In Monmouth battle, all roads lead to Marlboro

How a sleepy hollow farming burgh became a build-out crossroads and earned itself a shot as a sprawl capital may have roots in human nature but surely can be immediately traced to the world of New Jersey politics.

When the daughter of a local market farmer here died in child birth in the 1970s, that death was symbolic of a transition to a time when people not only didn’t work the land anymore but cashed in on wrecking it as at no other time. Surrounded by new development and still deaf from artillery fire in Vietnam, another farmer retreated to a broken down school bus on his dried up spread on the side of Route 79 before he left town. Now it’s the senior citizens clinging to a last shred of space, wondering whether to sell and move to Florida or keep forking over money.

"We’re paying on average between $6,000 and $9,000 a year in school taxes," says Natalie Garfunkel, a resident of Greenbriar North retirement community.

A 30.02-square mile town of big homes and traffic-glutted roads that wind in confounding configurations into residential dead ends or Route 9 superstore parking lots, Marlboro, pop. over 40,000, is still reeling two years after former Mayor Matt Scannapieco admitted to taking $245,000 plus in bribes from a developer. Over a 24-year period – including 15 years under Scannapieco -12,000 buildings sprang up in a perpetually bulldozed battlezone. Scannapieco’s successor, Mayor Robert Kleinberg says he put his thumb in the development dyke, but the problem is the corrupt former regime didn’t build any affordable housing through years of build-out bliss and kickback heaven.

Post Scannapieco, the state stepped in and told Kleinberg he has to deliver buko units to comply with Mount Laurel. So despite the mayor’s boast that he up-zoned half-acres to five-acre zoning, the building boom will continue in Marlboro. Kleinberg’s up for a second term. His Democratic opponent, attorney Jonathan Hornik, son of the late former Marlboro Mayor Saul Hornik, says Kleinberg wants to build the government-mandated affordable housing units in an especially traffic-clogged area at the intersection of Route 79 and 520. Hornik also bemoans the backlash of lawsuits the town suffered as a result of Kleinberg’s new zoning strictures and what the challenger says is the absence of a build-out-analysis.

The mayor, a Republican chiropractor who moved to Marlboro in 1982, served on the school board and stayed alive through the Scannapieco era to now oversee a roughly $30 million municipal budget, says, "If people don’t think government’s honest, I don’t know what I can do. This was the first time in years that school enrollment has gone down. Municipal taxes are 12% of your tax bill. Anyone who tells you they’re going to significantly lower taxes is either lying or doesn’t know what he’s talking about."

Democrat Hornik grew up in Marlboro, and says part of the problem with Kleinberg is he’s not from here, and so doesn’t understand the history.

"Everybody’s complaining about taxes and corruption," says Hornik. "We’re talking about $2 million in legal fees, a rubber stamp council. Taxes are up 62 % and seniors are leaving town. He’s raised taxes twice on the school board and four times on the council. His COAH (Council on Affordable Housing) plan is a disaster. It’s short 220 units. In his project of 187 units, only 37 are affordable housing units, and the state has identified the area as a traffic hot spot."

But a lot people who live here now aren’t from here, and many of them are a lot like Kleinberg, a Brooklyn native who made it well enough to stay in a municipality where the median home cost is $687,500 and the cost of living is 46.39% higher than the U.S. average.

There are 23,538 registered voters in Marlboro, which is not only the scene of a Kleinberg-Hornik free-for-all but the most important town in the 12th district legislative race, where Democratic state Sen. Ellen Karcher is up against a fierce challenge from GOP Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck.

This is the general election battleground where Senate President Richard Codey comes with a spyglass to view the front, where over the heads of the combatants he may catch a glimpse of Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance on the other side of no man’s land looking back at him through a pair of binoculars. In the fastest growing county in the state, the district’s biggest town is where most observers believe the war will be won or lost.

Marlboro also embodies the way the 16-town 12th district has changed. A one-time can’t miss Republican stronghold, the 12th is now a toss up district numbers-wise. The district contains 128,791 registered voters: 21, 956 Democrats, and 22, 110 Republicans. 84,725 independents make up the bulk of voters. One of the reasons it went Democratic in 2003 was the no-nonsense presence of Karcher, a former Marlboro Councilwoman who helped bring down her town’s oldguard of Democrats and Republicans trading votes for development contracts.

On this post-Labor Day weekend, Beck and Karcher are out of the gate and into the neighborhood stretches like a pair of greyhounds.

On leave from her job as vice president of a major health benefits administrator, Beck, single, is a former six-year Red Bank Councilwoman, a long distance runner at Boston College who in the late 1990s knocked on every door when she ran her first council race, lost, then knocked on every door twice – and won. Elected to the Assembly in 2005, Beck gives Karcher credit for wearing the wire that brought down Richie Voula and led to the arrests of other Marlboro miscreants, but since she went to Trenton, Karcher’s had to live and work in a party beset by a cast of Tammany Hall rejects, in the Republican’s view.

Last Thursday’s roundup of 11 public officials, including Assemblyman Mims Hackett and Assemblyman Alfred Steele, two double-dipping public officials, provide what Beck sees as the latest examples of a New Jersey Democratic Party gagging on too much power.

"Mims and Al are mid-level guys," says Beck on Gary Place as she goes door-to-door. "There’s a lot more to come. The Democrats had an historic opportunity to resolve that issue of dual office holding and they didn’t. Now they’ve been shamed into it.

"At the time, I was very surprised that Senator Karcher would have sponsored a bill that grandfathered dual office holders," Beck adds.

Karcher, married with three children and the daughter of the late Alan Karcher, the former Assembly Speaker, says Beck’s typically contrarian.

"My name’s on twenty ethics bills," says the senator, going door-to-door in another part of town, in Marlboro’s Greenbriar neighborhood. "No those bills aren’t perfect, but I am one in a big system that was corrupt long before I got there."

What she did in Marlboro must not be discounted, Karcher says of her own record – but she insists she’s also taken on a macho party leadership that wanted her when she first arrived in Trenton in 2003 to handle the mammography bills.

"I wore a wire," says Karcher of her council days. "I testified to the grand jury. I put Democrats and Republicans in jail.

"Is it going to take more people going to jail?" she asks. "Yes, it is." She says she continues to be unafraid of standing up to her party. "The attorney general (a Democratic Party appointee) testified against my mandatory minimum sentencing bill. On my first day in the caucus I got yelled at by (Newark Mayor and state Senator) Sharpe James. I’ve been told to shut up and sit down. But my ethics package went above and beyond what (District 14 state Sen.) Pete Inverso was pushing already."

Yet Beck has her pick of late-breaking stories to dangle in front of weary, tax-crunched voters, including Gov. Jon Corzine’s unpopular asset monetization plan, deposed government worker Rocco Riccio and, of course, the Mims Hackett, Alfred Steele, et, al scandal. Three days after that last round of news broke, it’s the story that’s most often causing voters here to shake their heads in bewilderment.

"All these assemblymen that got locked up – unbelievable," says a man the Beck campaign has identified as a 3-4 Republican, which means he’s voted in three of the last four elections.

"I think we have to have a change; it’s not happening under the present power structure," says Beck.

"I’m sure Ellen Karcher’s a fine person. She’s not been a particularly effective leader. To me you either have the conviction that dual office holding is wrong, or you don’t."

She’s rewarded with a stern nod of agreement, but inevitably Beck encounters that other issue that won’t go away: Iraq.

"My son just came home from the Persian Gulf," the man tells her.

"A hero," Beck interjects.

There comes the predictable voter agony over the Middle East, an bad button push for Republicans in a state where GOP President George W. Bush’s disapproval rating hovers near 70%. If Karcher has the ball and chain of a scandal-riddled Democratic Party, Beck must look down and find the leg-iron of Bush-Cheney.

Karcher also gets Iraq all the time.

"I was a Republican," a voter tells her. "I always voted Republican. I’m no general but they’re screwing up over there."

Karcher keeps the focus on state issues and claims she doesn’t mind talking about the dead weight in her own party, but she says she also intends to hold the Republican Party accountable. "Where is the outrage from the Republicans over 100,000 children in New Jersey that will drop off if Bush vetoes plans for S-CHIP healthcare?"

Another story here is Karcher’s closeness to Codey. He’s bankrolling her, in part to beat the Republicans, but also because in the 40-person senate he needs her support to maintain his seat of power in the upper house. Codey has to keep an eye on the Democrats coming out of the South Jersey party machine – men backed bypolitical strongmanGeorge Norcross – who will cut the deals to dropkick north Jersey off the rostrum if they can muster the votes behind Sen. Stephen Sweeney of district 3. Norcross is supporting Karcher’s running mates, but leaving Karcher to Codey.

Beck sees Codey’s presence in the race as another target, and when reminded that the former governor is more popular than Corzine and seen by many as a folk hero, the assemblywoman says, "His populist appeal does not necessarily translate into approval on policy. I would hope we could be judged on our record and our actions."

The Karcher campaign fights back by making the point that oil giant Conoco Phillips has given money to the Beck campaign, just before the senator rings another doorbell and a man in shorts appears, borderline apoplectic.

"Hurry up," he tells Karcher as he snatches a piece of campaign literature from her and starts swinging the door closed. "There’s a golf tournament on television, and golf is more important than politics."

At the town’s annual Marlboro Day, amidst the hula hoops, sausage sandwiches, and a guy dressed like Spiderman who’s hanging out with the mayor, the Kleinberg-Hornik battle continues. Kleinberg slouches leisurely in a golf cart and complains about the pretzel-twisting vitriol of the other side.

"This turf field we’re building – they’re going out to seniors and saying we’re throwing away money and they’re going to Pop Warner and telling them this is great," Kleinberg says.

Under another tent bedecked in Hornik signs, the challenger says, "The turf field is costing over a million dollars at a time when we’re struggling with our taxes. This is done for one reason: so he could have a ribbon cutting. It’s the only football field in town, and the plan was to have it done today.

"Look at this,"Hornik cries, gesturing to the unfinished turf field cordoned off uselessly from the day’s festivities. "We’re in the middle of our football season, no environmental study. But he wanted it in before election day."

Kleinberg shrugs.

"They call themselves the New Democratic Party but they’re the same old Democratic Party," he says as he watches a determined looking band of Hornik supporters troop by in campaign attire. "I asked them to fight Frank Abate, and they wouldn’t do it."

A former Marlboro Councilman and a Democrat sentenced last month to 51 months in prison for taking thousands of dollars in free architectural services paid for by developers in his role as director of the utilities authority, Abate’s the Marlboro Republicans’ answer to Scannapieco.

Far from the war whoops of youth on the mechanical bull ride at Marlboro Day, in Greenbriar North, the seniors paddle in slow motion in the clubhouse pool, or sit in a circle in the shade.

These are New York Metropolitan area diehards from the Bronx, Queens Brooklyn and the south ward of Newark, who moved out to the burbs and now find themselves shell-shocked by the next generation’s penchant for bad taste, where every new house built in Marlboro seems to come with a couple of spoiled kids and a resident maid.

In this 21-year old retirement community of over 1,000 compact homes – scene of scheduled debates between Kleinberg and Hornik and Karcher and Beck on Oct. 31st – the seniors are already tired of their new neighbors ensconced in McMansions, an unfortunate term anywhere, but that in Marlboro given the development history is spoken with a particular bitterness. They’ve lived development scandal to development scandal in Marlboro.

Last week’s news about government corruption carries little shock factor here. "What happened Thursday was despicable," admits Dorothy Grossman, while her husband sits beside her with a "so what" expression on his face.

However familiar the scrap heap of Jersey politics, however jaded are some of these old seniors coming out of teaching careers in Newark when Addonizio was king before he got busted for taking kickbacks, nothing can discount the daily crushing sensation that living on a fixed income here is almost a nightmare.

Marilyn Samuel Karlstein used to live in Old Bridge. "I lived there for 31 years," she says. ""When I first moved there the property taxes were $600per yearand when I moved from there, the property taxes were $6,000 per year."

Today, that’s the low end for Greenbriar.

But Irwin Grossman doesn’t like to hear the moaning from his fellow seniors, and as they start into a dirge about the high cost of living he throws up his hands and fumes, "The seniors here have so much money – they don’t know what to do with it." Some deck chairs nearly give way with that one. Appalled, they attempt to shout him down, but Grossman protests, "They go into Wegman’s and they buy a full cart of food."

"Irwin, shut up," Larry Garfunkel, a candidate for the board in Greenbriar, tells his friend with a laugh.

The majority of seniors say they want a tax freeze. Among them, Dave Levin shakes his head. "When my kids went to school, my parents paid," he says. "That’s just the way it is."

But that argument doesn’t stick here. The seniors say the trouble is the new public schools are top heavy with big salaried administrators and expectations of parents who want every amenity available – a mind-set forged by the McMansion culture, where people can afford to pay and will, regardless of what old timers like these can afford.

"The biggest problem is the explosion of politicians who have let these McMansions go up, says Larry Garfunkel.

Mention the names Beck and Karcher and suddenly everyone’s positive. The two pro-choice women from different parties have a good reputation here. Compared to the rest – Abate and Scannapieco – and cast against the crum-bum history of the last 20 years in Marlboro, the women lawmakers are better than most, maybe even something to be proud of – but ever-the-skeptic, Grossman’s won’t lionize either one of them.

"You build a school, there’s corruption, you put in a park, there’s corruption," says Grossman. "You’re corrupt. I’m corrupt. That’s how things work here."

And before you can get in the existential question about whether by "here" he means Marlboro or existence itself, another round of seniors jeers down Grossman, who laughs with them, as they keep arguing and Hornik and Kleinberg and Karcher and Beck keep battling somewhere in Marlboro.

In Monmouth battle, all roads lead to Marlboro