It’s a competitive legislative race in the heart of New Jersey, yet Democratic incumbents and Republican challengers alike entered the final days with seeming good cheer.
Perhaps that's because the contest in the 14th District, covering parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties, so far has been clean and polite. Just as likely, it's because the two sides have totally different views of the attitude of the electorate.
"Unfortunately, New Jersey is the worst off (economically) of the surrounding states, and people want the incumbents out," said Robbinsville Councilwoman Sheree McGowan, a Republican Assembly candidate.
"Sometimes, that's all they ask, ‘Are you an incumbent?'" said her Assembly running mate, former Cranbury Mayor Wayne Wittman. "They're fed up with high property taxes. They just want government out of their lives. They want things simplified."
The Democrats see things differently.
“The voters are focused," said Democratic Assemblyman Wayne DeAnglo. "But it's not jobs, jobs, jobs. They know that. They don't want to hear you repeat it. They want to know what you're going to do in the next two years to create jobs."
"Voters really want to hear where the candidates stand on the issues," said Assemblyman Daniel Benson, the other Democrat representing the 14th. "Our message of job creation, keeping New Jersey affordable and strong constituent services is resonating."
"It's such a classic swing district that people value independence," said Democratic state Sen. Linda Greenstein. "On a number of issues, I've stood alone or almost alone and that's what people talk to me about. They are really happy when I stand up."
Greenstein won a special election last year to move up from the Assembly to replace Republican Bill Baroni, who became an executive in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Benson was chosen to take over her seat. DeAngelo is completing his second term.
As everywhere in New Jersey, the economy trumps other issues. But in this homeland of state workers, some families remain aggrieved over the reductions in pension and health benefits pushed through by Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic legislative leaders.
Here, Benson, DeAngelo and Greenstein voted against those changes, making their re-election a top priority for labor.
"It's not like everything here is just about the unions," Greenstein said, noting district voters share general concerns about property taxes and the cost of government. But many do believe the legislature should not have shunted aside contracts and collective bargaining to impose the changes, she said.
Benson and Greenstein both said teachers seem particularly grateful that someone spoke up for them. "They felt like they were being vilified," Greenstein said.
Republicans can count on goodwill and name recognition from another issue. Their Senate candidate is Richard Kanka, father of the namesake of Megan's Law. After their seven-year-old daughter was abducted and killed by a convicted sex offender living in their neighborhood, Kanka and his wife Maureen pushed for the registration law that has become a model nationally and internationally.
"If someone working as a volunteer can take a horrific event and make something good of it for the benefit of everyone, just think what he'll be able to do in elected office," McGowan said.
In launching his campaign, Kanka called New Jersey "a state in clear need of leadership and direction." He voiced support for Christie's steps "to reduce the tax burden on state residents and businesses, and to control spending." A member of the plumbers and pipefitters union who has served on the Hamilton school board, Kanka presents himself as an independent.
"I will vote for what is right and not what the party bosses want," he said. Citing a "need to change the way the legislature works," Kanka, who did not return requests for comment, said at his campaign kickoff that voters should "elect people who believe in solutions."
Even Greenstein supports Megan’s Law, and sponsored an amendment to strengthen it. Her resume includes a wide range of legislative solutions, including "the largest small business tax cut in New Jersey's history," and another bill cutting corporate taxes by 25 percent on some companies.
She has also been a leader on some open government and ethics issues, such as the law giving municipalities the right to impose stricter "pay to play" restrictions on campaign contributors.
But in Wittman's view, Republicans have an advantage with a clear message of holding the line on taxes, particularly in a poor economy. The state needs to improve efficiencies, and give towns and schools districts the tools to do the same. It needs to take the same approach to attract business, he said.
"I'm not saying not to enforce rules ... but you can't keep saying we're going to have more rules to make things harder" to develop or expand, Wittman said.
"We're just trying to keep people in the state," without facing higher costs, Wittman said. "I think that's the big difference between my opponents and myself."
As one step, he said, administrations of any political stripe should not be able to raid seemingly dedicated funds in order to plug budget holes or advance pet projects.
"If it's money for transportation, it should go to transportation," he said. "If it's for teacher pensions, then it goes to teacher pensions."
Even beyond that, Benson said, the state's fiscal planning needs more serious attention. For example, the recent health-benefit cuts have not solved the problem of rising health insurance costs, he said. The state needs to be able to analyze where and why costs are rising – for instance, higher drug prices and unnecessary doctor visits -- and change accordingly, he said.
Similarly, uncertainty surrounding the pension changes makes it difficult for families, Benson said. Without knowing the status of cost-of-living adjustments, "it's hard to plan for your future," he said.
The 14th District delegation led the fight to preserve the Senior Freeze property tax reimbursement, Benson said. That's one example of a budget cut that might look good on ledgers in Trenton, but it eliminates funds that were targeted to help taxpayers. Much of the state budget supports towns and school districts, so cutting there does not help hold down property taxes, he said.
In Robbinsville, local officials have worked hard to attract new businesses, McGowan said. That includes some relatively simple steps, such as making inspectors available on nights or weekends to help projects stay on schedule, she said. Some planning and zoning procedures can be handled administratively, without forcing applicants to put on lengthy presentations for the full boards. There have been tangible results, such as an office/warehouse complex increasing from 50 percent capacity to 95 percent in two years.
That is not a matter of telling developers "they can do anything they want -- you still have to have regulations," McGowan said. Robbinsville’s operational flexibility and marketing efforts to make businesses feel welcome could be adopted elsewhere in the state.
DeAngelo said Democrats have a "multi-level approach" with such initiatives as loan programs to help small businesses add employees, while encouraging larger research and development ventures, solar power panel companies and other green jobs.
The green sector "truly has been a story of successful job growth in New Jersey," Benson said. It is critical that the state Energy Master Plan, revised by the Christie administration, retain efforts to meet alternative energy targets, he said.
On an issue with traction in the suburbs, DeAngelo touted his legislation to help school districts by offering incentives of $250 per student in state aid for meeting performance standards. DeAngelo expressed optimism that some version will pass to help property taxes.
Greenstein said more attention should be paid to underlying issues of school funding. Emphasizing such issues as merit pay, which studies in schools and businesses have shown does not produce results, distracts from other substantive actions, she said.
"The governor has not talked about the issue of why we rely on property taxes so much to fund our schools," she said.