Baroni and Singh debate in Baroni’s hometown

It looked as though half the town crowded into Steinert High School for the 14th district state Senate debate Monday between Assemblyman Bill Baroni and Seema Singh, but then again this is Hamilton, where even in the pizza parlors there are signs exhorting people to vote, and where legislative candidates get asked for their autographs.

On key issues Baroni sought to distinguish himself from the Democrats and exploit their weaknesses, while ladling in enough evidence of being pro-environment and pro-good government to put distance on what most New Jerseyans see as the failed leadership of his party at the national level.

The labor-endorsed senate candidate even properly referred to the opposition as the “Democratic Party,” eschewing the Bush Republican practice of refusing to associate Democrats with the small-d adjective “democratic.”

Singh handled every issue and drew a contrast between herself and Baroni on stem cell research. She supports funding at the state level and argues that the hit the state would sustain in the budget would be made up in corporate investment and job creation.

But she’s in a race against a Republican Party star with crossover potential in a district where the Democrats are focused on re-electing Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein and pulling in a second assemblyperson, and as a newcomer it’s difficult to outflank Baroni here in his hometown.

“My passion for issues is directed by my constituents,” said Singh. “We have to find solutions to high property taxes.”

Baroni reminded the crowd that four years ago he had promised to work hard and be independent. He emphasized his record on the environment, including his vote to protect drinking water resources by backing the Highlands Protection Act, his vote against the pro-developer fast track bill, and his willingness to irritate fellow Republicans as he did when he stood up for the Global Warming Response Act.

If Bush blew up his party in New Jersey, Governor Jon Corzine put Democrats running for office in a tough spot with his unpopular toll roads monetization study – an open-ended allocation in this year’s budget. The Democratic legislative leadership also gave ammo to the GOP when it tip-toed away from an all-out ban on dual-office holding.

Then there’s the $35 billion state budget, which many voters see as excessive.

Baroni doesn’t support money for stem cell research in the budget – not because he doesn’t support stem cell research, he insists, but because the state is $3.8 billion in debt and can’t afford it now, in his view. He says he voted against four straight state budgets because they didn’t provide adequate funds for schools in his district.

While Democrats in the trenches like Singh say they are opposed to the sale or lease of the Garden State Parkway and/or the Turnpike, Baroni implored the governor to “give us the plan, which he hasn’t,” and said he would vote against any lump sum sale or lease of assets that resembles former Gov. McGreevey’s securitization of the state tobacco settlement or former Gov. Whitman’s pension bond deal.

Singh said she wants to go to Trenton to fight for New Jersey taxpayers by “lowering property taxes and raising ethical standards.” She wants a ban on pay-to-play at all levels, a ban on dual office holding at all levels, and corrupt public officials stripped of their pension benefits.

On the ethics front, Baroni pointed to an example of where he has tested the Democrats to do more and they have failed, in his opinion. “We need to ban dual-office holding immediately,” Baroni said. “Assemblyman Kevin O’Toole and I called for a special session in September.”

The governor backed down.

On gangs and gang violence in the district, in Hamilton where an off-duty cop was shot and seriously wounded by a self-professed gang member this summer, Singh talked about the governor’s prevention plan while Baroni made a point of reminding the crowd that prevention is important – but so is punishing.

With Singh it was enforcement, prevention, re-entry, while Baroni presented his record on the issue as author of a bill that makes it a felony to recruit gang members on school property.

“I grew up down the road here, and never did I think I would be reading about a gang war occurring on the streets of Hamilton,” said the Republican.

Sponsored by the Princeton Area League of Women Voters, the debate lasted an hour. When debate moderator Linda Mather referred to New Jersey as the country’s second most corrupt state, a murmur of stifled laugher and disbelief traveled through the crowd.

“It’s very dangerous to question the moderator,” Baroni said with regrets. “But I don’t think we are the second most corrupt state. I’m certain we’ve taken the crown. We’ve had over 100 public officials arrested, tried and convicted. …We are losing the confidence of people in New Jersey.”

Baroni and Singh debate in Baroni’s hometown