South Jersey senate race brings in big spending, heavy hitters

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Chris Christie. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

In the latest GOP ad in South Jersey's closest state Senate race, Gov. Christie looks into the camera and says that he has capped property taxes, cut business taxes, and overhauled the pension system, "but we're not done yet. Send Vince Polistina to Trenton to help me finish the job."

The outcome of Atlantic County's Second District campaign will not, in fact, be especially relevant in helping Christie accomplish his agenda; Democrats are expected to maintain overall control of the 120-member Legislature on Nov 8.

But that has not stopped Republicans from making an aggressive effort to unseat Democratic Sen. Jim Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor now living in Ventnor who wrested the seat from Republican control in 2007 after veteran power broker Bill Gormley retired.

Democrats are nervous that a triumph by Polistina, a second-term assemblyman from Egg Harbor Township, would narrow their 24-16 dominance in Trenton's upper house. A defeat of Democratic Sen. Bob Gordon in Bergen County by Republican John Driscoll in the state's other hypercompetitive Senate race would further chip away at that margin.

So both sides are calling in the heavy hitters and spending like it's Black Friday at the mall.

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Hudson County Democrat and Christie adversary, made his own pitch to the party faithful outside a supermarket in Pleasantville.

"Jim Whelan is an exceptional public servant. . . . I look at the difference in his record and that of his opponent and I am convinced that we will see someone who will continue to fight for working families," Menendez, flanked by Whelan, said at the campaign rally.

He highlighted the senator's efforts to lure Hard Rock International to build a boutique casino in Atlantic City, as well as his work to resume construction this year on the new Revel casino.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) was also scheduled to rally with Whelan over the weekend. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex) made the trek south to talk about Whelan's record on funding women's health care.

On the Republican side, Christie has helped raise money for Polistina's campaign, including more than $100,000 at one recent fund-raiser, according to the assemblyman. The governor is expected in Ventnor at another event on Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, a Burlington County Republican, attended an Oct. 21 fund-raiser on Polistina's behalf at the Union League in Philadelphia.

"State Rep. Vincent Polistina is in a very competitive race for the New Jersey State Senate," Runyan said in a statement. "I understand how exhausting and expensive a competitive election can be. Rep. Polistina's stance on ending wasteful spending and job creation are ideas that I have strongly supported in Congress."

Polistina and Whelan are looking to spend more than $1 million each by the time it's all over.

Much of that campaign cash has fueled ads that amount to playground-style name-calling about who is the biggest pig feeding on taxpayer money.

In a Halloween-theme mailer paid for by the New Jersey State Democratic Committee, Polistina is depicted as a vampire. "It's horrifying!" the ad reads. "Assemblyman Vince Polistina's greed is sucking taxpayers dry."

The ad says Polistina has received $6 million in municipal government contracts, has two public jobs that pay $70,000, and is earning a government pension.

The claim about the contracts is accurate. The jobs are serving as a state legislator as well as a part-time engineer for the Egg Harbor Township Municipal Utilities Authority. Polistina is not yet vested in the state pension system, which requires a decade of service, and said he wants to opt out of it.

Whelan collects one pension for his elected service in Atlantic City and has two taxpayer-funded jobs: as a legislator and high school swim teacher.

Justin Myers, his campaign manager, denied any hypocrisy, saying, "We're pointing out the hypocrisy on [Polistina's] side."

For months, Republicans have called Whelan greedy for having multiple public positions and receiving a pension, all of which are legally permitted.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, a 527 group based in Alexandria, Va., is sounding a similar theme in a TV ad it paid for against Whelan, saying he supported tax hikes on recession-ravaged families while holding two jobs.

The New Jersey chapter of the conservative Americans for Prosperity also has aired radio and TV ads against Whelan, slamming his votes to reinstate the so-called millionaire's tax and support Obama's health care overhaul and economic-stimulus package.

The ad additionally criticizes his support of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state cap-and-trade agreement from which Christie said in May that New Jersey would withdraw. Whelan voted over the summer for a bill to preserve New Jersey's participation in the initiative; Polistina opposed the legislation.

Like other Republicans, Polistina also voted against the millionaire's tax, which Christie has vetoed twice. Though Republicans have said they don't want to raise any more taxes in an already expensive state, Democrats are trying to turn that opposition into a negative because raising more revenue could have restored aid for schools and senior programs.

One of the diciest issues that has emerged is women's health-care funding.

Team Whelan late last week began running a second ad portraying Polistina as unsympathetic to women because he did not vote for a $7.5 million appropriation that would have paid for cancer screenings, birth control, and prenatal care for low-income women.

After the first ad ran, Polistina and Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) held a news conference to denounce the Whelan campaign. But Whelan had Buono and Ruiz come down last Monday to continue highlighting the issue.

In an interview, Polistina called the accusations "slimy and sleazy," noting that close relatives of his had died of cancer.

The new ad features a woman looking into the camera and saying she was sorry about Polistina's loss, but that it was no excuse to vote against women's health care.

There are other distinctions between the candidates on controversial issues.

For example, Whelan opposes the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a key part of Christie's agenda that would give tax breaks to corporations that pay for vouchers for students in failing districts to attend better schools. Polistina supports the bill. Whelan is against a proposal to deregulate New Jersey's phone and cable industries that Polistina endorses.

Polistina and other Republicans also voted this year against Democrats' attempt to restore many of the budget cuts Christie made to schools and social safety-net programs, saying the state doesn't have the money.

"Every fiscally responsible person we get [in the Senate] is going to help the people of our state . . . and if we can get rid of a fiscally irresponsible person, it's going to help," Polistina said.

But Whelan views his positions as fighting for the middle class.

Sitting in the Pleasantville Democrats' headquarters after the rally with Menendez, Whelan lamented the tone of the race.

"It's been a difficult campaign, to say the least," he said. "It's been so negative."

 


Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990, mrao@phillynews.com, or @Mrao_Inquirer on Twitter.