When Bruce Springsteen wrote “Thunder Road,” Monmouth County was still mostly made up of horse farms, where wood-frame markets stood on lonely roads at the edges of corn and pumpkin fields and a lot of open hill country. If the county had outgrown its horse and buggy era, it still retained a decidedly pastoral flavor.
Then large parts of it were virtually built out over the last 30 years. The residents of high-density, high-maintenance bedroom communities began to meet the morning’s last surviving rooster cry with an impatient retort of “What took you?”
As the population boomed and development interests and attitudes surged, the county became – and remains – a political flashpoint in Jersey. In District twelve, which encompasses fourteen municipalities in Western Monmouth and two in Mercer, two women vying for the state senate figure when their contest is finished next fall, people will know a lot more about the new demographics of their region of Central New Jersey.
Neither side is backing down.
Senator Ellen Karcher, a Democrat, came to prominence as a Marlboro Town Councilwoman who challenged developers’ efforts to encroach on stream buffers only to be met with the anonymous warning that if she continued to be an obstacle she’d end up in the river. She went to the FBI, and helped unravel a nest of corruption in her own municipal backyard.
Her Republican opponent, Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, who will have served one term in the state assembly at the end of this year, was a standout Red Bank City Councilwoman who earned a reputation as a no-nonsense workhorse.
After two years in the senate, Karcher continues to enjoy her storybook stature as the citizen-legislator who went toe-to-toe with big development.
“My track record is going to be a predominate theme for me in this campaign,” said Karcher in a break in the legislative action in Trenton on Monday.
Across the hall in the House of Commons, Beck wants to know what Karcher has done for Monmouth lately.
“I think the senator has not been a particularly effective leader,” said Beck, who acknowledged that Karcher spearheaded reform measures on dual office-holding and taxes, but failed — in her estimation — to muscle her fellow Democrats into lining up and voting for long-term changes to the system. Beck also excoriated Karcher on the senator’s budget vote, claiming Karcher — in reverse Kerry-mode — voted against the budget bill before she voted for it.
“Does she have the conviction to lead?” Beck asked with a shrug.
Karcher maintains she has the conviction — and the history to back it up.
“I led by example when I was elected to the Senate and I stepped down from my other position [as a councilwoman in Marlboro],” said the 41-year-old legislator. Karcher predicted her ethics bill will pass before the Legislature signs off on the budget. She said she stood up for the property tax relief plan championed by her party, which she says would result in 75 percent of her constituents getting a break of between $1,000 and $2,000.
Not enough, says Beck, 40, an executive with a care management organization, who wants deeper, structural changes — not what she describes as election-year gimmicks.
“This race is about philosophy,” says Beck, who said she would be taking a sabbatical from her job to focus on the campaign.
Beck believes Karcher’s election to the 12th district in the Senate — she ousted scandal-plagued Co-Senate President John Bennett in 2003 — was essentially a fluke, and she means to prove Monmouth County remains a red region at its core, in which the prevailing ideology of low taxes and less government €” permanent not temporary – defies the majority party’s approach in Trenton.
Meanwhile, the senator says her independent-mindedness is exactly what the county needs.
“I’ve always voted with the Republicans on pay-to-play legislation,” said Karcher. “I wish a lot of Republicans would embrace pay-to-play for developers.”
While the two women are already poised for a bruising general election, Beck at least at this point must first weather a primary challenge: Manalapan Township Committeeman Joseph Locricchio has announced his candidacy. And she said she's ready for that too.
But even in the day to day thicket of responsibilities in the Statehouse, presented with an opportunity to discuss the stakes of a general election in the twelfh, both Republican and Democrat can’t resist a bring-it-on demeanor.
“New Jersey is at a crossroads,” said Beck, emerging from a transportation committee meeting Monday. “We have 62 new taxes, pay-to-play, dual office holding. Voters are angry.”
On the other side of the Capitol, on the side where Beck envisions herself emerging from the collegiality of that body, Karcher said on her way out of the chamber, “Growing suburban areas like Monmouth County have the possibility to be the center for politics in New Jersey.”
For all of their disagreements, they at least agree – not grimly but with exhilaration even this early – that they are both in a battle.