As they fight for the right to take on Republican incumbent Donna Simon in November, the Democratic rivals in the 16th Legislative District go into the June 5 primary expressing views on key issues that are more similar than different.
What they differ on is the experience they bring to the race. Sue Nemeth is banking on her extensive policy knowledge, while Marie Corfield points to her recently realized political skills and teaching background.
New Jersey’s property taxes, the highest in the nation, remain a major challenge for citizens and candidates alike and are a focus of this campaign.
Nemeth, the former deputy mayor and current committeewoman in Princeton Township, looks at what worked there when seeking ways to achieve property tax relief in Trenton.
“The distraction right now is the Republicans talking about the state income tax, which is nibbling around the edges of property tax relief,” said Nemeth, 51, a public relations specialist with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“The focus should be on property taxes. The Democratic Assembly plan calls for everyone to pay their fair share, gets rid of tax breaks for millionaires, and starts to deal with our revenue issues,” Nemeth said. “Where I live, we asked Princeton University to pay its fair share of essential services, and they said yes.”
Corfield, 52, an arts teacher from Flemington, also said not enough has been done to alleviate the property tax burden.
“The 2 percent property tax cap went into effect, but with all of the cuts in school aid, local property taxes have gone up an average of 20 percent under Gov. Christie,” Corfield said. “We have a huge budget shortfall right now, but we are still looking at giving real income tax relief to only the truly wealthy. That’s an insult to working families.”
Nemeth, who played a role in the consolidation of the Princetons set to occur next year, said that while the taxpayer savings produced by consolidation are considerable, they should come through choice, not coercion.
“The governor’s plan is all stick -- our plan in Princeton was mostly carrot,” Nemeth said. “You do have to explain it, but you don’t have to shove it down anybody’s throat. You don’t need to threaten to withhold state aid from communities that refuse to consolidate. You just need an example of a consolidation that worked.”
“Consolidation has to be something that people want,” said Corfield. “Even about 40 percent of the voters in Princeton Borough voted against consolidation [in November 2011]. I’m all for saving money, but we have to make sure that taking away a degree of local rule, at the municipal or school board level, doesn’t become government intrusion at its finest.”
Education is another critical issue for both candidates.
“I believe we’re being misled by these boutique charter schools and private initiatives,” said Nemeth, a teachers’ union member. “We need to strengthen our public schools and address the underlying issues of joblessness and poverty that affect schools in economically struggling districts. I wouldn’t siphon off millions of dollars from these communities’ school budgets to fund private schools with vouchers. And I don’t support anything that further disadvantages the former Abbott districts. Suburban districts are going to do fine, because they have all the additional support systems in place.”
Corfield, who has 11 years of classroom experience, said, “I don’t have a problem with the school choice program in that children have a choice to attend public schools outside of their sending district. But I am very much opposed to the privatization of education, which is going on not only in New Jersey but around the country. Education is not a business. Your raw materials are not exactly the same. We take every child, warts and all.
“This is an education reform moment that is based on choice, but not on access,” Corfield said. “If you are a certain skin color, don’t speak the language or have certain learning disabilities, you will not necessarily get access. About 70 percent of the schools in New Orleans have gone over to charter schools since the hurricane, and I read all the time about children being denied access to education in the process. The state should be investing in public education and fund the schools the way the state school funding laws were written. Then we have to address the problem of poverty that helps make public education in these districts so challenging.”
In a legislative district laced by major state highways -- Routes 1 and 206 -- both candidates express strong views on how transportation funds should be raised then used.
“There is no simple solution to our transportation issues, but mass transportation is vital to the growing communities of Somerset and Hunterdon counties,” Nemeth said. “We should be redeveloping certain areas to create the higher density where mass transportation can be most effective.”
“We need to stop raiding the state Transportation Trust fund to fill one-shot holes in our budget, which is what the governor is doing now,” Corfield said. “That money is there to rebuild our roads and bridges, and that can bring jobs to our state. We have one of the lowest gas taxes in the country, and we may have to seriously look at that instead of having ongoing toll increases that are just shadow taxes. The money has to come from somewhere.”
Nemeth and Corfield both advocate the careful use of the state Open Space Trust Fund to keep sprawl at bay. The candidates believe a combination of continued vigilance by local government entities, such as county freeholder, and thoughtful long-term planning can keep overdevelopment in check.
The two disagree, however, when it comes to who has the experience to put these policies in place and the ability to get elected.
Corfield received the Democratic party line in Somerset, Hunterdon and Middlesex counties for this year’s primary. She also received the endorsements of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, state Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex).
But Nemeth’s aides cite numbers they assert show that in a low turnout race such as a primary, voters from the two Princetons and South Brunswick could make up about 47 percent of a primary turnout.
“It’s not just about Princeton, and I’ve got unanimous support in Mercer County, a big Democratic bloc,” Nemeth said. “I didn’t have an epiphany -- I’ve been involved in politics and government for 30 years. I’m not the typical government official because of my previous organizing background raising millions of dollars for women’s leadership education around the country. I took my own message to heart, and I came out from behind the curtain.”
“My opponent, frankly, has no experience,” Nemeth added. “She has no idea what she’s promising, and she can’t count on the Princeton votes that she got last year.”
Corfield, however, pointed to her close showing in last year’s Assembly race as proof that political neophytes can run and potentially win in statewide races.
“The voters heard our message last year, and they are hearing it now, especially in places like Somerset and Hunterdon counties that felt shut out for decades,” Corfield said. “Democrats can now stand up and be proud in the district.”
“Mercer is a large democratic base, and I don’t expect to win Princeton by a landslide,” Corfield added. “But there is also South Brunswick and other strong Democratic pockets in the area. There are people in this district who are hurting, and these same people remember you after you’ve already been out there campaigning hard.”
Corfield was unexpectedly thrust into politics following her public joust with Christie over education issues at a September 2010 Raritan Township town hall meeting, a feisty exchange that led to Internet fame. She believes that this unusual introduction to political life can be her entry to the Statehouse.
“We can have experiences in our life that propel us on to something else,” Corfield said. “That YouTube video was my moment, I guess. I just spoke my mind, and people could relate. What I’m saying in this campaign is not just about education. It’s about the entire middle class, and I’ve fought the governor already on middle-class issues. I’m ready to do it again if I earn the endorsement of the people, the only one that counts.”