Second District Assemblyman Vince Polistina’s loss at the polls on Tuesday seemed to cut short a political career that had previously only seen an upward trajectory.
Polistina, 40, lost a hard-fought race to incumbent Democratic state Sen. Jim Whelan.
Whelan won 54 percent of the vote with 22,403 votes, compared to Polistina’s 19,254 votes, or 46 percent.
But while the future is unclear, experts said Polistina is young enough to rebound.
“My belief is that we have not seen the last of him,” said Brigid Harrison, a Galloway Township resident and professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
She said, “From a political perspective, the continuation of his career is quite likely.”
Polistina, a professional engineer with his own firm in Egg Harbor Township, has been successful in private life, said Carl Golden, a retired Republican strategist. Golden thought Polistina may choose to return to private life, unless Gov. Chris Christie taps him for an appointment.
“But I don’t know if he even has an interest,” Golden said. “I think this is a career moment for him.”
Beaten at the polls, Polistina leaves office when his term expires in January.
The father of three said his “next step” would be to take his family away on a short vacation.
“It’s too soon to worry about anything else,” he said of his political future.
If he does decide to run for political office again, Polistina said he would not shy away from the negative style of campaigning that this race was mired in, saying that people are still tired of “greedy” public officials such as Whelan.
“People were clamoring for (straight forward and positive) ads, so we gave it to them,” Polistina said of his more subtle campaign commercial that ran in the race’s final days. “And they didn’t respond.”
Polistina’s career in public life started the way it has for many others: volunteering.
He joined the Egg Harbor Township Police Athletic League in the late 1990s and was named to its board of directors. He quit in 2001, following a controversy over whether to allow motor vehicles at a township recreational property. Township officials later shelved the plan.
When he resigned, one supporter called the resignation “catastrophic.”
“Vince is one of the hardest-working people I know,” Hector Tavarez said.
Even then as the 29-year-old township engineer, Polistina was no stranger to politics. In 2001 he led a presentation on the township’s problems with the Pinelands-designated growth area for state and Pinelands officials, with a map marked “SEND HELP.”
It was he whom the township sent to Trenton to argue that the township was overwhelmed by its Pinelands obligations.
“We need help. There is no other way,” he told legislators.
During the township’s master plan discussions in 2001 and 2002, it was again Polistina who took the lead in public discussions.
In 2007, Polistina and Assemblyman John Amodeo were chosen by Atlantic County Republicans in an open convention to run for the 2nd District seats.
Winning election that fall, Polistina made news in his first legislative session. Over and over again, Polistina rose to question how much each initiative cost the state, even when the topic seemed relatively innocuous, such as giving certificates to state residents who served in the military during the Cold War.
The Press of Atlantic City editorialized several days later that “The culture in Trenton has to change. Polistina deserves praise for recognizing that — and acting on it. Not many rookie assemblymen make so much noise at their first voting session.”
Throughout his first term in office, Polistina was unusually prominent for a freshman lawmaker, frequently called on by Republican leaders to speak publicly or address the media in press events.
“There has been a relatively strong desire to nurture his talents and abilities,” Harrison said, “even when there may be more vociferous people able to get traction in the media.”
Handily winning re-election in 2009, Polistina became a local Republican point person as state officials debated the landmark Tourism District, small-casino and casino deregulation bills over the past year.
In and out of fellow Republican Christie’s office, Polistina was involved in much of the discussion surrounding the bills. He offered amendments and signed on for sponsorships.
However, in the Democratically controlled legislature, Polistina had to take a back seat to Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who chairs the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation panel, and through whose committee the bills were ultimately routed.
Long thought to be looking at Whelan’s Senate seat, he stepped forward, but the campaign had more than its share of awkward moments.
First, Chris Brown, a Ventnor lawyer and his eventual running mate, announced he was running for the Assembly in November 2010. This came months before Polistina formally declared his intentions, forcing Polistina to publicly disavow Brown’s campaign before later joining him.
And then, after several weeks of bruising campaigning, both Brown and Amodeo said they were separating their campaign from Polistina’s. “That’s not the direction I wanted my campaign to go in,” Amodeo said in an interview.
Finally, Polistina made the risky move of being seen as close with Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, even accepting an invitation to appear with the mayor at an event Friday.
A poll released last week showed that Langford was disliked across the 2nd Legislative District, which includes most of Atlantic County.
Just 21 percent had favorable or somewhat favorable opinions of the mayor, compared to 46 percent who held these opinions of Polistina.
In contrast, nearly 48 percent of the district held somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinions of Langford, versus just 29 percent of the district for Polistina.
Polistina said he did not believe Langford’s support helped him lose.
“I think the people know that the state senator has to work with the elected officials in Atlantic City to be able to bring that city forward,” he said. “So I don’t think it hurt me. But that will be up to the experts to figure out later on.”
While Polistina may be down, Golden, for one, believes he’s not out.
“It’s not like he’s without options, certainly,” Golden said. “Let’s face it: (Atlantic County Executive) Denny Levinson’s not going to live forever.”
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