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Dog video becomes latest flash point in heated N.J. Assembly race

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Democratic candidates (from left) Mark Natale and Gina LaPlaca and Republicans (from right) Ryan Peters and Jean Stanfield are vying to represent the 8th District in New Jersey's state Assembly. (Photos from candidates' Facebook pages)

Democratic candidates (from left) Mark Natale and Gina LaPlaca and Republicans (from right) Ryan Peters and Jean Stanfield are vying to represent the 8th District in New Jersey's state Assembly. (Photos from candidates' Facebook pages)

The issue in a hotly contested South Jersey district is not who let the dog out, but who didn’t let him in.

A February incident in which a Democratic candidate’s dog was left outside in freezing temperatures has now become the subject of an attack ad featuring body cam footage of the police response.

“Mark Natale wants to be our assemblyman … but what kind of person is he?” says the ad, released this week by the Burlington County GOP.

Natale dismissed the incident as an honest mistake during a hectic morning. He said he thought the dog had come back inside before he left for work and said the video distracts from the pressing issues facing voters.

“No one is going to look at this … and think this person is unfit to tackle the problems of the day,” he said, adding Chase, a Jack Russell Terrier mix, was unharmed.

With just over a week until Election Day, when all 80 seats in the New Jersey Assembly are on the ballot, the final acts of mudslinging are underway in the few competitive races across the state.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the 8th legislative district, a Burlington County-centric territory that also includes parts of Camden and Atlantic counties. Incumbent Assemblyman Ryan Peters and former Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield, the Republicans, are running against Democrats Natale and Gina LaPlaca.

Democrats, who already control the Legislature and governor’s office, are looking to expand on their 54-26 seat majority in the Assembly. Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping to add to their ranks — or at least not let them slip further than they already have during the presidency of Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in New Jersey.

Both sides see a key battleground in Burlington County, a longtime Republican stronghold that has recently become more “purple.” The dog video is just the latest flashpoint between the two sides.

Democrats there managed to flip a Republican-held seat in Congress last year — part of a 2018 midterm rout that left just one Republican in New Jersey’s congressional delegation — and gain control of county government for the first time in 40 years.

In January, they convinced the 8th district’s Republican state senator, Dawn Addiego, to defect to the Democratic Party.

Asked to respond to criticism of the dog video as unfair and misleading, Chris Russell, a spokesman for the Republican Assembly candidates, stuck by its contents.

“People care about their pets and we think it was a legitimate issue,” he said. “No matter how busy you are allegedly in the morning, you don’t leave your dog outside when it’s nine degrees.”

Natale said he rushed home when he got the call about the family pet and apologized profusely to police. He faced no charges stemming from the incident.

“It was a mistake. I wish it never happened. I felt terrible when my dog was out there. But it was just that. It was a mistake. We care for our dogs like any loving family should,” he said.

The substantive issues in the race include taxes and school funding. Peters, an attorney and Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Stanfield say Democratic control of the Legislature has resulted in “suffocating” taxes for families and businesses. Peters has proposed capping annual state spending increases at 2%, similar to restrictions already in place for municipalities.

“You need a Republican check and balance on what are policies that we believe have gone outside the mainstream to the far left,” Russell, the Republicans’ spokesman, said. “Ryan and Jean are going to be that check and balance.”

Natale and LaPlaca, both lawyers who have not previously held elected office, also say they will fight for property tax relief but from a position of having more influence with legislative leaders. They say the district’s incumbent Republicans are more interested in partisanship than getting things done.

“I think what Gina and I are going to be in a better position to do is to work with legislative leadership and make sure that the 8th district is heard when any major piece of legislation is being debated in the Legislature,” Natale said.

All the candidates in this district agree the state needs to revisit its school funding formula, which was overhauled last year to provide some districts with more aid but decrease money for others. Peters and Stanfield are among the few Republicans who have been endorsed by the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Natale and LaPlaca last month launched campaign ads of their own. One attacked Peters’ support for supporting the Trump tax plan while another criticized Stanfield’s 93% rating with the National Rifle Association.

Peters, meanwhile, has said his opponents are beholden to the “Camden cartel,” a reference to South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, who wields vast influence from an unelected post.

Election Day is Nov. 5.

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