ATLANTIC CITY — Candidates for the 2nd Legislative District focused on economic issues Wednesday night when they debated at Dante Hall in the resort.
The winners in next month’s election will represent the 2nd District in the state Legislature. That district includes most of Atlantic County.
In his opening remarks, state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said the deal that people had thought was theirs for the taking has all but disappeared.
"Instead of a deal, the rich are getting richer," Whelan said. "The poor are being buried."
In his opening remarks, Republican challenger Frank Balles said, "Our government spends too much. Our government taxes too much."
He is running to bring back "real leadership" to the district, the current Atlantic County sheriff said, citing former state legislators Bill Gormley, Steve Perskie and Hap Farley.
In the later Assembly debate, Assemblyman John Amodeo said the most important issue in the election is the state’s high property taxes, which he said are almost three times the national median.
Amodeo, R-Atlantic, touted a bill that would provide a direct 10 percent credit to residential tax bills, while saying the renter’s credit should be quadrupled.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, agreed that property taxes and jobs are paramount. He, too, called for the 10 percent cut, saying a break needed to be given to the middle class.
On the Democratic side in the Assembly race, Nick Russo, the mayor of Longport, said that Atlantic City is the second most important issue after property taxes. There have been limited achievements in the Tourist District. Now, he said, the dots need to be connected.
Vince Mazzeo, the mayor of Northfield, said state aid cuts have driven property taxes upward, hitting local taxpayers. He touted his city’s police chief-sharing, and said he wants to do more with shared services.
Whelan also called for raising the minimum wage and diversifying the local economy. "The central issue of this campaign is: how do all the residents feel the benefits of a rising economy?" he said.
In his turn, Balles waved a handful of campaign fliers directed at him. "This is what desperate career politicians do," he said, saying he was proud of his record as a police officer.
He attacked Whelan for supporting a proposed mileage-based transportation tax and a proposed tax on plastic bags. "The middle class I know, they drive, they go shopping," he said.
Candidates also debated gay marriage.
Balles said he has many gay and lesbian friends, and "God has created them just like he has created us."
But he said that speaking as a Catholic, he could not call the union a marriage. Balles also said voters should decide the issue.
Whelan said: "I voted for gay marriage before it was cool."
He also said the matter is not appropriate for a referendum. "I don’t think we put people’s rights up for election," Whelan said, setting off a small round of applause that was quickly silenced by moderator Sharon Schulman.
Russo said he supports gay marriage because of equality issues. Mazzeo said he supports gay marriage. He has performed two civil unions and said “those people seem as happy as a regular marriage to me, so who am I to judge?”
On the Republican side, Amodeo said he supports civil unions, but not gay marriage. Marriage is between a man and woman, he said.
However, Brown said not only does he support gay marriage, he would vote to override Gov. Chris Christie’s earlier veto if the matter reached the Assembly. He described it in civil rights terms, adding, “I just believe when it comes to civil rights, I don’t believe it’s appropriate for the public to vote on it.”
The state Senate candidates debated for an hour, followed by the General Assembly candidates. The entire debate is available on The Press of Atlantic City’s website.
Before the debate, Gary Stein, an independent Assembly candidate, handed out literature. He is running as an independent Democrat and has taken issue with how New Jersey ballots are organized.
The Press and the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey co-sponsored the debate and will host two other legislative debates in the coming weeks.
The candidates in the 1st Legislative District, which covers all of Cape May, most of Cumberland and parts of Atlantic County will debate at 6 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Old Courthouse in Middle Township. The 9th District candidates, covering parts of Ocean, Burlington and Atlantic Counties, will debate at 6 p.m. Oct. 23 in Stockton’s Campus Center theater.
Contact Derek Harper:
Follow Derek Harper on Twitter @dnharper