In New Jersey’s 1st Legislative District, two Democratic incumbents are fighting to hold off their Republican challengers in this fall’s elections to the General Assembly; it’s a district where Republicans have more registered voters and where the Democratic candidates themselves are openly critical of Gov. Phil Murphy.
Democrats Bruce Land and Matt Milam are running for re-election in the Atlantic-Cape May-Cumberland county district but don’t pull their punches on some of Murphy’s policies.
Constituents’ interests are more important than party loyalty, said the incumbents’ campaign manager, Sam Rivers, and that’s why they are not afraid to speak out against the Democratic governor if necessary.
“When Gov. Murphy wanted to make New Jersey a sanctuary state, they opposed him,” Rivers said in a statement. “Just a few weeks ago, when he vetoed funding for Wildwood Boardwalk repair, they brought the Senate president down to tour the boardwalk, introduced a new bill to get the funds, and started a statewide campaign to reverse the governor’s senseless decision.”
“So while party may matter to some people, folks in South Jersey know that our guys will do what’s right regardless,” he said.
Opposing Murphy’s ‘radical liberal agenda’
On the Republican side, Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen hope to use Democratic qualms about some Murphy policies to win votes in the Nov. 5 poll, in light of what they call the governor’s “increasingly radical liberal agenda.”
That includes, said party spokeswoman Brittany O’Neill, the attorney general’s “sanctuary state” plan, announced last November, in which he limited the ability of state law enforcement to assist federal immigration authorities in enforcing immigration laws. He also told officers that they may not stop, detain or question anyone based on their immigration status but said the policy does not make New Jersey a “sanctuary” for criminals, and does not stop local officials assisting ICE agents if they make formal requests for assistance.
Still, Grewal directed local law enforcement not to make so-called 287(g) agreements with ICE that deputize them to work for the federal officials without a warrant signed by a judge.
The GOP candidates also accused “Trenton Democrats” of providing education aid to illegal immigrants while cutting state aid to schools in the 1st District, and said that overturning the governor’s “reckless” sanctuary state initiative would be among their top priorities.
Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on making New Jersey a “sanctuary state” but now calls it “fair and welcoming” since state officials cannot guarantee sanctuary to any immigrants because they cannot stop federal immigration enforcement agents from operating within the state.
“That’s insane, and it’s out of touch with our district’s values,” according to a joint statement from McClellan, 45, who lives in Ocean City, and is personnel director for the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office, and Simonsen, 50, who lives in Lower Township, and is the athletic director for the Lower Cape May Regional School District.
The statement was also issued on behalf of Republican Mike Testa, a 43-year-old Vineland lawyer who is running for the 1st District Senate seat in a special election following the move of the seat’s former Democratic incumbent, Jeff Van Drew, to Congress last year. Testa’s website describes him as “an unapologetic pro-gun, pro-taxpayer, conservative Republican.”
Meanwhile, GOP officials in the 1st District and others are accusing General Majority PAC, a Democrat-supporting Super PAC, of racism for distributing a mailer that accuses McClellan, who is black, of being a “financial deadbeat” who failed to pay tens of thousands of dollars in debts.
‘Ad hominem attack’
McClellan, in a statement distributed by the party, said the authors of the mailer had darkened his skin in a photograph on the mailer, and presented him to look like “Aunt Jemima,” a brand of pancake mix that is packaged with the picture of a black woman.
”The Democratic party claims to be the party of inclusion; however, the moment a person of color like me disagrees with their narrative, they launch an ad hominem attack,” the statement said. “This attack ad launched against me isn’t just tone-deaf, it’s totally deaf to the economic struggles that faced all the people of South Jersey in the recent trying economic times.”
McClellan said he is a Republican because the party supports job creation and real opportunity, “not just giveaway programs.”
General Majority PAC, whose Facebook page describes it as “the first nationwide Super PAC focused on electing Democratic state legislators,” did not respond to a request for comment on the mailer.
Addressing persistent concerns on both sides about high state taxes, the GOP candidates also said they would press for legislation that requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature for any state tax to be raised, and would prevent the governor and the Legislature from relying on one-time revenue sources to balance the state budget.
Ben Dworkin, Director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University, said the 1st District is one of only about a half-dozen competitive races in the state, given its conservative attitudes and the slight majority of registered Republicans in a district that is currently represented by Democrats. The highly contested race is likely to make the LD1 campaign among the most expensive in the state, Dworkin said.
The unaffiliated majority
Registered Republicans in the district outweighed Democrats by about 3,000 at the end of August, according to state data, although both major parties were heavily exceeded by almost 60,000 voters registered as “unaffiliated.”
Dworkin said the GOP candidates will attack the progressive policies of the Murphy administration and may even invoke President Donald Trump in their effort to win over conservative voters if they appear to be rallying around him in his efforts to fight impeachment.
“If they would do it anywhere, they would do it here,” Dworkin said. “Trump is a little bit more liked in this particular district than in others.”
While the Murphy administration is in the crosshairs of Republicans and even some Democrats in the 1st District, it isn’t clear whether the GOP attacks will galvanize voters in general, Dworkin said. A Monmouth University poll this month showed the governor’s approval rating at 41%, little changed from 44% in April 2018, although his disapproval rating rose to 38% from 28% over the same period.
“What’s interesting about Murphy is while his disapproval rating is increasing, his approval rating is remaining steady and, relatively speaking, high,” Dworkin said. “So Republicans are rallying their base around their disapproval of Murphy, but it’s not clear that such a message will resonate with many beyond the GOP base.”
Taxes, taxes, taxes
Among the candidates, both sides are focusing on taxes as the biggest issue.
“It’s taxes, especially property taxes,” said Democrat Bob Andrzejczak, a former 1st District Assemblyman who was appointed to the district’s state Senate seat in January and is now running against Testa. “South Jersey is too expensive for most people, and we’ve got to do something about that.”
Andrzejczak, 33, a retired Army sergeant who is now a full-time legislator and lives in Cape May, said his accomplishments in the Assembly included scrapping the Jersey Shore rental tax and cutting the state’s tax on boat sales.
Land, 69, a retired Vineland resident who is also a full-time legislator, said he has supported a property-tax freeze for seniors and doubled an income-tax deduction for veterans, and plans if re-elected to continue that work.
Milam, 58, a trucking consultant also from Vineland, said that as a small-business owner, “I think I can help knock some common business sense into Trenton.”
The last time the seats were contested in 2017, Andrzejczak and Land won 31% and 30% of the vote, respectively, overcoming their GOP opponents, James Sauro and Robert Campbell, who each got about 19%.
On the Republican side, the candidates’ joint statement also said that if elected they will support school-funding reform that reduces property taxes on suburban and rural communities, and stops “throwing money” at urban schools.
The GOP candidates pledged to oppose giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and to end educational aid to undocumented college students.
NJ Spotlight’s elections page has all our coverage, including information on every race and a map to help readers find their districts.
Follow this link to an overview of the 1st Legislative District.