South Jersey isn’t exactly Hollywood, but you might think it is based on the Republican legislative slate in the seventh district.
Ok, not really.
But in that district, two out of the three Republican candidates are at least local celebrities. In addition to incumbent state Senator Diane Allen, who was the face of Philadelphia’s Channel 10 news for many years, the Republicans are rolling out former Philadelphia Flyer All-Star Brian Propp.
District seven is primarily working class, with a Democratic registration advantage of nearly 2-1 but a strong independent streak. In contrast to a high profile State Senate match between Democrat Rich Dennison, who’s running a spirited if long shot campaign to oust Diane Allen, the Assembly race has been a lower profile affair, with Propp and Willingboro attorney Nancy Griffin taking on five-term incumbents Herb Conaway and Jack Conners.
In 2005, Conners and Conaway easily beat their Republican opponents, Mike Savala and Joe Donnelly. But this time may not be as easy.
Propp played most of his professional hockey career with the Flyers, from 1979 to 1990 — the team that most fans in this South Jersey district root for over the Devils. He still broadcasts games over the radio in addition to his job as a business development executive at Harbor Lights Financial Group.
Ingrid Reed, Director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, said that she’s got district seven on her races to watch list, mainly for the Assembly race. Celebrity can boost a campaign, especially for a relatively low-profile position like an Assembly seat, said Reed.
“A person who is relatively known outside of the politics of the legislative candidates, which tends to be under the radar, gives a real advantage in a district where you can imagine it can change from one party to the other,” said Reed.
The celebrity factor certainly helped Bill Bradley, the former Knicks star who won a U.S. Senate primary in 1978 against the establishment choice, State Treasurer Richard Leone.. But it didn’t pull Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins through his campaign against Frank Lautenberg in 1988. Nor was it enough to propel tennis pro Althea Gibson to a State Senate seat — she lost a three-way primary race in 1977. And in 2001, Olympic Gold Medal winner Milton Campbell, well known as a community leader in Plainfield, lost a bid for State Senate to Joseph Suliga.
But celebrity exposure has already given Propp an opportunity to make a name for him, even if this is his first time venturing into politics. But while Propp acknowledges that fame helps him build name recognition, he’s not expecting it to carry him through the election.
“It’s not just ‘hey pick me because I played for the Flyers. That doesn’t cut any mustard,” said Propp. “But the name recognition will help. I believe I’ll be listened to, I’ll have a lot of peoples’ ears in Trenton.”
Propp said he was inspired to run by high property taxes, something he said that Conners and Conaway haven’t done enough to fix during their nine years in Trenton.
“I think anybody that’s lived in NJ the last five years and has seen what’s going on, they’re not just very happy about it and I’m the type of person if I believe that something’s not right, I’m going to fight for it and the people,” said Propp.
Conaway said that Republicans are to blame for the fiscal mess that New Jersey finds itself in, and noted that he had voted for property tax rebates – something, he pointed out, that Diane Allen did not do when she voted against the budget.
“They elevated borrowing in spending into an art form. First they borrowed against the pension funds of workers, put a lot of expensive programs in place and failed to fund them, then they put forward past budgets that didn’t have the revenues that they purported to be there,” said Conaway.
Both Propp and Griffin characterize themselves as moderate Republicans in the same vein as Diane Allen. They’re both pro-choice, and while both support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples and complete equal rights with married straight couples, neither thought it needed to be called marriage.
Griffin doesn’t have the fame advantage that her running mate has, but she’s confident that her status as an active Air Force reservist/civil rights and family attorney will appeal to veterans, who make up an important voting bloc in the district.
“I’ve been spending my entire adult life in service to my country… I only represent plaintiffs in service to people,” said Griffin.
Griffin’s military background is probably no coincidence. Conners, her opponent, is Chairman of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, and lists veteran-related laws he’s passed as some of his proudest achievements.
Recently, he penned a law keeping protestors 500 feet away from any funeral they’re picketing. And when the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that carries signs that say things like “Pray for More Dead Soldiers,” rolled into New Jersey to protest at the funeral Army Pfc. David J. Bentz III, the law was enforced.
Conners disputed the idea that he was somehow pro-tax. He noted that he’s been a strong advocate of resource sharing between towns to save money, and voted for a budget that offered a property tax rebate.
Conners admits that fame can help Propp, but thinks it can only take far. Even he watched Diane Allen on the news before she became a legislator.
“Clearly over the years Senator Allen has benefited from being a celebrity…….. I guess even I watched her,” said Conners. But, he added, “If you have the benefit of celebrity, I still think you’ve got to factor in what is it you’re going to do and what it is you’ve done.”