Lights flashing, wheels spinning, bells chiming: The Deuce is one place where major political parties go to spend their hard-raised cash.
Centered on Atlantic City, New Jersey’s 2nd Legislative District is one of the big prizes on Nov. 5. But in this den of high-stakes politics, voters like to hedge their bets. The district’s voter registration skews slightly Republican in a county that leans slightly Democratic.
So it is no surprise that the divided delegation of state Sen. Jim Whelan, a Democrat, and Assemblymen John Amodeo and Chris Brown, both Republicans, all face strong challengers who already hold elected office.
Atlantic County Sheriff Frank X. Balles, a formidable vote-getter, opposes Whelan, a teacher and former Atlantic City mayor. Northfield Mayor Vince Mazzeo, who also runs a family grocery, and Longport Mayor Nick Russo, a law- enforcement veteran, match up against Amodeo, a semi-retired crane operator, and Brown, an attorney.
As far as chips on the table, Whelan’s campaign reported $236,813 in receipts in a midyear report to the state, while Balles had raised $133,057 by early September.
But the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision lifted restrictions on campaign contributions by corporations, unions and lobbyists. In this new era, campaigns can seemingly find cash from unknown sources, and this race has including its share of outside "friends of" groups with contributions and spending that have yet to be reported -- and may not be.
Campaigns in the 2nd are not for the squeamish. Two years ago, the three incumbents gave at least as good as they got, using tough if not stringently accurate advertising. So far this year, though, all the candidates are stressing their personal inclination for bipartisan compromise.
There is also an enforced togetherness, since the incumbents share the difficult task of touting progress and their accomplishments while acknowledging that the state and the district are struggling. No news may be good news here: Atlantic County’s unemployment rate was 11.5 percent at the end of August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the national government shutdown delayed newer figures.
As the area’s most recognizable political figure, Whelan is also the bluntest about its situation. Struggling with lost jobs, foreclosed mortgages and rising taxes, voters are “frustrated, frightened and angry,” he said.
In a downbeat applause line, Whelan describes “the deal now” as “the rich are getting richer, the middle class is losing ground and the poor are getting buried.”
“The number one issue is the economy, especially property taxes,” Whelan said.
Despite a theoretical 2 percent cap on municipal spending increases, “in the past three years, property taxes have gone up by an average of over 15 percent,” he said.
“I support the plan that was put forward by Sen. (Stephen) Sweeney,” and accepted by Governor Chris Christie, “that cuts everybody’s property taxes by 10 percent,” Whelan said. But legislative Democrats have been unwilling to follow through until the state budget and its revenue stream gets back on solid ground.
Like the rest of the Democratic ticket, Whelan would increase revenues by raising the marginal tax rate on income above $1 million, the “millionaire’s tax.”
With the détente between Christie and Sweeney, Whelan foresees bipartisan support ready to act on property taxes once revenues improve.
But for Balles, New Jersey “has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” In managing the sheriff’s department $10.5 million budget, “we do more with less all the time,” he said.
Balles joined the Pleasantville police in 1986, and rose to administrative captain by the time he ran for sheriff in 2008, winning with a record total of more than 58,000 votes.
In criticizing Whelan’s similarly lengthy tenure in public service, Balles is using a novel approach:, with its own version of Atlantic City’s iconic board game. This one features a caricature of the incumbent as Uncle Pennybags, and every space has something bad to say about him.
Gamesmanship aside, Balles agrees New Jersey taxpayers are being squeezed, but blames freewheeling government. He will bring that “different perspective” to Trenton, focusing especially on reducing business taxes, he said. Creating a friendlier atmosphere for business will bring back jobs, he said.
Balles blamed Whelan for failing to persuade then-Governor Jon Corzine to keep casinos open in 2006 during New Jersey’s own version of the current Washington, D.C., shutdown shenanigans. During a budget spat with fellow Democrats, Corzine did not designate the state’s casino and racetrack monitors as essential personnel. When they were sent home, the facilities had to close.
We have never recovered since then,” Balles said. Atlantic City has lost business since that time because “people are afraid to bring a convention here because they’re unsure whether the state will shut down, the casinos will shut down,” he said.
Whelan, though, scoffs at this notion. “The casinos have lost business because we have more competition all around,” he said. “We can no longer depend on the ‘convenience’ gambler, because many people have options closer to home.”
Convention business has also suffered because the convention center and visitors authority is understaffed, Whelan said, “They only have five salespeople where there used to be 12.” The reduced workforce means the city is not reaching new markets, such as international groups and East Coast travelers who pass through on their way to other destinations, he said.
What’s more, Whelan believes the entire district and region need to look beyond gambling and diversify their economy, such as pushing for proposed offshore wind energy.
The senatorial candidates also come down on different sides of what has been a long-running discussion over the apportionment of Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds.
Atlantic City should share its funds, Balles said, “I think they should be regionalized throughout Atlantic County.” But with the city’s economic struggles and need to build or rebuild infrastructure, Whelan said it “needs every dollar.”
Like their Assembly running mates, the senatorial candidates are dissatisfied with the state’s response in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s a nightmare,” Whelan said, particularly the “lack of communication, lack of transparency” in processing aid to storm victims.
As sheriff, Balles said, he witnessed the devastation firsthand, “I was out the first night during it, 24 hours, in every town.” But with billions in aid coming in, “we need to make sure that money is spent correctly,” he said.
Whelan praises the Christie administration for beginning to champion protective dunes, a step he pushed in Atlantic City.
“A lot of people were mad at me, but there’s no question that the dunes helped preserve the boardwalk and property in Atlantic City and Ventnor,” he said.
He also anticipates steps to provide open-space funding next year, either through a bond question or another mechanism, such as a share of state sales taxes. Whelan advocates buying chronically flooded properties piecemeal, “where you have a willing seller,” rather than only going after whole blocks or other large tracts.
Balles is skeptical of anything that would increase taxes or debts. Restrictions on rebuilding should be left to the federal government, but they must be reasonable, he said. He suggested raising bulkheads to protect roadways.
On an issue that extends far beyond district boundaries, the candidates clearly differ on gay marriage.
“As a Catholic, I have a hard time saying ‘marriage,’ ” Balles said. “I think it should go the voters,” he added, comparing the issue to the minimum wage question that Democrats got onto this year’s ballot.
“I don’t think you put people’s rights up for a vote,” said Whalen.
He was the lone member of the Legislature to support gay marriage in 2007, leading to his campaign line that he “voted for gay marriage before it was cool.”
Whelan, one of the few candidates who talks passionately about education, questions the effectiveness of charter schools. He cites studies showing their wildly varying performance and their drain on education funding.
But he also praised Atlantic County’s charter arts high school, saying other local schools do not have the student base to support the programs it offers centrally. “I don’t believe in one size fits all” for approving or rejecting charters, Whelan said.
Like their fellow Republicans around the state, Amodeo and Brown chide Democrats for trying to position themselves as pals of Christie despite opposing some of his policies. But here, they also make a point of supporting the proposal by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), embraced by the governor, for a property tax cut.
That is not the only point where Democrats Mazzeo and Russo are finding common ground with their opponents, especially Brown. Both support gay marriage. After voting against it, Brown said he now favors it and “would vote to override the governor’s veto.” The issue is likely to be decided in the courts.
Like Whelan, the Democratic Assembly candidates said they have supported some of Christie’s initiatives, such as curbing pensions and tightening caps on local spending. But they expressed disappointment with the results.
“Clearly the Christie plan has not worked,” Russo said. “I signed on with the 2 percent cap,” but there are too many loopholes for it to be effective, he said.
A former Atlantic City police officer who spent years as a rackets investigator for the state, Russo said he gets firsthand reactions from residents who “tell us what’s working and what’s not.”
The other problem with the governor’s approach, according to Mazzeo, is that he has balanced the state budget by passing the burden to municipalities and school districts, which has directly resulted in increased property taxes.
“Our state aid was decreased, our school aid was decreased, a lot of tax reform programs were cut or they weren’t there at all for us,” he said.
The timing was particularly unfortunate, Mazzeo said, because his town embraced shared services, such as a joint police dispatch with Egg Harbor Township, and could have passed the savings along to taxpayers.
New Jerseyans also need help with education costs at every level, he said, advocating tuition aid grants.
Amodeo agreed New Jersey’s chronically high property taxes are a burden, saying they discourage businesses from locating here and are a factor in residents moving out. But he said that sticking to Christie’s policies will bring about change.
“Under this governor, we have had no new taxes, and he wants no new fees,” Amodeo said, adding that while some aid has been cut, “we’re going to be able to replenish and get back to where we were.”
Going forward, he said “real civil service reform” will be the next step to controlling costs following pension cuts to public workers.
Amodeo repeatedly cited Christie’s claim that property taxes have gone up less than 2 percent, “the lowest increase in more than 20 years,” Amodeo said.
Democrats pointed out that this number does not reflect the net costs of Christie’s tax policies, including the elimination of homestead rebates. When they are factored in, the net property tax increase is much higher. An analysis by New Jersey Spotlight put it at 18.6 percent in the first three years of Christie’s term.
Still, the Republicans see signs of hope through an improving economy.
“Personal income is up and more people are buying homes,” Brown said. Policy makers have “a moral and ethical responsibility to make New Jersey affordable for all our citizens, including the middle class and the working poor,” he said.
One way to do that is through tax policies that halt the transfer of wealth upward to the already wealthy, according to the Democrats. Russo emphasized that the millionaire’s tax would apply its highest marginal rate only to income above $1 million.
That would apply to an estimated 16,000 taxpayers statewide, and the revenues could be used to provide tax breaks for most residents in the district, Mazzeo said.
But Amodeo said he could not support the proposal, because “the job creators in this state are the wealthiest.” New Jersey is already “moving in the right direction” under Christie, and the Legislature should not interfere, he said.
Brown cited 2010 comments by James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, endorsing studies that found higher tax rates encouraged wealthy New Jerseyans to leave the state. That is significant, Hughes said at the time, because millionaires pay 40 percent of state income taxes.
But that underscores the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, according to Democrats. Another academic study suggested the rich cashed in New Jersey properties at the height of the housing bubble, and out-migration slowed dramatically after the crash.
Like Whelan, though, Amodeo and Brown said not all the economic news is bad. They point to business investment in Atlantic City, such as the recently opened Bass Pro Shop, Margaritaville and Harrah’s conference center.
All the candidates agree that tax and development policies should help small business, and most agree that environmental and open-space policies can play a role in protecting both natural resources and investments.
In another departure from the Christie line, Brown declared, “There are certain realities that we have to deal with, and one of them is that the climate is changing.”
That acceptance was welcome news to Russo, an avid outdoorsmen who said he has “been to 43 different states to hike, bike, kayak and camp.” He praised the Legislature for considering dedicating a share of the sales tax for open space.
The Assembly candidates also face a wild card -- frequent candidate Gary Stein of Mullica Township. The owner of an office-cleaning business, Stein entered as an independent after being bumped from the Democratic primary ballot. He declared himself “a libertarian from here on in.”
Stein’s positions include protecting pensions but lowering the top pay for teachers by 10 percent, and for police and firefighters by 20 percent. He calls for a 20 percent cut in property taxes, and elimination of personal and corporate income taxes. But his major issue is Atlantic County’s “rigged” ballot placement, which gives the first two lines to Republicans or Democrats.
His opponents discount him, and the campaigns and sponsors of a recent debate in Atlantic City limited Stein to handing out literature outside. Polls show Amodeo and Brown leading. But a few votes here or there, and the race could be a tossup.
Editor's note: This story has been edited since it was originally posted.