Driving in the rain in Atlantic County, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Whelan says he knows it’s going to be close on Election Day when all these long months of arguing and talking and walking and pounding and fund-raising and driving come to a head in his challenge of GOP Sen. James "Sonny" McCullough.
"A win by one point is still a win," says Whelan. "Boston won the first game of the World Series the other night, 13-1. They won the second game, 2-1. The result of the second game is still the same as the first. They won."
Whelan has the strong arm reliever coming into the game in the form of Senate President Richard Codey, who’s got an $800,000 fast ball, and on Sunday, Gov. Jon Corzine will campaign with Whelan.
Still in the game with ten days out, McCullough, meanwhile, in the last few days picked up $25,000 from the State Republican Committee, according to GOP sources. He had more money in the bank than his Democratic opponent last week, according to the latest Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) reports. But whether it was fromSpeaker Joe Robertsor Codey, Whelan was going to have more cash on hand late, and as it turns out it’s coming from Codey, and that’s where things stand now.
The word from both parties is McCullough’s running mates Vince Polistina and John Amodeo are ahead of Democrats Blondell Spellman of Atlantic City and Joe Wilkins of Galloway Township. On Sunday the Republicans will welcome Assembly Whip Jon Bramnick, a prospective GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, to campaign with them in Brigantine.
"The bottom line is 50% of the people in New Jersey want to leave," says Polistina, an engineer from Egg Harbor Township. "80% of the people believe we’re on the wrong track For anybody who thinks we’re on the right track, I disagree. We need change."
Whelan and his team say the Republicans have been short on specifics about how to deliver change, and disingenuously promise tax relief even as two-thirds of their ticket maintain public jobs and lucrative public contracts.
But its base camp versus base camp now more than issue against issue.
In a red, white and blue banner-decked HQ on Highway 40, the Republicans say they have a people-power, BlackBerry-aided operation, based on strategies employed by Democrats in Evesham Township.
They have banks of voters they believe would be likely to vote for them: Republicans, unaffiliated and Democrats, according to Rick Wright of the Assembly Republican Office. Come Election Day they’ll have their high school and college-aged soldiers in the field, punching the name of each voter – whether a supporter or not – into a BlackBerry, which in turn will enter a database that their comrades-in-arms working the phones back at headquarters will immediately be able to identify.
Any supporter or would-be supporter on that list will get a telephone call, and the Republicans will keep calling until they receive a definite confirmation that the registered voter is on his way to the voting booth. If they don’t get him they can always go to his house and pound on the door.
Democrats have a similar operation a few miles away on Tilton Avenue, where on Friday night some of their candidates prepared GOTV ads and ran through strategy.
On Saturday, McCullough the old Runyonesque street fighter is in Republican headquarters directing, operating, taking calls on the cell, making calls.
"My wife asks me when things start getting tough in a campaign, ‘Is it time to go to the mattresses,’" he’s fond of saying.
The senator’s got an AARP debate with Whelan in an hour. He’ll hit that. In the meantime, he dispatches Polistina and Amodeo to the rain-beaten streets of Galloway Township to pound on doors.
"The advantage of hitting doors in the rain," says campaign spokesmanDavid Burnett, "is people are home."
The organized labor muscle on the ticket, Amodeo of Margate is in his 50s but he appears to have the energy of a younger man, and the young father Polistina is also eager to get on the trail. The pair split up on the ground, and with college-aged volunteers and Burnett accompanying them they take down a suburban neighborhood. Targeting Republican voters, they leave flyers in doorways or in people’s hands. If they don’t make contact they note that and Burnett points out that they’ll be back later to make sure contact is made.
"It’s a situation where I take nothing for granted," says Amodeo back at headquarters later in the day. "And that’s why we’re working tirelessly day after day, knocking on doors, going to events and trying to get our message out to constituents."
Polistina’s the main target in television ads down here.
"As soon as our numbers showed John and I were doing well, they started their attack ads against me," says Polistina, who’s made $6 million over six years from public engineering contracts, whom Wilkins in particular has sought to depict as a creature of local Republican pay-to-play tactics.
On foot, he heads up another driveway in the rain.
Up the road on Highway 40 a little later on Saturday afternoon, the Democrats’ leading man, Whelan is all hard-boiled determination as he pushes through the doors of the Hamilton Mall out of the wet and heads past some makeshift information centers where representatives of local nonprofit and government organizations are trying to flag down local residents.
He’s with Wilkins, and they’re here briefly for some mingle time before heading back into the rain and onto the next event.
A onetime Republican-lock, Hamilton now has a Democrat for mayor and a council composition that favors the Democrats by 4-1. They have a local election there this year, and so it’s a key town for Whelan, because he knows voters will be going to the polls there in larger numbers than they will in Pleasantville, for example, where there are no local elections – a fact that McCullough delights in highlighting.
"People vote for mayor and for president," admits Whelan.
The Republicans are used to pushing Democrats around down here in the suburbs as they did not too long ago in Atlantic City, but with an upswing in residential development in recent years, the numbers of registered voters in the two parties have evened out considerably, with the GOP still maintaining a slight edge: 28,017 to 26,616. Another 59,614 registered voters in this district belong to neither party.
Whelan hears the Republican complaint about Camden Democrats and Speaker Joe Roberts, and money coming in to help him and knows the Republicans are trying to stir up the sense that they are the grassroots people in this contest running against a bloated Democratic Party state power structure.
But Whelan says, "We have a grassroots operation, too. This is not about an organization or outside money propping us up. We have been active in the community, all of us on the Democratic ticket. A lot of it is what you bring, and through the media you hope to reinforce what is hopefully people’s positive perception of you."
No longer dominant, the Republicans are running as underdogs, he says. But that discounts the history, Whelan argues.
"This has been a Republican Party stronghold for 25 years," says the candidate. "They didn’t want campaign finance reform. Now that we’ve gotten commitments from the state organization, the Republicans are upset. Look, the other side is getting money from the State Republican Organization. We are too. We have more of it."
The Republicans acknowledge that their party in Atlantic County here has been a patronage machine. Amodeo says he and Polistina stood in front of a group of seniors in Mullica Township early in the campaign season, and the candidate still chokes up as he describes how an old man managed to stand with the help of a cane and told the running mates that for the first time in his life he felt as though he wasn’t being commanded to vote a certain way.
Whelan goes way back in his disregard for one party rule, to the mid-1960s when he worked the Steel Pier as a lifeguard and had to pay "ice money" – what amounted to a token portion of his salary, to the local Republican Party.
Although he wasn’t connected to the party, he landed a tryout on the strength of his swimming credentials – but only after he made contact with the party first. The men who worked the patronage system on the beach had no choice but to hire him when he showed off his skills in the water.
"I pretty much figured I had passed when I finished and saw the second place guy was not even at the half way flag," Whelan recalls.
He built an All-American career as a swimmer, represented Atlantic City in a national tournament, and all the while paid ice money to the Republican Party.
"One day a guy says to me, ‘Why are you paying ice money? They can’t mess with you," Whelan says. So he abruptly stopped paying, and other lifeguards followed suit and soon after that the cops and firemen who had worked as lifeguards in the summer opted out on ice money and, according to Whelan, "Thus ended ice money."
That was four decades ago, and now there are ten days and another race and more money, and Whelan keeps his eyes forward and so does McCullough, who is not half a length back. He’s closer, and whatever money is coming and whoever’s the underdog, they are all of them out here, dog soldiers working in the rain.