On Sunday, after attending a service at St. Stephen AME Zion Church in Asbury Park, the men went to the brick wall of a convenience store in Asbury, and acknowledged the name of Justin Johnson.
Johnson, 19, a resident of Atlantic Avenue, died of a gunshot wound last Thursday in Old Village, and now his name is scrawled on a piece of cardboard taped with a balloon to that wall with others who were the victims of gang shootings.
A woman stopped by to look at the messages for the dead left on the wall. Her brother was also killed and his picture is there, and the men listened to her story in this campaign season, in this town devastated by gang violence.
Democrats John Villapiano, John Napolitani and John Pirnat – the three Johns, as they call themselves – are not the favorites in this seaside legislative race. The senate candidate Villipiano is up against a popular legislator in Assemblyman Sean Kean, and lacks significant financial support from the state committee.
Dwarfed by the strategic importance to their party of the senate and assembly seats in the neighboring 12th district, Villapiano and his running mates and campaign coordinator Nochus Berry have been working the streets with grassroots know-how in their base towns – Neptune, Long Branch and Asbury Park.
Napolitani, an Asbury school teacher and Pirnat, a teamster from Brielle, are working with the endorsements of the AFL-CIO. The former, a resident of Interlaken for all but nine months of his life when he lived in Florida, has generational name recognition down here on the shore – just like Villapiano.
But the district is composed of 25 towns, and the three are up against the reality of the better financed, five-year legislative veteran Kean, who wants to pull in his running mates, locksmith and former Wall Township Policeman David Rible, and educator Mary Pat Angelini of Ocean.
As the Democrats walked the streets in Asbury on Sunday, two-thirds of Kean’s Republican Shore Team worked the tables at Octoberfest in the South Wall Firehouse located in Kean’s hometown.
Villapiano and his running mates highlight the need to safeguard state-funded educational programs, particularly in the poor school districts like Asbury. Villapiano argues that special needs funding is a big budget item impacting schools that run the gamut of rich and poor in the 11th district. Rather than take apart Abbott, which funds the poor urban districts, Villapiano says he wants to save money by regionalizing special needs services in all districts.
Kean and Rible, meanwhile, are hearing from residents who say their property taxes are too high, and whose local school districts have been flat-funded for the last six years under Democratic leadership as Abbott schools, Asbury in particular down here, and Camden and Newark elsewhere, have failed to deliver results.
The mood was upbeat in Wall on Sunday, and not just because Kean is favored. The Republicans were celebrating because the Asbury Park Press endorsed their candidate, Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, in the 12th district state Senate contest.
But Kean, a labor-endorsed Republican, says he intends to work through Election Day. It’s an off year. Both sides have to mobilize their core supporters.
The Democrats argue for the Abbott schools and the Republicans say it’s time to revamp them. Napolitani emphasizes education and Rible focuses on law and order. This district has Rumson on one end economically, Asbury on the other and Wall in between.
Here the volunteer first responders try to raise money for new vehicles and uphold the proud traditions of local fire companies. The seniors struggle to pay property taxes and fear before too long they’ll have to move. The sister of a dead man says Asbury Park needs more money for social programs to help the kids growing up on the streets.
A balloon with the helium still in it but barely, clings by strands of tape to a brick wall.