CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - The state Senate race has gotten the bulk of public attention this fall, but 1st Legislative District candidates for Assembly seemed determined to distinguish themselves at a debate Wednesday.
Democratic incumbents Nelson Albano and Matt Milam debated Republican challengers Suzanne Walters and Sam Fiocchi in a meeting that became heated at times.
Republicans said they supported efforts by small businesses and entrepreneurs to improve the state's economy. They said the state has to cut taxes to encourage job growth.
"Democratic policies have done nothing but kill jobs," Fiocchi said.
Fiocchi is a Cumberland County freeholder and retired president of his family's agricultural business. He served on Gov. Chris Christie's election-transition team.
Walters, who has been mayor of Stone Harbor for 15 years, noted that a woman has never been elected to state office in the 1st Legislative District. She has served on the New Jersey Conference of Mayors and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
"I'm not saying, ‘Send me there because I'm a woman.' Send me there because I'm a competent, experienced woman who can look out for the interests of the 1st District," she said.
Fielding a question about privatizing prisons, Fiocchi said privatization could work but only if a contractor agreed to hire local residents.
"We cannot privatize corrections officers, but we have already privatized certain things we've done in the county jail. We privatized nursing and laundry services," Fiocchi said. "If you privatize these industries and make sure they're employed by residents of the state, you have a win-win."
Albano, a union shop steward from Vineland, got the loudest applause by promising to protect state jobs from privatization. Cumberland County has three state prisons and the state's highest unemployment rate.
"I will never support any privatizing of correctional facilities, toll roads or anything," he said.
Milam, who runs a trucking business in Vineland, serves on a tourism committee that he took on a state tour to familiarize its members with New Jersey's attractions.
"I have a business. I really, really get it. Why can't they grow? Because of the tax structures in New Jersey," Milam said.
Fiocchi criticized Milam for not doing enough to promote New Jersey's tourism during a recession. Milam responded by accusing Fiocchi of climbing the political ladder too quickly at the expense of his constituents in Cumberland County.
"What am I going to do? What have you done, Sam? You were elected freeholder. Twenty minutes later, you want to be elected to Assembly? An hour later, you'll run for Senate? What will you do, Sam?"
Albano said Fiocchi did not stand up for Cumberland County over the proposed closing of the Vineland Developmental Center, which employs 1,400 people.
"Why were you silent when 1,400 people in your county were about to be laid off? Where was your fight? We were there. You weren't," Albano said.
Albano said he and his running mates were the most bipartisan of all state lawmakers. But Walters disputed that.
Walters said neither Albano nor Milam would meet with her as a member of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities when she was called on to address the governor's budget-reform toolkit.
"This was a bipartisan effort. I called the office here in Court House and was told my legislative team would not be able to meet with me," Walters said. "I did storm Trenton and did meet with other lawmakers, but I never got to meet with our lawmakers."
Albano denied he turned down any meetings with Walters.
Milam and Albano criticized the Republicans for running a negative campaign. Milam said the Bible teaches there is no room in life for negativity.
But Walters said the Democrats were circulating their own mailers distorting facts about their opponents.
"We've heard a lot tonight about calling people liars," Walters said. "There is a negative piece out there right now that is a total fabrication. This team is not above putting out misinformation to the voters of the 1st Legislative District."
Contact Michael Miller: