Only about 30 senior citizens showed up to meet the Democratic Assembly candidates at the Applewood Estates, an assisted living complex in Freehold. But 30 votes may be enough to decide who wins the election in district 12.
The district, which is dominated by Monmouth County, is one of the most competitive in the state this year, as it was in 2005, when Democrat Mike Panter barely edged out his Republican opponent, Declan O’Scanlon, by 65 votes. While Republican Assembly candidate Jennifer Beck got about 1,000 more votes than anyone else, the three other major party candidates were separated by fewer than 250 votes.
This year, O’Scanlon, a Little Silver Councilman and telecommunications consultant, is again challenging Panter and his running mate, Amy Mallet, for the seat that Beck is vacating to run for state Senate. He’s joined by 30-year-old Caroline Casagrande, who will become the youngest person in the Assembly if she can pull it off (Another 30-year-old, Rich Dennison, is running for state Senate against incumbent Diane Allen).
The issues that play big in this upper-middle-class commuter district are property tax, asset monetization, health care and open space – all of which were primary concerns of the seniors that came out to greet Panter and Mallet.
John Cook, an 89-year-old resident of Applewood who still drives, asked Panter about the potential of leasing or selling the highway system.
“Has everyone heard of asset monetization? It’s one of those Wall Street tongue twisters that basically means selling or leasing our assets,” answered Panter, who said he’s opposed to any plan that leases the Turnpike, even if it means issuing bonds. “I’m skeptical of that, since it means more debt for the state of New Jersey.”
Cook, a registered Republican who said he usually votes that way, left the debate unsure that he would stick with his usual party.
“I was favorably impressed, particularly with the gentleman,” said Cook.
While Panter was well-known to many of the seniors who attended his event, he sought to familiarize them with Mallet, a businesswoman from Fair Haven who’s relatively new to politics, having only run an unsuccessful Assembly primary race in 2003.
Mallet told her audience that she was inspired to run by what she saw as rampant corruption in Trenton – something she credited Panter and the district’s senator, Ellen Karcher, with making inroads against. She said that her 20 years running a business put her in a good position to become a fiscal watchdog in Trenton.
“There are very few small business owners in the legislature,” said Mallet.
Later on over lunch at a Freehold restaurant, O’Scanlon and Casagrande said that their opponents had run on an ethical reform platform but failed to deliver any real change in Trenton. O’Scanlon took issue with legislation that Panter co-authored with Karcher outlawing dual office-holding but with a grandfather clause, allowing current “double dippers” to retain both their positions.
“There’s a big difference in compromising or selling out,” said O’Scanlon. “These guys sold out.”
Casagrande, a municipal attorney from Manalapan who’s never run for office before (except for a successful bid for student body president at Penn State), said that she was motivated to run by runaway state spending. Republicans, she said, proposed $1.5 billion in budget cuts, only to be rejected each time.
“I guess I’m confused when my opponents say they’re concerned about these things but haven’t cut a single dollar out of the budget that was proposed.”
Casagrande said she’s particularly qualified to fight for open space. She said a developer in her home town of Colts Neck left a dead bluefish in her front yard after she worked on behalf of a local pro-land preservation candidate.
“I was given the Sicilian death wish over my commitment to open space, if that says anything,” said Casagrande.
Recently, Beck, O’Scanlon and Casagrande challenged the Democrats to a series of 12 debates throughout the district, which Panter described today as an “underdog strategy.” The Democrats have said they’re open to debate in forums hosted by non-partisan groups.
O’Scanlon responded that he wants direct communication with the voters.
“What Mike Panter is saying is that once you’re elected you can essentially avoid public discourse, and the public opinion of you is formed by the $2 million you’re going to reel in from Camden County,” said O’Scanlon.
O’Scanlon likes to note that in 2005 the Republicans were outspent by a 3-1 margin, but still managed to pick up one Assembly seat and come within 65 votes of getting another one. He’s hoping that this year they’ll be able to overcome being out-raised again. As of their last filings in late June, Panter and Mallet have over $162,000 cash-on-hand to O’Scanlon and Casagrande’s combined $21,000.