HANDICAPPING HAMILTON, THE TOWNSHIP OF TICKET-SPLITTERS

Party leaders and state officials are predicting a low turnout in this year's midterm legislative races. This, despite the low ratings that most New Jerseyans give the legislature and citizens deep concerns about high property taxes, political corruption, and the direction in which the state is headed. But with most legislative districts drawn to be safe, the high cost of mounting a serious challenge against an entrenched incumbent, and citizens' skepticism about either party's ability to solve the state's complex problems, folks simply don't seem to be excited this campaign season.

Except in places like my hometown – Hamilton Township, Mercer County. There, in the shadows of the State House, interest in and debate about politics, issues, and the prospects of candidates up and down the ballot never are in short supply. This year is no different. In this sprawling, forty square mile working and middle class community of 90,000 that is home to as many as 10,000 state, county, local, and school employees, you can find a conversation about the November 6th election almost everywhere you go.

Once Hamiltonians get beyond touting their favorites, the real fun begins. Partisans, unaffiliated folks – there are many, and political insiders – many folks regard themselves as just that -, are more than willing to handicap the various races on this year's especially long ballot. And, in one of the state's few remaining municipalities with two strong major parties to go along with an electorate known for ticketing-splitting, those who try to predict the outcomes of elections in or involving Hamilton need good data, a crystal ball, and a lot of luck.

But most of the Township's political prognosticators, regardless of their rooting interests, do seem to agree on one thing this year. Current Assemblyman and favorite son Bill Baroni is the strong favorite to carry Hamilton by thousands of votes and thus be hard to beat in his quest to succeed fellow Republican and Hamiltonian, Peter Inverso, as the 14th district's state senator. The big questions are, however, by just how many votes will Baroni carry Hamilton and will he provide other Republicans on the ballot with enough coattails to produce a few surprises?

These other Republicans include, of course, the GOP's two 14th district assembly candidates – Tom Goodwin, a popular councilman who also is from Hamilton, and Adam Bushman, an Iraqi war veteran and businessman from Jamesburg. In 2005, Baroni garnered a whopping 19,032 votes in the Township, besting veteran Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein by nearly 6,000. While Baroni's GOP running mate – Mike Paquette from South Brunswick – also carried Hamilton, he did so by only about 600 votes more than Greenstein. The latter's large plurality in the Middlesex County portion of the district enabled her to win another term. The huge drop off in support from Baroni to Paquette reveals limited coattails and the propensity of local voters here to shop around the ballot until they find the candidates they like.

While Hamiltonians are known to support their own fellow residents – this is thought to explain much of the ticket-splitting -, many put local loyalty to the side in 2005. Greenstein's running mate was Dan Benson, a Democratic councilman in Hamilton. Local ties did him little good. Benson got only 10,586 from Hamiltonians who were in the process of replacing three Democratic councilmen with three Republicans because of concerns about development decisions and tax hikes in what then a Democratic-controlled municipal government.


Nonetheless, 14th district Democrats have once again come to the Hamilton for a running mate for Greenstein this fall. Wayne D'Angelo, who lost in that 2005 GOP sweep of council, is the party's second assembly candidate. There has been a reunion of sorts on the campaign trail this fall. Goodwin was one of those three Republican councilman who won in 2005 and garnered 15,923 votes, some 4,400 more than D'Angelo. If history repeats itself, Goodwin will have a decent shot of picking up a seat for the Republicans in the Assembly.

But the 2007 election is more complicated than 2005. Hamilton Mayor Glen Gilmore, a Democratic who was the real object of voters' anger in 2005, is seeking a third term. Many Hamiltonians still have questions about the mayor's performance. There are have been a few land deals that have upset locals, hikes in property taxes that folks had hoped not to have, and a delay in releasing this year's budget that Gilmore's opponent believes, for good reason, is simply an attempt to avoid announcing a big tax increase until after the election.

That opponent is John Bencivengo, the former GOP municipal chair, who deserves credit for helping revive the local party and gain control of council. Bencivengo has been doing a good job hammering away at the incumbent's record but has some baggage of his own. The problem for the Republican is that Gilmore has a huge fund-raising advantage and lots of union support that can be helpful in getting out the vote on Election Day. However, Baroni also is endorsed by most of the unions in the county, so it's hard to say whether rank and file members will know exactly who they are supposed to support on November 6th.

To further complicate matters, there is also a Mercer County Executive race this year. Incumbent Brian Hughes, a Democrat, is heavily favored to win and to do well in the county's largest municipality. If the Gilmore-Bencivengo race looks close, expect Hughes to do more stumping in Hamilton to try to help Gilmore. Whether Baroni, who never takes his own races for granted and is concerned about how he will do in the heavily Democratic towns in the Middlesex County part of the 14th district, has the time to help Bencivengo is uncertain. What is more certain is that Hamilton voters will be spending a lot of their own time in the voting booth in November making decisions that will have big consequences for the careers of several politicians and for the partisan make-up of state, county, and municipal governments.

David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, "On Politics," for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and is member of the editorial advisory board of CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

HANDICAPPING HAMILTON, THE TOWNSHIP OF TICKET-SPLITTERS