Walking with Singh in South Brunswick

There are a lot of rolled eyes out there in the 14th District when it comes to Republican leadership under George W. Bush, but whether that disgust will translate into significant votes for Democrats seeking state office is doubtful in this valley of political muzzle flashes coming from all sides and on all issues.

If she can’t rely on the prevailing notion that Bush has represented one special interest spasm after another at the national level, District 14 state Senate candidate Seema Singh, an attorney and former state ratepayer advocate, at least wants to keep at the forefront of her campaign her own record as someone who has bucked powerful interests to help regular citizens.

A veteran of the fight to maintain fair and just rates for Jersey’s utility consumers, she’s walking the campaign trail now out here in her hometown of South Brunswick, and when the door swings open, a female voter behind the screen appears hesitant to embrace Singh’s candidacy specifically and New Jersey Democrats in general. She’s poised in the space between doorframe and porch, hauling at the collar of a dog and standing it up on its hind legs.

“I can tell you I’m definitely voting for a Democrat for president,” the woman finally blurts out.

“We hope you’ll vote Democratic for state office as well,” says Singh, 46, a single mother who was nudged into these roiling political waters by her 14-year old daughter.

It’s down the driveway and up to the next door.

Singh’s the first Indian American candidate for state Senate, where the burgeoning Indian population in the 14th district is composed of 4,039 voters, and East-Asians number 3,593. “The Asian community is traditionally Republican,” says Singh. “But they’re just fed up.”

At the next house – a big, handsome suburban brick front – a woman appears and offers a simple complaint: property taxes are “too high,” she tells the candidate, and adds that she’s paying $20,000 a year. It proves the only citizen gripe of the evening, as another woman’s terse comment: “I’m eating dinner,” suggests that unless it’s a delivery of immediate tax relief, people on this block want to be left alone. But it’s a big district, with a big range of voting interests and diverse populations who aren’t apathetic come Election Day. This particular corner behind the Islamic Society of America on Route 1 is a swirl of affluent, multi-ethnic residents and home to a handful of the 14th’s 1,446 Middle-Eastern voters.

Born and raised in Asansol, India, a little town near Calcutta, Singh is proud of her Indian roots and conscious of the hopes of her fellow Indian immigrants.

“They came here with virtually no money, many of them have made it well and now they are wanting to give back to society through politics,” says Singh. “The reality is until you get involved in the process, your issues are not going to be heard. Education is very important to the Indian community in this district. They want the best education for their children, they want a technologically advanced education.”

But Singh’s used to representing the public interest of all New Jerseyans.

“I always deal with issues by putting myself in other people’s shoes,” she says. “In the utility field (as the state’s legal representative of all ratepayers for electric, natural gas, water/wastewater, telecommunications and cable TV), I often encountered a situation where it was either ‘heat or eat’ for the people I represented, and I have kept that in mind with all of the public interest work I have done.”

She’s in another tough fight here, some see it as a fight she can’t win – yet she believes she has the background and fortitude to battle down moderate Assemblyman Bill Baroni, who’s reaching up for the political trapeze cast his way by retiring GOP state Sen. Peter Inverso.

Helping others came early for Singh, who as a girl volunteered with Mother Teresa’s sisters. Educated in a convent by Irish nuns, she learned English before she picked up her mother tongue. The future candidate followed her sister to America and attended Rutger’s University, where she received the William A. Raymond Award for the highest grade point average earned by a student in the School of Business. She went on to earn her law degree at Seton Hall University, intern with a federal judge, and clerk for Monmouth County Chancery Judge Patrick J. McGann. She subsequently worked for three private practice law firms and in that period handled commercial litigation, pro bono work for women, landlord-tenant cases, transactional law, construction lien law, and other public advocacy cases.

Gov. James McGreevey appointed her to serve as state ratepayer advocate, to work under the auspices of what he envisioned would be a new public advocate’s office.

“My mission was to advocate on behalf of consumers,” says Singh, who, following McGreevey’s political demise, served as ratepayer advocate under governors Richard Codey and Jon Corzine. She resigned this past spring to focus on her senate campaign, after five-and-a-half years of service.

Singh’s most gratifying victory was the bust up earlier this year of the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSE&G)-Exelon Corporation merger, which would have enabled the two energy generating companies to control an inordinately large market of power, and would have led to increases in electric and natural gas prices for all New Jersey ratepayers, in the final judgement of the court.

“I opened up the case,” says Singh. “I was the first attorney who made that case on behalf of the consumers, and we won. We were able to argue that the merger would not be beneficial to ratepayers.”

What might have been a stellar transition from public official to public candidate given her background turned into a media minefield when Singh had to fight off a Trenton Times piece this summer that suggested a revolving door incident at the ratepayer’s office, a “ridiculous” controversy, according to the candidate.

It’s a complicated story involving state agencies either coming in or getting chopped out of existence by one administration or another. When he assumed office in 2002, McGreevey began carrying out his pledge to restore the public advocate, which his predecessor, Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, had abolished.

“The public advocate… had to be re-created through legislation – this process started once I was appointed, but there was no office and no legislation at this point,” Singh recalls. “However, as soon the governor announced my name, I was inundated with requests for assistance by the consumers and the public.”

When Leora Mosston retired as chief of staff from the ratepayer advocate’s office, “I requested her to stay on as a (private) consultant to assist with the public advocate consumer cases and requests for assistance. (there were 1,000s of cases) – so she stayed on to work on those public advocate cases and assist the consumers with their issues and problems that were non-utility related,” Singh says.

Singh handled the utility cases.

The story suggesting a revolving door engineered by Singh solely to benefit Mosston with a bulked up salary was false, Singh contends; moreover the timing flattened the good news rolling out of the Singh camp this summer, namely that she was the first candidate in the race to officially become a clean elections candidate.

“I just kept collecting until I got it,” she says proudly of her fast efforts to collect 800 contributions of $10 each to qualify for state funds. “I loved it. I saw it as a chance to connect and interact with the voters.”

She crosses the road – she’s opposed to the sale or lease of toll roads, incidentally, a flashpoint issue in the campaign – and when she walks up another driveway in South Brunswick a man appears at the door and tells her after she introduces herself that he once received a book she issued on energy conservation.

“I found it really helpful,” Junaideen Fahumy tells Singh. “I made my boys read it,” and Singh smiles with the news that she’s made contact, and walks on into a Friday evening, hopeful of reaching other voters, and in a climate of bewilderment over world events and special interest politics, especially hopeful of reminding those voters that she stands for them.

Walking with Singh in South Brunswick