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Voters Guide: 2017 Pennsylvania and New Jersey general elections

Thomas Fitzgerald, Political Writer

Updated: Monday, October 30, 2017, 9:18 AM

Diana Purnell (left) and Mindy Isser talking about the need to vote on Election Day. They are standing outside the polling place at 1605 S.19th Street in Philadelphia.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. If you’re heading to the polls in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, here’s what you need to know.

From left to right, writer Buzz Bissinger, former TV news anchor Marc Howard, and political consultant Neil Oxman gather at Famous 4th Street Deli for the traditional Election Day lunch on Nov. 7, 2017. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A pedestrian passes by a quiet voting location on the 1100 block of Moore Street in Philadelphia on Tuesday. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Gov. Christie after voting on Election Day in Mendham, N.J. ED MURRAY / AP
Diana Purnell (left) and Mindy Isser talking about the need to vote on Election Day. They are standing outside the polling place at 1605 S.19th Street in Philadelphia. RAYMOND W HOLMAN JR / For the Philadelphia Inquirer
Republican nominee for Philadelphia district attorney Beth Grossman smiles as she listens to her mother being interviewed in Philadelphia on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
District Attorney candidate Larry Krasner speaking with Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony H. Williams at Relish restaurant on Election Day. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photogra
City Controller candidate Rebecca Rhynhart (center) speaks with Pennsylvania State Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald and Gov. Wolf at Relish restaurant on Tuesday. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
It's been a quiet Election Day in Chester's 6th ward 1st precinct in City Hall where 16 people had voted by 1:09 p.m. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Becky Bond and Zack Malitz canvassing in support of District Attorney candidate Larry Krasner on the 1600 block of S. 19th Street in Philadelphia on Nov. 7, 2017. RAYMOND W HOLMAN JR / For the Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. District 4, speaks with Judge Maria McLaughlin at Famous 4th Street Deli. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photogra
Members of Local 98 hold signs of Philadelphia politicians outside Famous 4th Street Deli, where people gather for a traditional Election Dy lunch in Philadelphia. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: Election Day: Philadelphia, South Jersey and Chester County

NEW JERSEY RACES Governor

As one of only two states to elect a governor on Nov. 7, New Jersey should be getting its usual share of odd-year attention as a national political thermometer before next year’s midterm congressional elections.

But, while there are echoes of the national debate in New Jersey, the governor’s race mostly revolves around the current term-limited occupant of the office. Republican Chris Christie has dominated state politics for eight years, his popularity ratings are in the basement, and polls show he’s an anchor on his would-be successor, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the GOP nominee.

Democrat Phil Murphy a former Goldman Sachs banker and ambassador to Germany, has held a steady double-digit lead throughout — which his strategist told GQ magazine was “100 percent” due to Christie.

Andrew Seidman cogently summarizes the New Jersey campaign, which for months was considered a yawner but has turned sharp in its closing days with Guadagno attacking Murphy about “sanctuary” policies for undocumented immigrants, and the Democrat bringing up Christie’s nadir, Bridgegate. The next governor will confront a host of problems, including the worst-funded pension system for public workers in the nation and high property taxes.

Promises, Promises

Guadagno has staked everything on limiting the school portion of home property taxes to 5 percent of household income, with the benefit capped at $3,000. It’s been voters’ top issue for years. The average bill is still highest in the nation, but Christie slowed the growth of the tax, reports Laura McCrystal.

Murphy promises well, everything (nearly), including free community college, billions more from the state for local schools, and full-funding of public employee pensions.

Neither candidate is in line with New Jersey’s current fiscal realities and the winner will face steep odds in delivering, writes Maddie Hanna.

South Jersey Legislative Races

All 120 seats in the Legislature are at stake, though the Democrats’ control of both chambers is not expected to change.

Here are the local legislative contests:

The First Legislative District is the southernmost in the state, covering Cape May County and part of Atlantic County. It’s a swing district, now represented in Trenton by Democrats.

Candidates in the battleground Second Legislative District, which includes parts of Atlantic County, are also spending heavily — the fourth-most among all districts so far. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Colin Bell, appointed to the seat after the death of Sen. Jim Whelan, is running against Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown.

(The First and Second districts are typically among the most competitive in the state. Two years ago, a combined $8.5 million was spent on the race for the four Assembly seats then at the top of the ticket.)

In South Jersey, it’s hard to turn on the TV without hearing about Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who is locked in an unusual election fight with the state’s largest teachers’ union, which traditionally supports Democratic candidates.

The New Jersey Education Association is backing the Republican, Fran Grenier, a former Woodstown Borough councilman. The union is spending millions of dollars against Sweeney, arguing that he’s been too chummy with Gov. Christie and underfunded schools.

Sweeney and his allies counter that the Senate president has fought for a fairer school funding formula and brought economic development to South Jersey after years of neglect in Trenton. He represents the Third Legislative District, which spans Salem and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland Counties.

Sweeney, Grenier, and outside groups supporting them have already spent more than $10 million on the campaign, making it the most expensive legislative race in New Jersey history, according to a preliminary analysis by the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Voters will also choose state senators and members of the Assembly in the Fourth Legislative District, in Camden and Gloucester Counties, which leans Democratic; the heavily Democratic Fifth Legislative District in Gloucester and Camden counties; and the Sixth Legislative District, which covers 15 communities near the Delaware River that straddle Burlington and Camden counties and also leans blue. Democrats have a 2-1 registration advantage in the Seventh Legislative District, spread through 17 Burlington County towns near the river. It has been a split district, but longtime Republican state Sen. Diane Allen is retiring.

New Jersey Ballot Questions

Public Question No. 1 – Library construction: Should the state issue $125 million in bonds to provide grants to local public libraries for improvements and expanded services? Municipalities or counties that fund libraries would match the grants.

Public Question No. 2 – Constitutional amendment requiring that the state use money won in lawsuits over environmental contamination to restore or preserve natural resources. Currently, those awards or settlements go to the general fund.

Voter Information and Resources – New Jersey Polling hours: Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Find your polling place: From the New Jersey Department of State. Call the NJ Division of Elections for voting information and assistance, including problems at the polls, at 1-877-NJ-VOTER (1-877-658-6837). The state’s ACLU hotline for election-day problems is 1-800-792-VOTE (8683) Here are links to elections officials in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Atlantic counties. Ballotpedia: New Jersey page of online encyclopedia for American elections, sponsored by the nonpartisan Lucy Burns institute. Guadagno campaign web site Murphy campaign web site

Having a hard time deciding?

Our editorial board sifted through the campaigns in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and came up with some recommendations. Of course, it’s your choice, but they’re smart folks and their reasoning may help you as you think about the election, even if you end up disagreeing strongly with the board’s conclusions.

PENNSYLVANIA RACES Philadelphia Municipal Offices

Traditionally, Philadelphia municipal elections are sleepy affairs when there’s no contest for mayor at the top of the ballot. It’s not too often that the offices of the district attorney and controller change hands – incumbents rule.

Not this time.

Former District Attorney Seth Williams dropped his bid for a third term in February, was indicted on federal bribery charges in March, pleaded guilty during his trial in June and was just sentenced to five years in prison.

A seven-way Democratic primary nominated Larry Krasner, a veteran civil-rights lawyer with a history of suing the police; he was helped by a $1.7 million independent expenditure from liberal billionaire George Soros. And then Rebecca Rhynhart, a former aide to Mayor Kenney, upset 12-year incumbent Controller Alan Butkovitz.

A potentially dull election year turned out to have a great deal of buzz.

District Attorney

Krasner, who has promised major reforms to the D.A.’s office, is running against Republican Beth Grossman. who was an assistant prosecutor for 21 years. Krasner has pledged not to seek the death penalty, and to use his office to advocate an end to cash bail and reduce incarceration for non-violent crimes, and to end civil-asset forfeiture. He has attacked Grossman’s role in using the practice, which allows prosecutors to seize property suspected of being linked to crime, without having to file charges.

Grossman says she wants to be an advocate for the victims of crime, and says people who rail against forfeiture forget the neighbors who suffer living near drug dens. She has been endorsed by the city’s police union and The Inquirer. (A full list of Inquirer endorsements is here.)

For city controller, Rhynhart is running against Republican Mike Tomlinson, a certified public accountant from the Northeast. They have a significant difference of opinion on one aspect of the controller’s job: Rhynhart says she can collaborate with the mayoral administration while remaining independent. Tomlinson says the job is about oversight.

Should the city borrow $172 million for capital projects involving public transit; streets; parks, recreation and museums; municipal buildings; and economic and community development?

Homestead Property Tax Assessment Exclusion Question – all Pennsylvania

The measure would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to enable the legislature to pass a law allowing local school boards, municipalities and counties to exclude the full assessed value of primary residences in their jurisdictions from taxation. (Commercial properties still would be subject to tax.) It’s a revolutionary but complicated concept, as Laura McCrystal writes; for one thing, the legislature and local taxing authorities would have to figure out how to replace the lost revenue.

PENNSYLVANIA COURTS

Voters will choose jurists for the state Supreme Court; Commonwealth Court, which deals primarily with matters involving state and local governments and regulatory agencies; and Superior Court, which handles appeals from the Courts of Common Pleas on criminal and most civil matters. It often has the last word, as the Supreme Court accepts few cases for review. For more on detail on how state courts work, see this explanatory graphic from the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania.

Columnist John Baer breaks it down, with some useful advice for voters sorting through the unfamiliar names of judicial candidates.

Supreme Court

One vacant seat is up for grabs. Justice Sallie Mundy, a Republican who was appointed to the high court last year, is seeking a full term. She is running against Judge Dwayne D. Woodruff, a Democrat who is on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Both have earned recommendations from the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Mundy is highly recommended and Woodruff is recommended.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Debra McCloskey Todd are running for retention for another term on the court, which is a yes or no vote. The Bar recommends both.

Superior Court

Four seats are up for competitive partisan election and one judge is standing for retention.

The Democrats and their Pennsylvania Bar Association ratings are: Judge H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. of Montgomery County, who was appointed the the court and is seeking a full term (highly recommended); Judge Deborah A. Kunselman, administrative judge for the civil division of the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas (highly recommended); Carolyn Nichols, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge (recommended); and Maria McLaughlin, a family law judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (recommended).

The Republicans and their Pennsylvania Bar Association ratings are: Craig Stedman, the Lancaster County district attorney (highly recommended); Wade Kagarise, a Common Pleas judge in Blair County (recommended); Emil Giordano, a Common Pleas judge in Northampton County (highly recommended); and Mary P. Murray, a magisterial district judge in southwestern Pennsylvania (not recommended).

Jules Mermelstein, a Montgomery County lawyer running as a Green Party candidate (not recommended).

Judge Jacqueline Shogan, a Republican, is standing for retention to Superior Court. She was recommended by the Bar.

Commonwealth Court

Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Commonwealth Court.

The Democratic candidates and their Pennsylvania Bar ratings are: Ellen H. Ceisler, a Court of Common Pleas judge in Philadelphia (recommended) and Irene McLaughlin Clark, a Pittsburgh lawyer (not recommended).

The Republican candidates and their Bar ratings are: Christine Fizzano Cannon, a Court of Common Pleas Judge in Delaware County (highly recommended) and Paul N. Lalley, a Pittsburgh lawyer (recommended).

Voter information and resources – Pennsylvania Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. across Pennsylvania. Find your polling place: From the Pennsylvania Department of State Pennsylvania Voter Services: State website with information for voters Philadelphia City Commissioners: City agency overseeing elections Committee of Seventy: Philadelphia-based government watchdog Ballotpedia: Online encyclopedia for American elections and politics, sponsored by the nonpartisan Lucy Burns Institute Philadelphia election fraud task force: 215-686-9641, 9643 or 9644

Staff writers Andrew Seidman and Chris Brennan contributed to this article.

Thomas Fitzgerald, Political Writer

Read full story: Voters Guide: 2017 Pennsylvania and New Jersey general elections

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