He's the most powerful Democrat in Trenton but helped shepherd Gov. Chris Christie's benefits overhaul through the Senate last spring. He's a long-time incumbent from a heavily Democratic district where support for the governor is solid. He's a union organizer without the support of two key unions.
Whether because of or in spite of all that, Steven Sweeney holds a commanding lead in his latest bid for Senate from the 3rd District, which covers large areas of Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties. A recent Richard Stockton College/Zogby Poll of likely voters found 48 percent leaning toward Sweeney, with just 29 percent supporting Republican opponent Mike Mulligan.
"Senate President Steve Sweeney may get his bumps and bruises in Trenton, but voters tell him 'there's no place like home' in the 3rd Legislative District," said Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, which commissioned the poll.
Mulligan, a Salem County attorney making his first run for office, acknowledged as much. "I'm probably a long-shot," he said. "But I have a problem finding anyone here who says they like Sweeney…. My candidacy is being very well-received."
"This year, the people will decide whether they want a government that fights tooth and nail for the richest one percent or a government that looks out for our seniors and middle-class families," Sweeney countered. "I am pushing to reinstate the millionaire's tax to pay for the senior property tax rebate and to provide tax relief for middle-class families. You know whose side I am on."
The Senate race isn't the only storyline in the 3rd. There are also three incumbents for the district's two Assembly seats: Democrats John Burzichelli and Celeste Riley, and Assemblyman Dominick DiCicco, a Republican incumbent in the neighboring 4th District whose hometown of Franklin Township was moved into the 3rd District last spring. The other Republican candidate is Robert Villare, a doctor from West Deptford.
The demographics would seem to favor the Democrats: voter registration data from the June primary shows them with almost a 2-to-1 lead over Republicans, 45,860 to 24,758. But a plurality of voters, 64,410, is unaffiliated. In fact, two years ago, Riley topped Villare by just 1,300 votes to win her first term in the Assembly.
And with 56 percent of the 3rd district's voters giving Christie the thumbs-up, Republicans feel they have reason to hope. Further, the teachers and state worker unions have vowed revenge against Sweeney for helping pass the benefits overhaul. Two months ago, the New Jersey State AFL-CIO and the New Jersey Education Association voted not to endorse Sweeney or his running mates—even though Sweeney is a union organizer for the International Association of Ironworkers.
"We applaud our sisters and brothers in the labor movement for standing by those who stood with us and making the tough decision to hold politicians accountable to their principles," said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey area director of the Communications Workers of America, which represents thousands of public employees.
The motto on Mulligan's campaign website seems to play off that anger, stating: "The State Senate is no place to give preferences to Political Bosses at the expense of the taxpayers and hardworking public employees!"
However, the Democratic assembly candidates have polling leads almost as commanding as Sweeney's. Of those polled, 44 percent said they would vote for Riley and 43 percent for Burzichelli, while DiCicco got the support of 29 percent and Villare, 28 percent.
Burzichelli, the deputy speaker of the assembly, first took office in 2002. He also chairs the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee. Riley is the first woman to represent the 3rd District, and the first woman from Cumberland County to serve in the Legislature.
Villare is a surgeon at The Memorial Hospital of Salem County. In 2009, he won a contested Republican primary as an upstart, non-party endorsed candidate. This year, he and DiCicco were unopposed in their primary.
A lawyer, DiCicco is vice president and general counsel of a court-reporting and litigation-support services company. He is finishing his first term in the Assembly.
In addition to gaining DiCicco's hometown of Franklin Township, the 3rd also got Glassboro, Newfield, and Woodbury Heights. All four of those municipalities voted Democratic in 2007, the last time the state Senate topped the ballot. The 3rd lost 11 smaller communities, all but two of which also voted Democratic four years ago.