Paddles versus pitchforks in 12th district senate contest

One state Senate campaign has a ping pong table and the other has a tractor, and it’s those two images that are competing now on television screens throughout households in the competitive 12th district.

In a season of property tax agony, each ad tries to make the case that the opposition tried to game or work the system for personal or private gain.

The ping pong ad comes out of the campaign of Democratic Sen. Ellen Karcher, and it focuses on her opponent’s former employer, the MWW Group, a lobbyist that represented both the state Lottery Commission and the GTECH company.

The state awarded a $106.7 million bid to GTECH, which competing company Scientific Company subsequently protested was too high. According to Robert Corrales, spokesman for the Karcher campaign, "After Scientific Games protested the outcome, a hearing was held last year and it was concluded that the State should re-bid the contract because of the appearance of conflict that arises from the lobbying firm’s dual representation."

Tom Fitzsimmons, spokesman for the Beck campaign, said his candidate, Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, worked as part of the public relations arm of the MWW Group prior to serving in the assembly, and had no say in the negotiations between GTECH and the state lottery commission.

"The contract was awarded by then-Gov Dick Codey, who’s financing Ellen Karcher’s campaign," said Fitzsimmons.

Karcher maintains that Beck as a lobbyist for the MWW Group, "could have saved the state and taxpayers money but she chose to side with her lobbying firm to increase their bottom line."

Then there’s the tractor ad rolling out of the Beck camp, which apparently has found traction, as sources in both parties say the Democratic incumbent has taken a dip in her poll numbers.

The ad highlights what the Republicans say is Karcher’s failure to report the income from her estate, which is assessed as farmland under the state’s Farmland Preservation program. Karcher says it’s no secret that her property was assessed as farmland and defends its use as such.

Beck still wants to know why Karcher didn’t report the $500 income she received from what she sees as a phony farm on mandatory financial disclosure forms for elected officials.

Karcher says it was an oversight. Beck says no way.

In any case, the Republican campaign is arguing that Karcher’s essentially pretending to live on a farm, complete with a tractor and a-propped up Christmas tree business, in order to save thousands in taxes.

The Democratic Party is countering hard.

Many landowners, including former GOP Gov. Christie Whitman and Karcher, "get the bountiful property tax discounts simply by selling a bit more than $500 a year of agrarian products," says Democratic spokesman Richard McGrath. "In Karcher's case, selling a few Christmas trees and a few cords of wood a year saves her more than $14,000 a year on the 7.2 acres of her 8.7-acre property that is classified as farmland.

"A nice break," McGrath adds. "One that is perfectly legal, and one that also serves a legitimate public purpose. The farmland assessment is one of the few inducements the state offers to keep landowners from selling their property for condos, McMansions and strip malls."

Karcher has repeatedly pointed out that she grew up riding horses and spent a good portion of her young adulthood in Hunterdon on the family farm. She wanted the same rustic appointments for her own children in Marlboro.

Beck doesn’t disagree that the program is well intended, but says she believes it needs to be re-evaluated.

"The Farmland Assessment program has been a successful way to encourage land conservation and slow over-development", said Beck. "But recent revelations have shown that a program once used to encourage people who make their living as farmers from selling their land to private developers, is now being used by some individuals with large parcels of land to avoid paying property taxes. We need to find ways to return the program back to its original purpose."

The two women today pounded the drums of their respective attack ads.

In the Trenton Statehouse, three hours before she sat down with the Trenton Times editorial board, Karcher said she would fine-tune conflict of interest legislation to make it harder for lobbyists to beat the system.

"This would not have happened had the MWW Group not worked both ends of this deal," said Karcher of the ultimately rejected bid by GTECH, which was $31.7 million more than the bid presented by Scientific Games.

In Red Bank, following her own sit-down with the Times, Beck again called on her opponent to join the assemblywoman’s working group to study adjustments to the Farmland Assessment program.

The Karcher ads have been running since Oct. 15th, and insiders say the lottery issue may be too complicated to be effective. Karcher says she trusts in the intelligence of the voters.

She's working with far more money than Beck, and Beck says the public is smart enough to see that, too.

But there are still two weeks to the day between now and Election Day, and plenty of time to either till new ground or serve. Paddles versus pitchforks in 12th district senate contest