John Brand’s coverage of Senate and House candidates at the New Jersey State Fair in Sussex county is worth reading:
Stumping at the Fair By John Brand, Herald News Senior Writer U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett’s roots started to show Thursday as he walked around The New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm & Horse Show. “At my old age, I hate to ask you this,” said a woman outside the Performing Arts Tent, where Garrett was preparing to announce the recipient of the senior of the year award. “How’s your mother?” Although he represents New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District, Garrett is still known by some folks as a Wantage boy who made good in politics. In many ways, the state fair is Garrett’s political stomping ground, his backyard, his home turf. But for other candidates — from both sides of the aisle — fist-pumping, sign-carrying supporters have become as much a staple at the fair as German hot-dogs and London broil sandwiches. This year, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, and his opponent state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, brought their campaigns to the fair along with Garrett’s challenger in November, Bergen County Democrat Paul Aronsohn. Political campaigning at the Farm & Horse Show dates back to the early 1940s, but was mostly a place where known local candidates, such as the Constitutional offices of county surrogate, clerk and sheriff, met old friends. Freeholder candidates also frequented the former grounds in Branchville, local historian Wayne McCabe said. “It was a place to go, a place to be seen,” McCabe said. “But you would not have seen the governor or a U.S. Senator.” Over the last 15 years, however, as the popularity of the fair has continued to grow statewide, political consultants have made it a point to make the fair a necessary campaign stop, McCabe said. Fair organizers say more than 200,000 people attend the fair each year, a testament to the wide array of events the fair offers. Gov. Jon Corzine campaigned here when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2000 and again last year during his successful gubernatorial bid. “You can reach out to people not only from Sussex County, but from other parts of the state as well,” he said. “You know there are certain days when a larger amount of people will attend.” Kean, for instance, began walking the causeways at the fair at 6 p.m. Saturday, two hours before the start of the Queen of The Fair pageant, which brings hundreds of county residents to the fairgrounds. Sussex County GOP Chairman Rich Zeoli and county Freeholder Susan Zellman escorted Kean, taking him to the Newton Rotary Club booth for a hot dog. During a brief conversation with a West Long Branch woman, an apparently intoxicated man approached the GOP tent and began ranting, “Republicans are criminals!” Kean took the shouting in stride, maintained eye contact with the woman and answered her questions. “Why should I vote for you?” she said. “I want to make the state more affordable,” Kean replied and went into a stump speech about reducing property taxes. A short time later, another woman approached Kean and said, “Your dad being your dad is a big plus for you,” in reference to the former governor. “He’s a good dad,” Kean said. Unlike Kean’s low-key approach, a crowd of about two dozen supporters carried “Menendez For Congress” signs, creating a spectacle that left no doubt who the casually dressed man in the middle of the calvacade was. Menendez, the sitting United States Senator, introduced Aronsohn, Garrett’s opponent, to several people who approached him. One of those people, asked Menendez why Democrats continue to criticize President Bush for not having a clear exit strategy for troops to leave Iraq. “What is your exit strategy? You have no exit strategy,” the man protested. Menendez stopped and quietly explained that as a member of Congress he voted in favor of the country’s invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. “I voted against the (Iraq) war,” Menendez said. “Twenty-six-hundred lives later, I made the right decision. Now, there is a reorganization of the Taliban in Afghanistan.” He also said he believes in “transitioning out of Iraq,” and then walked away, his supporters in tow. “Yeah, walk away from me,” the man said. “Walk away just like a politician.” Menendez didn’t look back. Aronsohn also was assertive, being sure to introduce himself to people before Menendez could make the introductions. When a woman and her children walked up to Menendez, Aronsohn leaned down to a child who looked no more than 2 or 3 years old and asked, “Can you vote?” Aronsohn also had supporters of his own. Wantage residents Christine and Bob Heiden say they were Republicans who converted to Democrats because they believe Garrett is connected to a taxpayers association involved with the Sussex-Wantage school district debate. Christine Heiden accuses Garrett, who homeschools his children, of being against public education, a claim he flatly denies. The Heidens and their four children wore white T-shirts that read, “Paul is for kids. Scott is not.” Not only did they follow Aronsohn on Sunday, but they tailed Garrett around the fairgrounds on Thursday.