Like the missing scrap from a treasure map dangling just out of reach, the 38th District has Democrats and Republicans scrambling and clawing for the prize.
The district covering parts of Bergen County plus Hawthorne in neighboring Passaic County is one of a handful of races considered up for grabs in an off-year election in which most races are routine. As such, it has attracted a line-up of known political quantities, backed by piles of money from both parties.
"This is going to be a real nail-biter," said Hawthorne Mayor Richard Goldberg, a Republican Assembly candidate.
Redistricting is a key reason why the race is considered so close. While Democrats maintain a registration edge over Republicans, there are almost as many unaffiliated voters as the total declared in both parties. There is also a seat open, as Assemblywoman Joan Voss, a Democrat, chose to step down after her Fort Lee hometown was moved into the 37th District, already represented by Democrats.
As Voss instead runs for Bergen County freeholder, her colleagues, Sen. Robert Gordon and Assemblywoman Connie Wagner carry on with their re-election bids, along with Maywood Mayor Tim Eustace, seeking Voss’s seat.
Their Republican opponents, in addition to Goldberg, president of an investment group, are John Driscoll Jr., the Bergen County freeholder director going after the Senate seat, and Fairleigh Dickinson University professor Fernando Alonso seeking a spot in the Assembly.
Both slates acknowledge the high stakes have provided them with money and resources, but also produced a bruising campaign in which attack ads risk overshadowing significant issues and thoughtful policies.
At times, the hyperbole has been almost comical, as in the Republican ads that charge the three Democrats "destroyed our economy."
"I never do anything without confirming it with (Federal Reserve Chairman) Ben Bernanke first," Gordon said wryly.
"A few years ago, I would have taken something like that personally, but now I just laugh it off," Wagner said.
Alonso countered that the Democrats’ ads "start out with facts and then twist them."
For instance, one ad alleges that Goldberg raised his own salary while on the Hawthorne council -- without mentioning that it was a paper move only, since Goldberg and his colleagues never allocated the extra pay.
"Fourteen years in office, I've probably done some things that they could campaign on, but they go after me for something I didn't do," Goldberg said. "If you're that desperate for an issue ..."
"Since the (GOP) primary, I've be called every name in the book," said Driscoll, who began ticking them off. When he came to the term "folksy," he allowed, "I guess folksy's not so bad."
In his first term on the Bergen freeholder board as Republicans took control, Driscoll took a 25 percent pay cut, saying, "How can you ask your department heads to accept cuts if you won't do it personally?"
Despite the area's tough campaigns, politicians from both sides often cooperate, he said. And he offered a metaphor for this year's race.
"Bob wants to go down the Parkway to get to Trenton, and I want to go down the Turnpike," Driscoll said. "We have the same goal, we just have differences about the right way to get there."
"I think people are frustrated with politicians on both sides," said Gordon, a solar energy business consultant.
He said he has concentrated on door-to-door campaigning, which is "physically grueling" but the best way to reach voters individually. The high-pressure race has become "a personal challenge to see whether I can rise to the occasion," Gordon added.
Not completely lost in the race are several issues. Among those is a local one: Flooding.
With flooding becoming ever more frequent and damaging, Driscoll said he established Bergen's first county advisory committee to coordinate policy.
"Eight years in the Legislature, and Bob has finally figured out that there's a flooding problem," Driscoll said.
Gordon countered that he and Wagner met with Driscoll and municipal officials cooperatively in August, weeks before Hurricane Irene, to push flood-prevention policies. The two Democrats introduced a raft of bills to address the problem, ranging from allowing open-space funds to be used for flood-prone properties to sales and use tax rebates for storm victims to coordinating flood control with Rockland County in New York.
A centerpiece of the package is a proposed $10 million expenditure to help rebuild the Marsellus Avenue bridge linking Garfield and Saddle Brook. The current structure "is a real bottleneck," causing flood problems upstream, Eustace said.
"That's one spot where the county has fallen down,” he said.
Eustace, a chiropractor, said a longer-term solution could be the inclusion of a public reservoir on the Saddle River in the state water supply management plan.
The Democrats also have proposed the relaxation of some state and federal stream corridor protections to allow the removal of accumulated debris.
Both sides promote more fairness in funding for suburban school districts.
Driscoll, a tobacco salesman, complains about "shoveling money at urban districts." But he also said the state Department of Education has missed opportunities to bring in more federal aid for special education.
Gordon takes a nuanced approach, calling for an overhaul of the tax system to provide both court-ordered aid for disadvantaged students and districts and tax relief for the suburbs. Tax cuts are only a first step, he said. Curbing administrative costs through consolidations, and such measures as capping increases in college tuition, "are really the long-term solution to New Jersey's property tax problem," he said.
Candidates on both sides agree New Jersey has too many levels of government, especially in Bergen County, where walking down the block may involve crossing multiple administrative jurisdictions.
"There are 72 different towns and some of them have three or four administrations," including districts and other entities, said Alonso, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for Congress and the state Senate in the 1990s. Even without corruption, it is a situation rife for "waste and mismanagement," he said.
"One of the things we did is pass legislation to allow voters to present petitions for regionalizing or consolidating" agencies, districts or even towns, Wagner said, adding that the 38th District Democrats championed the bills.
In the view of the Republicans, though, the local Democrats stood in opposition to taxpayers by voting against the pension and benefits reductions imposed on state workers by Gov. Chris Christie with the help of the Democratic legislative leadership. The Republicans see the cuts as an accomplishment and as a wedge issue.
"When I'm talking to voters, the most asked question is, 'What can you do about property taxes?'" Goldberg said, adding he supports such other measures in Christie's so-called tool kit as capping arbitration awards and letting towns opt out of the Civil Service system.
"I want to be part of making that happen," he said.
Democrats counter by citing some of the consequences of the cuts. Details of the revised health benefit plans, and even their number, remain in a state of flux, making it difficult for families to plan or for governments to project the ultimate costs, Wagner said. That is not the way to handle serious fiscal matters.
"As a teacher, I was used to having a procedure and knowing where I was going," Wagner said. "I ask a lot of questions, and I couldn't get answers to my questions about health benefits."
Beyond that, Wagner said management has an obligation to sit down with employees when their livelihoods and futures are on the line.
Wagner and Eustace both argued the short-term gains from the pension and benefit changes are being hyped, while the other effects of state budget cuts have gone unexamined.
In many towns, Eustace said, "what we're seeing is less cops, less DPW workers, but utility costs that continue to rise, health insurance premiums that continue to rise."
To really hold down taxes, "look at where the money is going," he said. "Yes, some doctors, some hospitals are doing well, but the explosive growth in profits has been in health insurance."
Democrats opposed the budget cuts in programs for senior citizens and other vulnerable populations, Eustace said, because "throwing people out of Medicaid and into HMOs is going to increase costs."
According to Wagner, the steps the state has taken do not address "the true problem" of controlling the explosive growth in health insurance premiums. Simply having employees pay more does not help if costs keep rising, she said. Wagner added that management has an obligation to sit down with employees when changing their livelihoods and futures.
While not everyone agrees with their votes on Christie's cuts, Gordon said many voters appreciate their willingness to stick to their principles and even buck their own legislative leaders. "I was one who stood up for teachers and collective bargaining" as the way to resolve contract issues.
The Republicans express confidence about the issues, but are careful to distance themselves from the overheated rhetoric directed at teachers and police.
"I feel badly knowing they feel like they've been vilified," Alonso said, adding the pension system's liability soared because politicians of both parties decided it was "not my problem." He does not want to eliminate tenure, but would work with union leaders to extend the qualifying period "from three years to five or seven."
Driscoll defended the state’s support for the ill-fated Xanadu shopping and entertainment project, now under Canadian ownership and renamed "American Dream Meadowlands." The area must maintain its vitality as a major shopping magnet, and getting the project back on track would be a big step, he said.
The Democrats are supportive up to a point, but believe the market should decide. Wagner noted the new ownership has a good track record in Canada, and so should not need to keep New Jersey taxpayers on the hook.
"I do not agree with the state giving them taxpayer money to get it off the ground," she said. "Once it's there and ready to go, I would support tax credits or other steps to help them add jobs."
Beyond pushing for changes in the way government operates, both Goldberg and Alonso said they have other reasons for wanting to go to Trenton.
"Hawthorne is the only Passaic County town in the district, and without having somebody in the delegation it would be easy to overlook us," Goldberg said.
"The Latino community and the Republican Party have not been the best dance partners, even though they have a lot of the same values," Alonso said. "I believe the Latino community, like the Jewish community, should be involved in both parties."
Despite state political spotlight and large ad blitzes by both parties, all the candidates said they realize that in an off-year, it is difficult to get people's attention.
Wagner said the Democrats deliberately left their party affiliation off their hand-outs.
"When I'm standing on people's doorsteps, I see them leafing through it, looking to see what I am," she said. "I tell them, 'Why don't you listen to what I say for a few minutes, and see what you think?’"