Girding for what is expected to be the toughest legislative contest in the state, the 1st district Democrats are clear on what their early strategy will be: stand together and emphasize their independence, most of all from Gov. Jon Corzine.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis), a dentist with an independent streak and long electoral coattails, will campaign as if he is on the ballot this year with assembly candidates Nelson Albano (D-Vineland) and Matthew Milam (D-Vineland). The three plan to emphasize their status as a relatively undifferentiated team, and will almost certainly highlight their differences with the Governor, whose upside down statewide approval ratings are likely even lower here in the state's southernmost tip.
The approach is nothing new. In the 2007 election, the three loudly opposed Corzine's plan to monetize the state's toll roads. Since turning the district all-Democrat after that race, the delegation has made an effort to work as a single entity, sharing all three of the district's legislative offices and making joint legislative efforts. Van Drew noted that he doesn't even have a legislative business card with just his name on it.
"We have a very unique situation in the 1st District in that we're a team in the way we approach everything," said Van Drew. "The only letterhead that goes out of my office has all three names."
Albano and Milam are running against Republican attorney Mike Donohue, who also ran in 2007, and a yet-to-be-announced running mate. Donohue's former running mate, Frank Conrad, dropped out over the weekend citing business concerns, and Republicans are beginning the process of selecting a new candidate. So far, Ocean City Republican Municipal Chairman John McCann is the only one who has announced.
Van Drew's chief of staff, Allison Murphy — who managed all three campaigns last year –will be taking a leave from the state payrollto run the assembly campaigns.
Like in 2007, the candidates' rhetoric taken alone could make it hard to place them ideologically. According to Van Drew, that's in keeping with a district whose electorate has demonstrated a willingness to look past party labels.
"We don't run as partisans. I have never run that way, and I believe these two legislators won't as well. It's more about South Jersey-it's more about New Jersey and what needs to be done. When Democrats are on the right point we're with them, and when they're off base we say that as well," he said
It's a strategy borne out of necessity, according to Monmouth University pollster and political science professor Patrick Murray. But there's one hitch.
"The problem there is they're not three equals in the legislature. Jeff Van Drew is clearly seen as the most visible and in some respects the leader o the group," said Murray. "Without him at the top of the ticket it becomes a little more difficult to portray their stance."
One point Van Drew, Milam and Albano believe members of their party are off base on is the budget. Despite the restoration of property tax rebates for families making under $75,000 due to a recently discovered tax amnesty windfall, all three still plan to vote against the final bill on Thursday, citing cuts to beach replenishment and tourism.
After learning that Albano and Milam planned to vote no, Donohue and Conrad accused them of getting a pass from Democratic leaders who, having a comfortable majority in the assembly, recognized the political necessity of their negative votes.
"We didn't get a pass. It comes from how it hurts our district," said Milam.
Milam said that his campaign would not need to run away from an association with Gov. Cozine because a strong one does not exist, even if they'll be directly under him on the ballot.
"We haven't agreed with him on anything, starting back with the whole toll road plan," he said. "There's a huge separation there, and we're just going to run on our own merits. We don't need to run away or worry about him."
But Donohue said that on many issues that count, the Democrats' votes told another story.
"They are part of a team called the 'Corzine Team'," said Donohue, referring to their votes on rivisions to the Council on Affordable Housing. "They voted with him on A-500 last year to impose a 2.5% COAH tax on commercial construction… They might get a pass every now and then, but they’re still standing in line and waiting when [Assembly Speaker] Joe Roberts and Jon Corzine are handing out committee chairmanships, calling themselves Democrats."
Republicans view the district as ripe for taking back, and Democrats acknowledge that the incumbents are vulnerable. Some Democrats have been privately miffed about what they see as constant electoral posturing by their southern brethren on the assembly floor, but not enough to cut them off.
Once the race begins in earnest, expect to see a lot of money pour in, especially from Democratic coffers. In 2007, the three legislators spent about $3.5 million – roughly three times what the Republicans had.
"We're Democrats. Not every family agrees with every decision, but we should have the same values in terms of seeing the state move forward," said Assemblyman and Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan (D-Union). "We're going to work hard for Albano and Milam."