Two years ago, Republicans in Monmouth County had a tough fight on their hands as voters threw their support behind many Democratic candidates in a backlash against corruption charges touching a number of local and county Republican officials.
Still, in the 13th Assembly District, covering parts of Monmouth and Middlesex counties, Republican incumbents Amy Handlin and Sam Thompson hung on to their seats.
This year, independent candidate Sean Dunne and two Democrats, Robert Brown and James Grenafage, seeking Assembly seats in the 13th District have to contend with voter disgust over high property taxes and a collapsed economy — issues Republicans have pinned on Gov. Jon Corzine, the head of the Democratic ticket.
“People are upset with government as a whole,” said Brown. “We’ll be lucky if 50 percent of the voters come out in this election.”
But Brown said Democrats have made enough inroads into Monmouth County politics the past two years — he points to the first Democratic-controlled freeholder board in 23 years — to give him and his runningmate a good shot at unseating the incumbents.
Heading into Election Day as relative unknowns, the three challengers are trying to paint Handlin and Thompson as has-beens who have failed to respond to the needs of their constituents, particularly during the economic crisis.
For their part, Thompson and Handlin are telling constituents a vote for Democrats is a vote to continue Democratic policies they say have made life miserable for the average New Jersey resident.
“If they think the country, the state, the county or the town is going in the wrong direction, I should think they should feel there’s a need for a change,” Thompson said. “The Democrats have been in charge.”
A retired communications director for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, Thompson, 74, said he’s in full agreement with former state treasurer John McCormac’s assessment that New Jersey has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. He said the state needs to prioritize its spending and think twice before providing funding for such things as stem cell research or local theaters.
“We’re the loyal opposition,” he said. “Most of the things they’re unhappy about we’ve been fighting against.”
Handlin, seeking her third term, got her political start in 1987 with her election to the Middletown Township Committee. Elected to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders in 1989, she held that seat until winning her state Assembly seat in 2005 after defeating longtime Republican incumbent Joseph Azzolina in the GOP primary.
An associate professor of marketing at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, Handlin, 53, has positioned herself as a corruption buster who has sponsored several pieces of legislation aimed at tightening laws governing political contributions and strictly curbing dual office holding.
She touts a constitutional amendment to limit the growth of the state budget to the rate of inflation and she supports a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to impose new taxes or raise existing ones.
She also wants state government to submit all bond and borrowing proposals to voters for approval.
Brown, 54, is a former Old Bridge police officer-turned attorney. He retired from the force after being shot in the hand and the shoulder by an assailant and uses his law practice to help disabled public employees gain disability benefits.
Grenafege, 60, is a career transition consultant who said the limping economy has made job creation and retention a priority for him and Brown. They’ve proposed expanding NJ STARS, a program providing tuition assistance for college students in certain areas of study, for advanced degrees.
They want the state to explore obtaining renewable energy through wave power and advocate redirecting a portion of revenue from the state sales tax to help reduce the school portion of property taxes.
Brown is pushing for an expansion of the “Senior Freeze” program, which freezes property taxes to certain residents over 65, to include empty-nesters.
Dunne, a Holmdel resident who has made anti-corruption the cornerstone of his campaign, calls himself “the best fighter that money can’t buy.”
He argues for term limits and contends his incumbent opponents have not pushed through meaningful legislation to combat corruption.
A graduate of James Madison University in Virginia, Dunne, 32, lived for nearly 10 years in Ireland, where he managed a sheep farm in County Kerry. A sociologist who has taken time off to write a book, Dunne participated in the European Union’s Rural Environmental Protection Scheme by advising farmers on how to use their land without damaging the local environment.
Dunne said he decided to get into politics because he doesn’t want to sit in an ivory tower when it comes to studying the ills of society. He said he wants to give voters a true third-party option.
“I strongly believe it can’t go on like this with the duopoly situation of Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I have yet to meet someone who disagrees with my position — it’s getting people to move their eyes from the Republican, Democratic ticket. We need more choices because the choices are getting closer and closer together.”