WEST WINDSOR – The four major party assembly candidates in the 14th Legislative District met this morning for their first and only debate of the campaign season.
The forum, attended by about thirty senior citizens, was organized by two retiree groups and focused on property taxes, Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) regulations, senior issues and same sex marriage. Incumbents Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) asserted their independence from Gov. Jon Corzine and the Democratic establishment, while Republicans Rob Calabro and Bill Harvey branded themselves as small business owners facing the same tax pinch as the rest of the district's residents.
All four candidates came out against at least some of the provisions of bill A-500, which barred municipalities from paying other towns to take on their affordable housing obligations. Greenstein abstained on the bill – a vote she characterized as a "soft no," while DeAngelo voted in favor of it. That led to one of the only contentious exchanges in an otherwise civil debate.
"Only three Democrats did not vote yes on that bill, and I was one of them," said Greenstein. "The meaning of that vote is no. You might say it's a soft ‘no,' but it's a ‘no.'"
Calabro, a restaurant and Italian food market owner from Hamilton, hammered Greenstein for not voting the way she really felt, and then criticized DeAngelo for voting yes.
"Abstain is undecided to me," he said. "We're here to make a decision, not to be a soft ‘no' or a soft ‘yes.'"
After the debate, Greenstein said that she did not vote no because she wanted to continue to have input on the issue, which might not have maintained if she voted no on a bill that was important to Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden).
All of the candidates acknowledged that this suburban, middle-class district has been hit particularly hard by COAH regulations. Under A500, Republicans noted, Cranbury Township – which has just about 1,000 housing units – is required to have 500 units of affordable housing.
DeAngelo, an assistant business manager with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said that he still hoped to amend portions of the COAH bill regarding how new jobs in a town would affect its obligations. But he said he supported the bill because "New Jersey has some economic difficulties right now with affordable housing" and because "you want to be able to afford to live in the town where you work.
Harvey, an attorney with a private practice in Lawrenceville, said that amending COAH in a lame duck session was "too little, too late."
When asked plans on how they would lower taxes, Greenstein and DeAngelo noted that the legislature and governor had kept the rate of property tax growth to a lower level than in previous years, cut the state budget by $4 billion and revamped the school funding formula. Greenstein also brought up regionalization and shared services.
Calabro and Harvey offered many of the same platforms as their party's gubernatorial nominee, Chris Christie: electing an independent auditor, as opposed to the currently existing appointed comptroller; instituting initiative and referendum; and required a two-thirds supermajority in the legislature to pass new taxes.
All four said they were in favor of an across-the-board property tax freeze for seniors, though Greenstein, who noted that she was a prime sponsor of a bill that froze them for seniors under a certain income, added the caveat that it might be tough to do.
When asked whether they would support a bill that would recognize same sex marriage, the two Republicans said they would vote no while DeAngelo and Greenstein – who chairs the Judiciary Committee — said they had not made up their minds.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the debate was how low-key it was. About 30 seniors showed to the West Windsor council chambers to watch it. Although their campaign rhetoric has gotten heated at times – most notably when the Republicans compare the Democrats to Governor Corzine – they were mostly polite to each other. DeAngelo even congratulated Harvey, who was just married on Saturday, and Calabro on the birth of a new child two months ago.
This was supposed to be one of the top three competitive races in the state. It is one of only three split districts in the state (represented by state Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton, who is not up for reelection until 2011), and two years ago DeAngelo squeaked by Republican Tom Goodwin by less than 1,000 votes.
But Republicans' chances in the district seemed to diminish after their top recruits – Hamilton Councilwoman Kelly Yaede and former State Police Captain Jim McSorley – declined to run. They settled on Calabro and picked Harvey after Middlesex County Republicans – who typically pick one of the district's two candidates – chose 21-year-old Brian Hackett, a candidate Mercer County Republicans found unacceptable.
Fundraising numbers seem to indicate that the state Republican Party does not plan to compete seriously in this district. According to campaign finance records, Calabro and Harvey have just $27,050 to Greenstein and DeAngelo's $602,638.
But the two Republicans say they're campaigning in earnest, having knocked on over 5,000 doors and have not thrown away their candidacies.
"This election is not about money. People are desperate. People are losing their homes, they're losing their jobs, and they're tired of the status quo," said Harvey.
Update: PolitickerNJ.com neglected to mention the third party candidate in the race: Gene Baldassari. Baldassari, who belongs to the Modern Whig Party, was not invited to the debate.