Much is at Stake in Whelan-Polistina State Senate Race

There is virtual universal consensus among political players and operatives that next week’s legislative election results will not constitute a referendum on the performance of Governor Chris Christie.  Similarly, no credible players on the New Jersey political scene are predicting loss of Democratic control of either house of the state legislature.  The state legislative Apportionment Commission, under the leadership of Alan Rosenthal, enacted a map that constitutes a virtual incumbent protection plan.


Yet there are two state senate races that are very much up for grabs:  1) District 38 in Bergen County, where Republican challenger Freeholder John Driscoll is mounting a strong challenge to Democratic incumbent Senator Bob Gordon; and 2) District 2 in Atlantic County, where Republican Senator Vincent Polistina has at least an even money chance of unseating incumbent Democratic Senator Jim Whelan.  I have chosen to write this column on the Whelan-Polistina race because its impact goes beyond just the balance in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans.


The Senatorship in District Two is potentially the most powerful seat in the Senate.  A senator from that district has courtesy power to block all appointments by the Governor of Atlantic County residents to the Casino Control Commission (CCC), the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), and the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA).  The influence of the State Senator from Legislative District Two on appropriations of the CRDA, which are in the billions of dollars annually, can thereby be enormous.  


The passage of S11 earlier this year changed the reason control over CRDA board appointments is vital. CRDA spending is now restricted to Atlantic City, so the authority is no longer a statewide ATM card. The enactment of S11 is having the effect of CRDA becoming the city’s virtual municipal government, with effective control of some of the state’s most valuable assets.


The man who wrote the book on senatorial influence on CRDA appropriations and policy was former Legislative District Two Senator Bill Gormley.  I can say without hyperbole that in my lifetime, Bill Gormley was the most effective and productive member of the New Jersey State Senate.  His policy insight and political skills in the State House corridors of power were unsurpassed by those of any other legislator in our state’s history. Even more remarkable was the fact that in spite of all the power players and gambling interests that Bill Gormley had to deal with, his ethics, integrity, and independence were unimpeachable. 


 A disclaimer – Bill Gormley was a good friend of mine throughout my governmental and political career, and I am most proud of that.  My only regret is that he was never elected Governor or U.S. Senator.


While Jim Whelan has supported Christie’s reform and redevelopment plan for Atlantic City, his courtesy power constitutes an impediment to the Governor’s desire to appoint reformers to CRDA, CCC, and SJTA.  Although Christie’s reelection prospects, which improve every day, will not be adversely affected by a Whelan victory, a Polistina win will certainly enhance Christie’s prospects for success on his overall Atlantic City reform and redevelopment agenda.  Christie is popular in Atlantic County, and his campaigning for Polistina in the homestretch of the campaign will enhance the GOP candidate’s chances of capturing the LD-2 Senate seat.


This has been a highly negative campaign, with both candidates spending thousands of dollars on negative television commercials.  Such a negative race tends to alienate and depress the turnout of independent voters.  There are very few undecided voters in this race, and the candidate who has the greater success in attracting his base to the polls will win this election.  In short, this is clearly a base election.


This is where Whelan has a serious problem.  His continued estrangement from Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford has also clearly negatively impacted his ability to attract to the polls on Election Day African-American voters in Atlantic City and Pleasantville.  Without a strong turnout in Atlantic City and Pleasantville, Whelan is finished.  Polistina is clearly the more attractive candidate.  The only assets Whalen has left are George Norcross and the money the South Jersey political leader raises.


George Norcross, who is a very influential player with Whelan, realizes Whelan’s predicament, and he is raising all the money he can for Whalen’s campaign coffers.  Furthermore, the rumor is that Democratic State Committee is going all out to raise $25,000 donations from prominent Democratic fundraisers and then funneling the money to the Whelan campaign.  This is the ultimate example of “wheeling.”   Evidently, the Democratic State Committee thinks that Bob Gordon is home free in District 38.  I think their confidence on that score may be mistaken.


I have the feeling that the Norcross-raised money and the Democratic State Committee donation to the Whelan campaign will largely be used to fund a “walking around money” effort to turn out a large vote for Whelan in Atlantic City and Pleasantville.  Norcross is a master at such Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) efforts, both in the city and suburbs.  He is valuable to the Whelan campaign not only for the money he raises, but in terms of strategy and tactics as well.


Yet Norcross appears to have met his match, in the person of Keith Davis, the chair of the Atlantic County Republican Committee.


In terms of young political leaders, Davis is the superstar of the New Jersey Republican Party. His political savvy, strategic brilliance, and masterful tactical insight are qualities rarely seen in a political figure of his age.  Davis possesses incredible energy.  He is likely to be a Republican leader in both Atlantic County and New Jersey itself for the next three decades.  Keith has retooled the Atlantic County Republican Party apparatus, and he is well poised to turn out the Republican vote in the GOP-leaning Atlantic County communities necessary to achieve a Polistina victory.


Aside from Vince Polistina himself, the big winners in a Republican victory in the LD-2 Senate race would be Chris Christie and Keith Davis.  The big loser would be George Norcross, whose prestige would never be the same.  Election Day, Tuesday, November 8, 2011 may be one of the most dismal in the fabled political career of George Norcross.


Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University. 

Much is at Stake in Whelan-Polistina State Senate Race