.
The ads being run by General Majority PAC try to tie Brown and Pauls to Republican efforts to open northern casinos. However, elected state officials from both parties have supported expanded gaming, and in the latest big push to get a referendum put on the ballot, three Assembly democrats from Essex, Bergen, and Hudson counties introduced a constitutional amendment this summer. The NJEA defends its role in supporting the PAC by claiming that, at the core, its intent is to bolster candidates who fight Christie’s inaction on teacher pension reforms.
Another casino question is dominating Brown’s campaign. He strongly opposes a bill to stabilize casino property assessments by having the casinos make a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) in exchange for the promise not to appeal their assessments. He said he dislikes the measure on the grounds that it would raise property taxes in the county while lowering them or keeping them steady in the city. The bill is awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s signature.
“I believe any recovery plan should be comprehensive and everybody should pay their fair share and not shift a casino bailout onto the hardworking, middle-class families of Atlantic County,” Brown said.
Mazzeo, for his part, has earned the admiration of Republican Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian for sponsoring the PILOT bill.
His running mate supports the bill.
“This bill stops the bleeding of tax appeals,” Bell said.
At a debate held at Stockton University earlier this month, Mazzeo pointed to another Guardian-approved economic bill he sponsored to designate Atlantic City as an Urban Enterprise Zone, which would allow it to benefit from a lower state sales tax and property-tax relief. Mazzeo and Bell also spoke in favor of a “millionaires tax” to fund property-tax relief for New Jersey homeowners making less than $200,000 per year.
Speaking on NJTV’s On the Record earlier this month, all four candidates said they oppose locating a casino outside of Atlantic City.
At the Stockton debate, Bell echoed a common call to diversify the local economy away from gaming and tourism, perhaps by encouraging the growth of the wine industry.
Polling from Stockton and the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters show almost equal support for Mazzeo and Brown, though the polls disagree on which of the men would be the top vote-getter. But it won’t matter who gets the most votes as the top two candidates win, and the incumbents’ evenly matched running mates are trailing significantly.
Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, says not to write anyone off, even though offyear elections usually favor incumbents.
“None of these are slam dunks,” he said. “Come Saturday before an election sometimes there’s a little pitter patter of feet moving in one direction that’s hard to catch in polls. It’s a close race; a few votes can make all the difference.”
In a close race, money can sometimes influence results. While the Democrats are benefitting from independent spending to support their candidacies, the Republicans are not destitute. According to the most recent filings from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Brown had raised $589,000 and spent $169,000 as of early October, while Pauls had raised $193,000 and spent $69,000. The Democrats also have their own accounts and their joint committee had raised $436,000 and spent $416,000.
If both incumbents do get reelected, the PAC money may have served its purpose. With a gubernatorial election just two years off and the district’s Democratic senator expected to retire, analysts suspect the fundraising may be targeting the next election, rather than the current one. In a district where unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats (31 percent) and Republicans (24 percent), the ads can only help Mazzeo in the long run if he seeks to replace Sen. James Whelan, a Democrat, when he retires. The Stockton poll found that one-quarter of Mazzeo’s constituents don’t know him and of those who do, only 40 percent rate his job performance positively. Brown’s numbers are almost the same.
Both assemblymen are fairly new to the job. Mazzeo is running for his second term; Brown, his third. They serve together on the Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee, although Mazzeo sits on the regulated professions committee and Brown’s second appointment is to regulatory oversight.
Mazzeo spent six years as mayor of Northfield and has helped run his family’s fruit and produce business for decades. The 51-year-old graduate of Rowan University is married with two children.
Brown, also 51, brings experience as a decorated Army combat veteran to the seat, along with a law degree and a firm that employs five workers. He’s worked as a prosecutor, solicitor, and judge, and as Chairman of the Legal Redress Committee for the Atlantic City NAACP. He and his wife have three children.
Bell, now a commercial litigator, has also worked as a prosecutor, as well as police legal advisor and instructor at the Atlantic County Police Training Center. New Jersey Monthly magazine named him a Rising Star in the state’s legal community three years in a row. The fifth-generation Atlantic resident has lived in the county his entire life, save the years he was earning undergraduate and law degrees at American University in Washington, D.C. He joined the freeholder board in 2013. He has a wife and two children.
Pauls is president of the South Jersey Building Trades Council, business manager and financial secretary for the Ironworkers Local 350 of Atlantic City, and a member of the Executive Board of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council of Atlantic City. The married grandfather lives in Hamilton Township and participates in several county business-and-development boards.
In a statement on his Facebook page, Pauls described why he is running for the Assembly: “I grew up working in my family’s steel business and saw firsthand the challenges of running a small business and meeting a payroll so that local families could put a roof over their heads and food on the table. Now more than ever, we need leaders in Trenton who can unite business and labor behind the common goal of making New Jersey more affordable and creating good-paying jobs so our children and grandchildren can afford to raise their families here.”
There’s little reason to believe the Republican incumbents in the 9th District could lose. The district, which includes parts of Atlantic, Burlington, and Ocean counties, including Toms River, has a voter base that is 29 percent Republican and 21 percent Democratic with the rest undecided. Assembly members Brian E. Rumpf and Dianne C. Gove won by more than 2-to-1 margins two years ago.
Rumpf, 51, 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. He serves on the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee.
Gove, 64, 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.
The Democratic challengers are Fran Zimmer of Little Egg Harbor and John Bingham of Beachwood. According to his LinkedIn page, Bingham is studying economics and international relations at Rutgers University and an Ocean County Democratic Committee member. He also served as an Ocean County Board of Elections clerk. Zimmer’s LinkedIn page lists her occupation as an independent education management professional. She earned a master’s degree in audiology and communication science from Kean University in 1976 and serves as the Democratic municipal chair in Little Egg.