There’s a big dividing line in the 11th district, and it’s not just where the breakers catch the brunt of the ocean in Asbury under the Paramount Theater, or where the old Long Branch Boardwalk crumbled, leaving behind an eminent domain-purged stretch of high rises and attendant fufu shops.
It’s a line even older still, even more entrenched, that separates one town from another, rich from poor, where the median household income in Asbury Park is $23,081, and 30% of the16,546 population live below the poverty line, while in Rumson, population 7,137, the median household stands at $120,865.
If the latter is the district’s lavish hilltop paradise, there’s another divider in Asbury, a town in flux, where west of the railroad tracks the hard-bitten times are evident, and where to eastward the gay community continues to suffuse the place with redevelopment dollars and a touch of the Parisian. Up against the influx of gay yuppiedom, old guard dogs of the Jersey rock and roll scene like the Wonder Bar and the Stone Pony look one wayward wave removed from getting scrubbed off the map for keeps.
Then there are the 11th district’s blue collar towns in between the extremes, most of them Republican-leaning, but some of them independent, anchored by Ocean and Wall – 25 towns in all, all clinging to the sea in some way if not to one another.
This is a district served by Assemblyman Sean Kean, a 43-year old Republican who wants to move up to the Senate to replace the retiring Sen. Joseph Palaia. An Irish-American with labor roots in Brooklyn and North Jersey, Kean is a former heavy construction worker who now makes up one third of a small general practice law firm based in a tiny brick building in Allenhurst.
In the 1980s, he worked on a barge out on the Earle Navy Pier, building a platform under a bridge for chippers to come in and restore the structure’s underbelly, and now he represents cops, grocery store workers and construction workers in the courtroom. Son of the late WW II and Korean War veteran and AFL-CIO lobbyist Tom Kean (pronounced Keen and no relation to the former governor), Kean was elected to the Assembly in a special election in 2002.
The Dickens-like divide isn’t lost on the assemblyman, but for the self-described Reagan conservative, much of the agony is government-inflicted. The schools spending in the state-run and state funded Abbott Schools absorbs one-third of the state’s operating budget. In Kean’s judgement this has contributed to a weakening of the broad middle ground of these working towns he represents.
"It’s very restrictive the way we fund schools, and in particular the way 31 of our schools (statewide, the Abbott schools) get funded," he says. "They get funded at the creme de le creme level, while our non-Abbott School districts are flat-funded. There is no oversight, and a lot of bureaucracy and layers. I’m not completely sure some of these new schools need to be built. The fact is Abraham Lincoln learned to read in a log cabin with a candle."
If that sounds harsh, Kean clarifies that he doesn’t mean it that way.
"The Abbott Districts need more money," he concedes. "Everyone knows you have to help them. But urban legislators have to work more globally instead of solely in their own interest. Our immediate goal should be – let’s not raise the budget. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem."
Kean says he wants to be in the Senate to help rein in a state budget has grown from $22 billion to $33 billion in the five years he has served in the Assembly.
But he’s not the only one in this district who wants to be up there.
A little farther north of Allenhurst, just off Ocean Avenue in Long Branch, a 55-year old man in a straw cowboy hat and Army-issue shirt with the name "Villapiano" printed on the breast pocket stands in the middle of a war-zone. He drops an aging football player’s shoulder as a handful of green jell-O sails through the air, just missing him. He blows a starter’s whistle into a megaphone, signaling the beginning of a tug-of-war between boys and girls on a boxing ring-sized slab of mats covered with jell-O.
It’s an even contest for a few seconds, then the boys, overly eager to finish off their opponents, lose their footing and tumble over one another as the girls drag them through sheer jell-O ignominy.
Director of the Seashore Day Camp and a former city councilman, freeholder and assemblyman who voted for the Gov. Jim Florio tax hike and was subsequently voted out of state office in the early 1990s, Villapiano says he’s long waited for the right moment to stage a comeback. He found it this year with Palaia’s retirement.
"I want to see property taxes controlled," says the lifelong Democrat. "I support the half penny dedicated to property relief," and merging government services such as the Department of Transportation into the Highway Authority, which could save in the ballpark of $500 million, he says.
But he also wants more state aid delivered to those municipalities that are hurting, and he wants to target educational improvements where the state is not making a very good effort, in his opinion.
"I want to enhance higher education," Villapiano says. "Every year we have to reject 21,000 kids from our state universities and Rutgers. These kids want to be educated in New Jersey. We’re number four in the country for turning out quality high school educated graduates. But we need to provide for more of our own students by making college more affordable and available. We are woefully under-funding higher education."
Kean hasn’t been the strong education advocate that Villapiano says the district needs. Moreover, the Republican assemblyman makes public statements that suggest his willingness to substantially alter Abbott, in Villapiano’s view.
"I guarantee you if he was in the majority he would be recording votes that would destroy the district," says the Democrat. "He would take away money from our Abbott School districts: Long Branch, Asbury Park and Neptune. There is not a governor or a legislator who can stand by and watch two worlds in the state they live in. Prior to Abbott, programs were woefully underfunded and this created a huge drug and gangs issue. The state had to step in, as well it should have. And we have to stay on top of it now, not the reverse."
Insiders say Villapiano is a long shot at best, a view reflected by the fact that the State Democratic Party isn’t pouring any money into the 11th district – at least not now.
"At the moment we’re in a trial period," says Villapiano. "We’re near or at the top of the second tier of races. Come Labor Day we’re going to re-evaluate, but we’re definitely on people’s radars."
Villapiano should be able to easily win Long Branch, Asbury Park and Neptune Township – those three Abbott District towns where maintaining school funding is more fundamental to a lot of residents than the issue of property tax relief. But he needs to win them big to stay in the battle.
Kean will claim his hometown of Wall – population 25,261 – Rumson and Brielle, no problem. Then there’s the Irish Rivera – little shore towns like Belmar, Sea Girt, Sea Brite, Deal and Bradley Beach, and Highlands, where Kean, who has a reputation as an aggressive constituent services provider, also fares well.
The race could come down to Ocean, a stronghold of 26,959 residents that generally doesn’t tilt strongly in favor of either party. But it’s Villapiano’s home town. If he has a shot at all he’ll have to muster considerable forces here. The trouble is there’s no municipal election to drive the votes for Democrats.
Villapiano’s bigger challenge may be the fact that it’s an odd year, which means he won’t enjoy the presence on the ticket of the popular U.S. Rep Frank Pallone. When he runs, Pallone draws almost twice the number of voters as Democrats do on those occasions when Pallone’s not on the ballot, and in a presidential election year – forget about it. In 2003, 1,213 Democrats voted in Long Branch, for example. In 2004, a presidential election year when Pallone was running for re-election, the Democratic turnout in Long Branch was 2,494.
The machinery doesn’t work much better in other key Villapiano towns. Take a look at the 2003 general election in Asbury Park, where there are 5,633 registered voters – 1,396 of whom are Democrats. In 2003, another odd year, just 589 Democrats voted in the general election, compared to 1,223 in 2004 and 910 in 2006.
But Villapiano is the kind of big, broadly grinning charismatic presence with family connections that go way back – "We’re the original clam diggers here," he proclaims – who could pose problems for Kean. He also means to make George W. Bush an issue for his rival, using the belly flop Republican presidency as an example of an out-of-touch party that would go to war and urge people to shop as a countermand to the 9-11 catastrophe, sooner than require sacrifices from citizens.
"It flabbergasts me that Sean Kean abstained on a vote to send a clear message to President Bush that we don’t support the war," says Villapiano, who as a kid campaigned for John F. Kennedy. "To me it’s unconscionable he would chose to abstain on an issue so vital to residents of the state. We collectively in the 11th district need to take every opportunity we get to send a message to Bush that this war is wrong. It’s the single most important issue that faces our country today."
Kean, a diehard McCain supporter ever since the Arizona senator declared his presidential candidacy in the last millennium and lost the nomination to Bush in 2000, says the war resolution earlier this year was ill-conceived political theater.
"We don’t have the ability to control what’s going on over there," says Kean. "I don’t like the war. I wish we weren’t over there, quite frankly."
Ever the conservative, Kean maintains that the race is ultimately about affordability for a majority of residents in all 25 towns – not simply the people in three towns.
"You see what goes on in Trenton and you just want to do a better job with people’s money," says Kean. "My dad was a Democrat. I was, too. But it’s not that I left the party so much as the party left me, as Reagan said. It’s a natural progression, coming out of Essex County to Monmouth, as we did."
Villapiano frets about the divide, and the greater social inequities that would result from handing the management of the Abbott Schools and the state budget over to conservatives. Kean’s a centrist now, but in the majority that would change, in Villapiano’s view, and the already separated district can’t afford that kind of cool detachment.
But Kean, who enjoys labor backing in addition to support from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, insists his steady-as-she-goes approach is what the district needs – right up the middle in a gap between Rumson and Asbury Park where the middle class lives and dies but mostly gets stiffed.