Into the home stretch in Central Jersey

Stumping throughout central Jersey on Sunday, Gov. Jon Corzine dismissed the recently formed Common Sense America as a closeted anti-gay group masquerading as a champion of fiscal conservatism.

In defiance of Fair and Clean Elections in the 14th district, the Princeton-based outfit has spent an estimated $450,000-worth of ads against Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein and by extension, her running mate, labor leader Wayne DeAngelo.

“It’s not going to end up having a major impact,” said Corzine, with Greenstein, DeAngelo and state Senate candidate Seema Singh, at his side in Hamilton’s Golden Dawn Diner.

“It’s not an issue that impacts here, unless you’re deeply interested in civil unions. People here are interested in other issues, like property tax relief,” the governor said.

The Republicans, state Senate candidate Assemblyman Bill Baroni and his running mates, Adam Bushman and Tom Goodwin, have denounced Common Sense America’s ads. But whatever happens on Election Day, “The results will be blemished,” lamented DeAngelo, who said the good faith work of the candidates in both parties to go out and amass at least 400 contributions of $10 apiece was thwarted by a third-party group.

Another factor in the district 14 race may prove to be the mayoral contest in Hamilton. That’s the district’s most populous town and one of the most politically driven muncipalities in the state. Two-term Democratic Mayor Glen Gilmore is trying to stave off the challenge of Republican businessman John Bencivengo.

The latter may get some coattail action from Baroni, who is a strong favorite over Singh. But Bencivengo’s also counting on the voters’ rejection of the township’s $4.1 million purchase of the 51-acre Klockner Woods property, the only question on the ballot this year. Benicvengo and the Republican Township Council have called into question the mayor’s insistence on buying the “undevelopable” patch of land from a developer that had acquired the land at a much lower cost.

Gilmore says he fears the referendum question will fail because of its wording on the ballot, but has repeatedly said he supports the acquisition and preservation of parks and woods near each of the town’s neighborhoods.

Corzine was also in the 12th district today, at a party breakfast in Marlboro, making him the third Democratic tribal chieftain the campaign of Sen. Ellen Karcher has welcomed inside a week.

Following some time with Corzine, Karcher went door-to-door in Red Bank with U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, who’s also intent on ensuring a Karcher victory in a difficult race – and in a difficult district.

When she faced Sen. John Bennett four years ago, Karcher scratched out a victory against an incumbent who labored under an ethical cloud. This year, Karcher’s opponent, Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, is hoping the district returns to Republican form.

In ads and in debates, Karcher has sought to demonstrate what she sees as Beck’s lack of public service, and highlighted Beck’s role as a Republican lobbyist and her recent work history.

“She works for a company that has no-bid contracts,” Karcher said of Beck’s pre-general election employment as vice president of QualCare, Inc. “These are monies that can be pumped up into a contract, where monies can essentially be washed back into campaigns and washed back into people’s pockets. This is what’s costing us money. It’s the Trenton insiders, gaming the system.”

According to Gannett news service, QualCare has contracts with the County of Monmouth, Township of Colts Neck, and the Monmouth Municipal Joint Insurance Fund – which includes Englishtown Borough, Fair Haven Borough, Little Silver Borough, Marlboro Township, Oceanport Borough, Red Bank Borough, Shrewsbury Borough, Shrewsbury Township, and Tinton Falls Borough. The combined contracts total $524,329.

In Monmouth County Republican headquarters today, in a room with one smiling solo picture of President George W. Bush on the wall and another of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and a scribbled thanks from Bush “for your support,” Beck Campaign Spokesman Tom Fitzsimmons adamantly portrayed his anti-Karcher team as the underdogs – – and they are, in the money game. The Republicans are being outspent by a margin of 6-1.

“They’re going to end up spending $5 million, saying things about Jennifer, Declan (O’Scanlon) and Caroline (Casagrande) that aren’t true,” said Fitzsimmons. “We pointed out in the context of the Farmland Assessment thing, Ellen Karcher voted to raise taxes while she was keeping her own fairly low.”

A mail piece the Republicans have been circulating points out that Karcher spends $213 in taxes on over seven acres of family property – the area assessed as farmland for her annual sale of several Christmas trees – leaving the reader to assume that this is all she pays.

But Karcher pays $25,000 in property taxes for her family’s entire 8-acre spread.

“This is the kind of thing we’ve been dealing with,” said Karcher campaign spokesman Mike Premo on what he sees as the Beck campaign’s fact-selective advertising.

For her part, on a key issue front, Karcher has repeatedly said she opposes asset monetization – or the selling or leasing of the state’s toll roads for a lump sum to plug up the state’s budget deficit. But her trouble is her party’s leadership is committed to the concept, which makes Karcher’s protests somewhat feeble alongside her opponent’s outright opposition, particularly when Karcher’s getting bankrolled by Senate President Richard Codey.

Beck from the outset has been unequivocally against the sale or lease of toll roads.

“When you look at Chicago, Indiana, Texas, Virginia, what you see is the very first thing they did was double tolls,” said Beck. “And in the case of Indiana, which is a 158-mile roadway, not only did they double tolls but the private entity is going to recoup $5.8 million in the first 15 years of a 75-year lease. To me, that’s not the solution. To me, the answer is tightening our belts.”

Capitalizing on Republican Party scandals at the local level, the State Democratic Committee hopes to cut into the longtime Republican power structure in Monmouth County. There are competitive races for two freeholder seats, where Republicans, Freeholder Robert Clifton, former mayor of Matawan, and Marlboro Councilman Jeff Cantor are facing Democrats, Judge John D’Amico of Oceanport and Bradley Beach Mayor Stephen Schueler. Clerk Claire French is up against Amod Choudary. But the retirement this year of Sheriff Joseph Oxley makes the sheriff’s contest particularly combative.

The sheriff’s candidates have been to all or most of the big events sponsored by their respective parties. Democrat Jack Hill, the chief of police in Belmar, was at Codey’s side in Manalapan on Friday. His opponent, Republican Kim Guadagno of Monmouth Beach, stood on stage with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in Manalapan on Thursday – and officially endorsed him.

The candidates disagree on how to police undocumented workers in Monmouth County.

“I’m in favor of taking criminal aliens off the streets and doing background checks, and taking them off the streets if they turn out to be criminal aliens under federal law, and keeping them out of Monmouth County,” says Guadagno, a former prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney, who specifically likes a federal provision called 287(g).

Alert to what he sees as the potential for profiling abuses in the federal deputizing program, Hill says no.

“287 (g) doesn’t address illegal immigration, it only addresses criminal illegal immigration,” says Hill. “The state attorney general recently formulated a plan which I think would be more cost-effective for the residents of the county and just as efficient as 287(g).”

In the freeholder race, the Democrats have been particulalry excited about D’Amico, a former state superior court judge for ten years and former chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board; while the Republicans have answered with Iraq War veteran Cantor.

In the 12th district Assembly contest, Democrats Assemblyman Michael Panter and Amy Mallet have run a separate operation from Karcher. Their main money stream is from Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, who’s aligned with South Jersey Democratic Party boss – and Codey nemesis – George Norcross III.

While Panter and Mallet have attended some of the requisite breakfasts and functions with the senator, they’ve mostly bee-lined through their own separate schedule of lawn-marching and door-pounding.

O’Scanlon and Casagrande, meanwhile, have been in campaign lock-step with Beck. The Republicans challenged Panter and Mallet to a debate, but the incumbent and his running mate demurred.

“I think when you look at the blatant inaccuracy of what my opponent has put out there, it doesn’t warrant a platform,” said Panter, who said he was originally anticipating a debate at the Greenbriar Senior Community’s clubhouse the same night as the senate candidates had their showdown, but was later informed that with the mayor’s race this year there would be no Assembly debate.

Casagrande said the Republicans toiled to get some public television time with Panter and Mallet, but were informed by the Democrats that there was a scheduling conflict.

“That evening they were with the ten members of the Colts Neck Democratic Club, so I’m not really certain that was a fair use of your time there,” Casagrande griped.

At his own rally in Middletown on Sunday, as he considered what this race is about on Tuesday, district 13 state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos said Corzine has not aggressively addressed the state’s fiscal crisis. Kyrillos said he’d be open to privatizing toll roads, but not given the current spending patterns of the state.

“I don’t think people should be happy with the State of New Jersey,” said Kyrillos, the senior senator representing Monmouth County.

Without significant tax cuts and regulatory changes to benefit business, a revamped school funding formula, regionlized school districts, and pension reform, “There are dark days on the horizon,” said Kyrillos.

Into the home stretch in Central Jersey