In an under-the-radar race in district 11, Republican Assemblyman Sean Kean is depicting his opponent as a big tax guy, a onetime member of the Assembly who voted for Gov. Jim Florio's tax hike in the early 1990s and subsequently lost his seat in Trenton.
In his stump speech, Kean uses the jaw-dropping jump in the state budget from $21 to $34 billion since Democrats took office. Given those figures, the last thing the state needs, in Kean's view, is John Villapiano, a broadly grinning, big-hearted liberal returning to Trenton.
"The taxes in this state have created an unfriendly environment," says Kean, an attorney from Wall, who says it's unfair that 1% of the population pays 40% of the state's income tax.
But Villapiano, a longshot contender in this district where Kean is popular, says his young opponent doesn't understand the historical context of New Jersey's fiscal crisis. The Democrat feels Florio was redeemed by the subsequent mismanagement of Gov. Christie Todd Whitman's administration, which he says contributed significantly to the morass the state is in now.
"Whitman gave a 30% income tax decrease, and floated a $2.1 billion bond in order to carry it," says Villapiano. "She raided money from the pension system to fund operations."
An educator who runs his own charter school in Long Branch, the candidate also defends the Abbott Schools program, and says Kean in the past has unfairly scapegoated the state's poor urban schools that make up the 31 so-called Abbott School districts.
"He has to understand that during the late 1960s and through the 1970s, our urban areas were allowed to rot and decline," says Villapiano. "The Abbott decision requiring us to fund urban schools at a higher level was correct. Now recognizing that doesn't make me a wild-eyed liberal. I'm all for making sure every nickel is spent correctly. But you had to have lived the history. And I lived it."
Kean counters that Democratic Party fiscal policies will continue to drive people out of the state, where they will join the 70,000+ people who beelined it across the border last year.
With Kean the favorite and not a lot of money coming into the district compared to the neighboring 12th where the Democrats have chosen to make their stand, the opponents here have circled each other in recent weeks and not mixed it up much. But now Kean is going to flex the Republican Party's muscle in this district as he hits Villapiano with three and a half weeks of cable ads and three and a half weeks of mail.