In New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District -- already burdened with deep pockets of urban and rural poverty -- a new economic threat is emerging: the mass layoffs of ten thousand workers and counting. As former Atlantic City casino employees struggle to piece together their futures after the recent closing of four of the city’s mega-resorts, they risk sinking into insolvency along with their fellow district residents who have long lived penniless in Atlantic City’s neighborhoods and in agricultural Cumberland County, which counts itself as the poorest in the state.
Although it is local and state leaders, along with a host of social-service agencies, who can most quickly provide assistance, six congressional candidates in South Jersey’s 2nd district are jockeying to put or keep themselves in a position to offer help from the federal government. For the victor, winning the election might be the easy part.
Already plagued by high unemployment and low socioeconomic indicators, the district additionally suffers from a trifecta of unique-to-the region problems that range from a lagging postrecession recovery to the crumbling of Atlantic City’s gaming industry and the ongoing effects of Hurricane Sandy.
The campaign’s frontrunner, incumbent Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo, says he does everything possible from Washington, D.C., to ease his constituents’ plights, even when it means bucking his party on issues like unemployment benefits, food stamps, and Sandy relief. The 68-year-old owner of a family trucking business is running for his 11th term to represent the district, which blankets all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties and parts of Gloucester, Camden, Burlington, and Ocean counties.
Four little-known candidates are also vying for the seat: independents Gary Stein and Bayode Olabisi, American Labor Party candidate Costantino Rozzo and Democratic-Republican Alexander Spano. Independent campaign trackers call the election for LoBiondo, though a few leave room for uncertainty.
Covering one-third of New Jersey’s total acreage, the southernmost district in the state is populated by a diversity of constituencies. The northwest portion of the district begins in suburban Philadelphia then travels down the Delaware River through aging, post-industrial port towns. It reaches the Delaware Bay, with its fragile ecosystems and shared commercial rights-of-way with Delaware, before arching northward to the Atlantic Coast and the tourists, destination villages, waterfront vacation homes, and seasonal workers that define it. Close to the northern tip lies Atlantic City.
Spread across the district’s middle are farmers; small-business owners, service workers (including those employed or once employed in AC), and current and former factory workers. Three-quarters of the population is white; 13 percent is African American; and the rest is split somewhat evenly among Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Asians. Many have watched their livelihoods dwindle as farms have foreclosed and glass- and food-processing plants have closed down, leaving behind some lifeless downtowns and an unemployment rate that’s higher than the state average.
Troubling income, health and education measurements weigh heavily on South Jersey’s quality-of-life indices. Plus, municipalities that fall within the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission cover part of the district as well, and while their employment trends closely parallel those in the rest of South Jersey, as of 2009, average per capita Pinelands income fell $4,000 short of South Jersey’s as a whole and $7,000 less than that of the state.
Hughes doesn’t miss an opportunity to use these statistics against his incumbent opponent.
“Even before we started laying off the up-to-10,000 casino employees, we had long-term unemployment in South Jersey,” he said. “I don’t blame Frank LoBiondo for the casinos closing but I do blame him for ignoring the warning signs.”
Though LoBiondo has never beaten a general-election opponent with less than 57 percent of the vote, his constituents aren’t loyal Republicans. Constituents have voted for Democratic candidates in five of the six last presidential elections (favoring George W. Bush over John Kerry by one percentage point), and they’ve kept many congressional representatives from both parties in office for long periods of service.
Neither CNN, University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato, nor The Cook Political Report consider the district competitive this cycle. But the Cook Report places LoBiondo very close to the theoretical line that divides safe districts from unsafe ones, and Ballotpedia.com labels it a “battleground.” What’s more, a Stockton College poll released October 2 showed LoBiondo running just six points ahead of Hughes, with 18 percent undecided. However, a Monmouth University poll taken two weeks later suggested that LoBiondo had broadly widened his lead to outpace Hughes by a margin of 21 points, with just seven percent undecided.
“What I didn’t expect was the number of undecideds, which are not usually that high a month out,” said Sharon Schulman, CEO for external affairs and institutional research at Stockton, speaking of the earlier poll.
According to Schulman, two dynamics are shaping the election.
“Bill Hughes is a credible candidate with some decent name recognition, and he’s out there doing retail politics. While LoBiondo’s favorability numbers are quite high, the numbers for Congress are abysmal, which allows his opponents to paint him with the same brush,” she said.
The district the candidates seek to represent comes with as many issues as constituencies but as with any district, its primary concern is jobs. When it comes to addressing the Atlantic City crisis and joblessness in general, LoBiondo has worked with New Jersey’s Democratic senators to extend unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks, preserve food stamp allowances, and seek emergency federal dollars to fund training programs for South Jersey’s unemployed. He says that to move these measures, he’s had to both cross the aisle and convince members of Congress that New Jersey’s lagging economic recovery affects them.
“As bad as our economic news is in New Jersey, across the country the unemployment rates have improved. Most of my colleagues tell me, ‘We don’t have these problems; We’re not hearing from anybody about them,’” he said.
He also takes credit for fighting for constituents in a skeptical Congress by securing federal funding for post-Sandy projects, including emergency aid and the total amount of money needed for the U.S. Corp of Army Engineers to replenish beaches. He also helped stop the implementation of a new FEMA flood regulation on behalf of a class of homeowners who would have faced stratospheric increases to their insurance premiums.
For his efforts to balance the needs of workers, businesses, and the environment in his coastal and riverfront district, he’s the only member of Congress to receive endorsements from the largest union that represents local casino workers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the National Manufacturing Association, and the League of Conservation Voters.
But Hughes says LoBiondo has failed to seize on opportunities to facilitate long-term changes to the district’s economic landscape, especially as it concerns Atlantic City International Airport (ACY). He says that LoBiondo, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, shouldn’t have broken a promise to bring 2,000 well-paying jobs to a stalled aviation research and technology center construction project in Egg Harbor Township. He also says that his opponent should build the district’s third federally designated Foreign Free Trade Zone at the airport. He further criticizes LoBiondo for not doing more to promote the airport as a cheaper alternative to New York and Philadelphia for cargo flights and for not encouraging airlines to run nonstop international flights from countries like China, which has an emerging middle class of leisure travelers. By maximizing those advantages, says Hughes, manufacturing plants and jobs will follow.
“We have an international airport and guess what? We don’t have international flights. One would think he could use his political muscle but he’s failed to act,” Hughes said. “The Atlantic City airport has a 10,000-foot runway. That runway can accommodate the space shuttle.”
LoBiondo answers his opponent, who’s taken to smearing him on Twitter, by pointing out that his committee voted to finance $15 million toward the construction of that runway. He notes that the tech center, though delayed by local mismanagement, is moving forward under new ownership, and that his district won an FAA contract to process all data collected from six national sites under development to test how to safely add drones into the commercial airspace. He says he hasn’t pushed for activity on the proposed trade zone because the airport’s then-operator determined 10 years ago that the project lacked interest. Further, he adds, he can’t compel airline operators to favor his district because as chairman of the committee that hears the industry’s matters, it would present a direct conflict of interest.
“If I were to have done that it would have been illegal and an ethics committee violation. As an attorney, I would have thought (my opponent) would have known that,” he said.
Hughes says LoBiondo has broken another promise every time he’s run for office since 2006. When he first took office, he’d pledged support for term limits and vowed to step down after six terms. However, three years before running for his seventh term, LoBiondo publicly changed his mind. He defends his actions by reminding voters that he still supports term limits and would leave office if all of his colleagues were required to do the same. He also acknowledges that if his constituents consider his vacillation egregious, they’re welcome to vote him out. But until then, he says, he’ll continue to actively campaign, fundraise (as of September 30 he’d outraised Hughes almost $2 million to $642,000, while their independent challengers had raised nothing), and run like he’s 10 points behind, no matter what the polls or his opponents say.