Hamilton politics is a contact sport.
In any tough campaign the politician must have just enough warmth to reach humanity, but also enough inner clock instinct to keep moving and get down one driveway and up the next. If he doesn’t maintain a fast pace he’s out there on Peter Rafferty with the sun going down and maybe only 5 or 10 doors at his back instead of 30 or 50 or 100.
This town is in a big district, consisting of parts of two counties, seven towns, and 120,230 registered voters – more than half of whom are show-me-don’t-tell-me independents. The 14th is one of New Jersey’s five split districts, where no one’s safe because he or she claims membership in a particular party, where you can’t fall asleep in a legislative chamber for two years, wait for a big money donor to bail you out and expect the voters who live in these towns in the shadow of Trenton to shrug it off as a slump.
A politician has to walk the streets in Hamilton and Monroe and South Brunswick, and the other, smaller towns. He has to go to the churches, synagogues, mosques, playing fields, firehouses, senior centers, VFW halls, union halls and, of course, into the neighborhoods. It’s never been a gimme district.
Of course, it helps to have an added sense of purpose, and almost literally on the run as he vies for the senate seat in district 14, Republican Assemblyman Bill Baroni says, "If I lose in November but the clean elections program succeeds that’s a great legacy. If we don’t succeed, it’s over."
The 14th this year is a pilot district for the state’s clean elections program, which the two-term assemblyman crafted along with his 14th district Democratic rival Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, Assemblywoman Amy Handlin and Assemblyman Louis Greenwald.
"The direction we were headed without clean elections was that the only people who could run were either independently wealthy or those who would take money from anybody," says the 35-year old law professor. "That is a bad structure for democracy."
An updated version of a Greenstein-authored model attempted in 2005, the even-playing field program is simple enough. Each of the legislative candidates must collect 800 voter donations of $10 apiece to qualify for a capped amount of public funding – $534,000 – toward his or her individual campaign. Baroni admits it’s a "ridiculously high amount," which he says will be re-evaluated for future campaigns. Both Baroni and his opponent in the senate race – attorney and Democrat Seema Singh of South Brunswick – have already collected the requisite donations to qualify. Singh was in fact the first candidate to accomplish that feat, even as the relentless door pounding goes on.
"If this works and is applied to Assembly races statewide in 2009, legislative candidates will no longer feel obligated to special interest groups that don’t help their constituents," says Marilyn Carpinteyro of New Jersey Citizen Action, a key supporter of the clean elections program along with the League of Women Voters. "The way it is now, candidates depend on contractors and others for big contributions, but we’re the ones footing the bill with pay-to-play corruption."
Says Baroni: "The voters are in the operating room, they are the nurses of this major surgery."
So there he is walking fast down this street in his hometown of Hamilton in the Golden Crest neighborhood as he vies for the seat being vacated by his friend and mentor Peter Inverso. He steps onto a property as an engine dies in the garage. A man appears, taking off his ear protectors and wearing a look stranded somewhere between weary and wary as his eyes meet those of the smiling young man advancing toward him.
"I’m not selling anything," Baroni assures him.
The man takes the campaign literature, smiles back and waves as Baroni keeps going. It’s a solid enough exchange.
"Door-to-door has given me an appreciation for people who have to go door-to-door for a living," says Baroni. "If someone has a humble problem, try running for office. It will take care of that real quick."
He gets a big, hearty reception from resident William Firlan, who tells Baroni, "You don’t have to come up here, you’ve got my vote. But the only trouble is when I put up a sign to support a candidate, that candidate always loses."
A hit here with his regular guy demeanor, Baroni’s always made a business of projecting independence. Backed by the AFL-CIO and a champ of local unions in this union stronghold, Baroni also voted against four straight Democratic budgets in his years in the Assembly at a time when he says property taxes have gone up, the corporate business tax is higher, transit rates are higher, tolls are higher, and income is not.
"They are raising every tax possible," he says of the Democrats. "They even created a tax on gym membership."
Of Team Baroni, which also consists of Assembly candidates, Hamilton Council President Tom Goodwin and former Jamesburg Councilman Adam Bushman, the senate candidate says, "We want to make New Jersey more affordable and less corrupt."
Baroni’s convinced statewide clean elections will help significantly. That’s why he’s due up in Hackensack and Teaneck this week in the 37th district where the pilot program is also in place this season.
But it’s likely it won’t be long before he’s back in the 14th, doing the old work of every politician in this hard-hitting political district, with that extra sense of motivation, to make contact.