It’s all politics in Hamilton a day before Election Day as Republican mayoral candidate John Bencivengo climbs out of his sport utility vehicle and walks into the office of Council President Dave Kenny.
Kenny and the Republican Council have been fighting with Democratic Mayor Glen Gilmore over the town’s budget and pressuring the mayor through the courts to release details of Hamilton’s financial health before, and not after, the mayoral election.
Moments earlier, the appellate division of the state Superior Court upheld Kenny’s appeal, and denied Gilmore’s motion to issue a stay in the release of the town’s annual financial statement. Now Bencivengo watches as Kenny receives by fax the financial statement from Bowman and Company, the company charged with preparing the information.
"I’m doing great," says Bencivengo, who has said publicly that the two-term mayor doesn’t want the figures out there because they show the need for a 25% tax increase.
The pages come one by one.
In another part of town, on Route 33, vans carrying young people with their get-out-the- vote packets leave district 14 Democratic headquarters, bound for any of district 14's seven towns.
These are volunteers canvassing for state Senate candidate Seema Singh, Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein and Assembly candidate Wayne DeAngelo, and they are disconnected from the immediate workings of Hamilton Township politics. Their job is to get the legislative team elected.
"We have 200 bodies on the street knocking on doors," says campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Meyers. "There are about 17,000 doors we’re knocking on today. We knocked on about 35,000 over the weekend. We’re going to have another 250-300 bodies out tomorrow on Election Day. …We’ve had a great problem of too many folks wanting to help."
Up the road, where 33 comes together with Nottingham, the Republicans coordinate their own movements for their district 14 slate consistingof state senate candidate Assemblyman Bill Baroni and his running mates for the Assembly, Adam Bushman and Tom Goodwin.
"Over the last couple of days we’ve ramped up our efforts very steadily," says campaign spokesman Steve Quain. "We’ve been getting lots of volunteers coming out to headquarters, they’ve been out knocking on doors. In the past two days we’ve been able to knock on 20,000 doors all over the 14th district in every town in the district."
In Hamilton specifically, "We have a lot of high school kids who have come to volunteer as part of their high school class, their government relations class," says Quain.
How many out there today?
"Oh, hundreds, hundreds," he says.
In a satellite headquarters on Quakerbridge Road, volunteers crowd tables and work the phones and it’s the same with the Democrats. Phones. Doors. Vans. Signs. Packages.
In Kenny’s office, the council president has received the full document from Bowman and Company and he sits down with members of the press and says very preliminarily that the budget shows a deficit of $5 million.
"We’re shooting this up to Robert Morrison, he’s the auditor hired by the council," says Kenny.
Bencivengo says the report proves what he’s been saying all along – what Gilmore didn’t want the public to see before Election Day.
"He’s a poor fiscal manager," says the Republican.
In his office in City Hall, in another part of the sprawling political universe called Hamilton, the mayor sits at his desk in an office with pictures of Kennedy and Lincoln and FDR on the walls.
He lost a battle today, and in an election cycle which has been one extended battle if nothing, he knows it is a decisive loss. The papers in the morning will bear headlines that show a budget deficit, and that’s not what this two-term incumbent needs in people’s heads as theyprepare tovote.
"I’ve got a record of holding the line on taxes that beats their record," says Gilmore. "The Star-Ledger said ours was the lowest tax bill of any town in the county – while we expanded municipal services. There are fewer municipal employees in town than when we started seven years ago. I’m optimistic that the town will recognize that what I have accomplished as mayor is impressive."
He says the council fought him on the Transit Village project, which would have yielded $3 million in new taxes. He says he gave them the budget to work over and they sat on it for months and did not reduce it by a single penny. They talk about public safety, and then put up roadblocks to live-feed cameras in Hamilton’s neighborhoods.
It’s been Gilmore versus the council ever since the last election, when the governing body slipped from his control.
"For 24 years they held the office of mayor and they’re seeing this as one last opportunity to take it back," Gilmore says of his adversaries. "I believe I’ll be re-elected. I have a challenge. That council, under the best of circumstances, will still be a Republican council. They do a disservice to our residents when they the politics become more important than good public policy."
Back on the street, bundled into an overcoat, Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein works one side of the Acme in Hamilton on the Monday night before Election Day, while her husband Mike works the other side.
There was an army of volunteers out here for the district 14 legislative team, and now it’s just the Greensteins with the clock running until Tuesday and the faces coming and going and the assemblywoman says. "This is the hardest day, because there’s nothing you can do at this point but wait."
Going for her fifth term in the Assembly, the Jewish girl from the projects in Brooklyn who worked her way up to become a public interest lawyer, has been campaigning all day, and it’s a campaign that’s gone on for months.
This morning she attended the Galleria honors class at Steinert High School, and she and the students talked about Common Sense America, the right-wing outfit running ads against her.
Then someone asked her why she was running against Assembly again and not against Assemblyman Bill Baroni for the state Senate seat being vacated by Peter Inverso. Greenstein told the students she would have run, but with the benefit of knowing about Inverso’s intentions before Greenstein, Baroni nailed down some critical union backing early. That left the Assemblywoman to contemplate going up against the Republican without a block of key supporters. She relented, and now with Seema Singh at the top of the ticket and apparently headed for a loss to the powerful Baroni tomorrow, Greenstein is in Hamilton going after the block she must count on to win: individual voters.
There are several factors working against her.
There are the estimated $450,000 in ads from Common Sense America, the Baroni factor at the top of the opposition’s ticket, the fact that in one of her two base towns – South Brunswick – there is not a mayoral election on Tuesday. Greenstein can usually add up the results of South Brunswick and Monroe and equal the output of votes from the district’s biggest town, which is Hamilton. Without a mayor’s race in South Brunswick, voters might not come out in big numbers.
Of course, then there’s the Hamilton factor, and the question is whether the political upheaval on the ground here around Gilmore will impact her. Will a fall by Gilmore hurt her, and hurt her running mate, DeAngelo?
Greenstein doesn’t appear worried. She’s been at this for years. She was at this in 2003 when her running mate Gary Guare suffered a meltdown at the hands of Baroni and she still survived. She passes out her literature and in this town split more or less evenly between Democrats and Republicans she gets some men who stride past her into the store with grunted responses to her attempts at an introduction, but mostly she receives smiles of recognition and a lot of promises from women and men that they’ll vote for her.
"I’m going to vote for you, because you’re a worker," a woman tells Greenstein as she wheels her cart into the shopping center.
With the sun down, at a rally on the other side of town in La Villa, Assemblyman Bill Baroni stands in a crowd of Republicans, in the center of a circle of admirers and workers, and stares across the range of room hung with chandeliers and mirrors and says, "This is Hamilton. This is what I come from."
In a moment he bounds onto a stage with his running mates, Adam Bushman and Tom Goodwin – the men he hopes to propel past Greenstein and DeAngelo – and he listens to former Mayor Jack Rafferty introduce the Republican candidate for mayor, John Bencivengo.
There’s a mention of Gilmore’s name and a current of anger runs through the crowd. A tall, rangy Irish-American politician with a shock of white hair, Rafferty says the sitting mayor shouldn’t be there in that office in City Hall.
"When you’re in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging," says Rafferty. "This guy doesn’t stop digging."
He introduces a manhe describes as the next mayor of Hamilton, and Bencivengo steps up to the microphone.
In a solemn voice he tells the crowd that he just received a report from the auditor, who has looked over the township’s annual financial statement that a judge earlier in the day ruled could be released to the public over Gilmore’s protestations.
"We are facing a $10 million deficit," says Bencivengo, "and a 30% tax increase."
"Good, God," comes a man’s voice from the crowd.
"Go home tonight and call people," says Bencivengo, his voice nearly breaking with emotion. "Go home and tell people, and if you feel like I feel, it’s time for a change."
A month ago not many people gave the former township employee a chance of beating Gilmore.
But the mayor has stirred this crowd of Republicans.
"This guy puts politics ahead of governance of the town," says Goodwin, a member of the town council.
The veteran Inverso stands in the crowd, not far from his apparent successor, Baroni.
And Baroni, clapped on the back on the eve of victory, the master campaigner who prompted his party’s minority leader to plead with all Republicans to adopt the "Baroni model" of winning in bell weather districts, the kid from Hamilton who used to think it was a big night on the town when his parents took him to Brothers Pizza in the days when he licked envelopes for Inverso and Chris Smith, the same way the kids are out there tonight for him, and watched how those old dogs operated, tonight at the end of it all before he goes up there to address the crowd, wears a look of dismay amid the mood of celebration pre-Election Day.
"Forget about my race for a moment," says Baroni, addressing what Bencivengo has identified as the budget crisis in Hamilton.
"As a citizen of the town," he says, "I’m concerned."