LD-7 Candidates’ Debate

On the surface, last night’s debate among the candidates in the 7th Legislative District looked like an exercise in kumbaya. Each of the six candidates stressed their bipartisanship, their desire to control taxes, and their support for marriage equality. The Republicans noted areas where they differ from the Governor while the Democrats stressed areas where they have cooperated with him.

While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the District, party affiliation is not an overriding factor among those voters. Incumbents Senator Diane Allen (Republican) and Assemblyman Herb Conaway (Democrat) are both very popular among voters of both parties. The other incumbent, first term Assemblyman Troy Singleton, is not as well known but is no stranger to the machinations of State House politics, having been Chief of Staff to former Speaker Joe Roberts. Singleton has worked hard during his term to gain the name recognition that Allen and Conaway have garnered over the years.

The challengers in the debate were all well prepared. Democrat Gary Catrambone, a small businessman is facing an uphill battle to unseat Allen, a former television reporter. The Republican Assembly challengers are Anthony Ogazalek, a lawyer, and Jeff Banasz, an Iraq combat veteran who now is an insurance broker.

Conaway and Singleton leveraged their Trenton experience by answering questions with specific initiatives in which they were involved. While Conaway’s tenure offered him a longer history of accomplishments (including chairmanship of the Health Committee), Singleton’s one term (actually a bit longer, as he was appointed to complete the last few months of Jack Conners’ term when Conners resigned from the Assembly) reflects his rapid rise in the Democratic hierarchy. The freshman assemblyman leveraged his membership on the powerful Budget Committee, and advanced dozens of bills, several of which have been signed by the Governor.

I went into the debate wanting to like Diane Allen. She’s a moderate Republican – a rare breed who was a supporter of marriage equality (although she admitted that her position “evolved” over time) and has been a leader in anti-bullying efforts in our schools. Even though I disagree with her on many issues, if there were more Republicans like her, who are brave enough to buck the Governor on some social issues, the state would be in better hands. But Senator Allen is not one to have the courage of her convictions. For example, when the debate moderator asked each candidate

“How will you help New Jersey citizens who don’t have health care get coverage under the Affordable Care Act?”

the other five candidates were very specific. Catrambone, Conaway and Singleton excoriated the Governor for scuttling state-run exchanges and passing up federal funds to help people enroll. Ogazalek and Banasz expressed strong opposition to the ACA, Banasz even calling it a new tax (contrary to the Roberts Supreme Court decision) and saying the government should not be in the health care business (even though ObamaCare is insurance, not health care, and is run by private companies for the most part.) But Diane Allen was silent on the topic. She deflected the question and instead referred to other health issues, not related to the Affordable Care Act.

(This is not the first time Allen has been silent on important issues. In last year’s budget debate, when the Senate unsuccessfully tried to override Christie’s vetoes of important legislation like women’s health, while the votes were pretty much along party lines, Allen abstained on dozens of override votes. She never spoke on the floor of the Senate during the debate on any of these bills, only giving a feeble explanation after all of the overrides were unsuccessful.)

Each candidate established the tone of the debate during the opening remarks. Every one of the Republicans spouted the failed Bush policy that somehow reduction of taxes stimulates business. None of them discussed specific cuts that would be made to existing programs that would make up the revenue shortfall. Later in the debate, Banasz even talked about cutting taxes and raising certain fees in the same segment. Doh!

Another area where the candidates would seem to agree, but are really diametrically opposed is in affordable housing. Each candidate agreed that affordable housing is a good thing (!), but the Republicans clearly are uncomfortable with the way the Mount Laurel decision is being implemented. To her credit, Senator Allen differed with the governor, saying that money allocated for affordable housing should not be diverted elsewhere. Banasz, who seemed to be the most extreme of the GOP bunch said that affordable housing should only be built where there is existing public transportation, while Ogazalek fretted about “activist courts.” Assemblyman Conaway pointed out that “activist courts” decided Brown v Board of Education and that New Jersey courts have determined that affordable housing is a fundamental right.

On bringing business into the district, Senator Allen cited the Lieutenant Governor’s Red Tape commission. By cutting red tape, she asserted, the community becomes more business-friendly. The point she’s missing here is that cutting red tape is not the answer. Some red tape is necessary. Cutting waste is the answer. There’s a difference. Even more frightening was Banasz’ answer to the same question. He would fund the infrastructure that is needed to attract business on the backs of public employees by even further reducing pension and sick leave benefits.

It was disappointing that some of the more important issues like restructuring of the property tax system and charter schools were not specifically discussed. I’m also not a fan of the debate sponsors’ policy of forbidding recording of the debate. There were only 75 people in the audience, many of them political operatives from both sides. So voters will only get to see the sanitized version of literature and YouTube videos from both sides. Candidates were not allowed to ask questions of each other (although some of that occurred surreptitiously), so much of the “debate” centered around talking points.

I don’t always agree with Conaway and Singleton. But they are both open-minded and willing to discuss issues with me. And while there’ not much difference between Catrambone and Allen on most of the issues, I’m disappointed with the Senator’s unwillingness to strongly advocate on issues like women’s health and fair affordable housing. Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer for the Democratic legislative team’s campaign, and proud of it. Election of people like Ogazalek and Banasz would only strengthen Christie’s anti-middle class agenda and continue the state’s downhill slide under a second Christie term.

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