As he runs for reelection, New Jersey’s Senate President Steve Sweeney has several factors in his favor: He’s the most powerful elected Democrat in the state; he hails from a district that favors his party by a 2-to-1 margin; and he enjoys a friendly public relationship with popular Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Still, those advantages haven’t stopped Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. from targeting Sweeney in an effort to pick up the five additional seats he needs to secure a Republican majority in the upper chamber in Trenton.Republican strategists are counting on Christie’s coattails to help pull Republicans who are lower on the ticket into office.
But Sweeney and his running mates say they don’t believe that Christie’s high marks with voters will derail their reelection plans — and neither do independent pollsters. Instead, Sweeney and his incumbent 3rd District running mates, Assembly members John Burzichelli and Celeste Riley, believe their own bipartisan efforts, combined with their voting records, will see them safely back into office.
Kean is doing everything he can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. has recruited Republican attorney and former Deputy Chief of Staff of the State Comptroller’s Office Niki Trunk to challenge the Senate president.
Not only has Kean contributed at least $8,500 to Trunk’s campaign, he also released a memo earlier this year naming Sweeney’s seat as among the most winnable in the state. “With the successful re-election of our 16 Senate Republicans, these five seats alone (1, 2, 3, 14 and 38) are enough to build a new majority,” he wrote. “These are districts that, even in non-gubernatorial years, should remain realistic targets for Republicans with enough campaign resources.” Districts 1, 2, and 3 are in South Jersey, where Sweeney has consolidated his power in a district that covers large parts of residential and agricultural Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland counties.
The memo reportedly infuriated Sweeney, who told NJ Spotlight, “I don’t see it. If he’s honest with his polling, I don’t see him picking up any seats, including mine.”
His claim may be bolstered by the severe criticism of Trunk by the Republican mayor of her hometown, who shared a ticket with her when she ran successfully for deputy mayor. This summer, Harrison Township Mayor Louis Manzo persuaded the five-member, all-Republican township committee to endorse Sweeney over Trunk, who served as township committeewoman from 2008 to 2010. Manzo cited Sweeney’s bipartisanship and criticized Trunk’s lack of experience and attempt to block the construction of a highway bypass he supported while she was on the committee.
“To put an inexperienced person in that spot, I don’t care who it is, it’s a mistake,” Manzo said in published news accounts. “[Trunk was] a roadblock to real local progress and reform, putting her own ambitions and personal preferences before the good of Harrison’s residents.”
Trunk told a local newspaper that she cast the lone vote against the roadway because it wasn’t in best interest of the township. “After I left the committee, the roadway was complete and they chose to name it after Steve Sweeney. I think that’s pretty telling as to the motivations behind this endorsement,” she said. “I do have the support of my district, county, and local GOP parties, which is what matters — not one man in another district.”
Harrison Township joined the 5th district as part of redistricting in 2011. Trunk now lives with her husband and three dogs in Monroeville, which remains within the 3rd district.
Throughout this election cycle, two men in Trunk’s district who do matter are her Republican running mates for the General Assembly, Larry Wallace and Bob Vanderslice. Wallace is a husband and father of two who owns and operates a dental management company. In 2010, the veteran who earned a Navy Achievement Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and Sharpshooter Ribbon became the first Republican elected to the Gloucester County freeholder board in 15 years.
Life-long Salem County resident Vanderslice is president and CEO of Pennsville National Bank and formerly served on the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and as chairman of the Salem County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. In 2009, he received the Salem County Citizen of the Year award and was elected to the Salem County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 2011. The father of two grown children lives with his wife in Pennsville.
Without putting forth a specific plan of action, the Trunk/Wallace/Vanderslice team is running on a platform of lower property taxes, fewer business regulations, and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and a cap on annual spending and property-tax increases.
They hope to unseat incumbents Burzichelli — former mayor of Paulsboro, deputy speaker of the assembly, and chair of the powerful appropriations committee — and Riley, a teacher who chairs the higher education committee and is the first woman to represent the third district in Trenton.
Together with Sweeney, Burzichelli and Riley are running on their record of supporting seniors and the middleclass by fighting to cap property-tax increases and restore property-tax rebates, restore funding for prescription medications and nursing homes, expand access to business loans, create a family leave act, and increase the minimum wage.
However, Trunk and her running mates are accusing Sweeney of blocking property-tax reform, and last year, the AFL-CIO, the NJ Educational Association, and the Communications Workers of America declined to endorse Sweeney, who is a union organizer, as well as his District 3 team for backing a bill that stripped public employees of the right to collectively bargain for health benefits. This year, the three unions have endorsed Sweeney and his running mates.
The democrats are also being supported by the union-funded Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, a Washington, D.C., Super PAC affiliated with powerful Democrats and believed to be backed by South Jersey power broker and close Sweeney ally George Norcross. The fund has created a website to criticize Trunk, and according to Politico it has spent at least $312,000 on attack ads in the 3rd district. A spokesperson for the fund declined to confirm that figure.
Additionally, Democrats have considerably more of their own money to spend on this race. Going into the general election, Sweeney, Burzichelli, and Riley had $1.1 million between them. Trunk, Wallace, and Vanderslice had less than $35,000. Though Riley’s individual $6,600 cash on hand was dwarfed by Burzichelli’s $128,000, she held nearly double the amount as Vanderslice and six times that of Wallace.
Though Burzichelli and Riley beat their 2011 challengers by 5.5 percentage points or less, Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, says he doesn’t see the two incumbents, whom he says enjoy good name recognition, losing to their opponents because of Christie’s coattails or for any other reason.
“Last time the race gave the appearance of being competitive but it wasn’t. With Sweeney at the top of the ticket, he carries the district. They usually run pretty tightly as a team,” he said, before adding that in general, some voters vote just for the candidate at the top of the ticket then drop off.
Sweeney agreed. “The people are supporting the governor but they come right back to us because they want a Democratic legislature,” he said.
The headline on a press release announcing the results of a Rutgers-Eagleton poll conducted in late September read, “Christie’s Coattails Falling Short in Legislative Contest.” The poll found that only 32 percent of likely voters plan to vote for Republican candidates for Assembly. Numbers for the Senate were similar. Burzichelli told NJ Spotlight this week, “From everything we’re seeing the governor has a personality almost independent of party identification. He’s an independent brand, and I don’t see coattails in this race.”
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.