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Cape May County businesses capitalizing on Trump rally

WILDWOOD — When the announcement came that President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew were holding a rally in town, Mike Mattera and Dennis Flynn, owners of JB&P Marketing, got to work.

The “two old-timers” made buttons promoting Trump when he ran in 2016, Mattera said.

They have buttons featuring Trump in a yellow tram car (“Watch the Trump Car Please!”), buttons showing Trump flying a plane dragging a “Keep America Great!” banner, buttons featuring a “Trump Train” and pins showing Trump as Superman flying over the Wildwood beach ball sign at Rio Grande and Ocean avenues.

“I said, ‘Well, this is a great time to get involved to try to promote our little business that we have,’” Mattera said, “and at the same time get some pins out there.”

They’ve sold about 1,000 buttons so far through Zippy’s Bikes, Italian Kitchen Express and Holly Beach Train Depot, as well as Facebook Marketplace. They have interest from Coho Brewing Company in Cape May Court House as well. Mattera and Flynn took a break from churning out buttons Tuesday and turned their attention to shop-specific novelty button ideas: Trump on a bike for Zippy’s; Trump tossing a pie for Italian Kitchen Express, etc.

Zippy’s alone has sold more than 500 buttons. On Monday, owner Scott Chambers arrived at the shop to find a line of people waiting for it to open. Other people have gotten their “feathers up” about him selling political items, Chambers said.

“But I’m not making a political statement,” he said. “I’m just offering a product to the clientele.”

Businesses in the Wildwoods and throughout Cape May County are doing just that. A likely influx of tens of thousands of out-of-towners could mean serious money for businesses twiddling their thumbs in the dead of winter . Owners say they are looking to capitalize.

Mayor Pete Byron said January and February are usually slow for commerce in general. But more than 100,000 tickets have been issued for Tuesday’s rally, according to Van Drew, R-2nd, and Byron expects a minimum of 35,000 to 45,000 out-of-towners. Those crowds will provide an “economic shot in the arm,” not just for Wildwood eateries, bars and motels, but for the county as a whole, he said.

The Wildwoods Convention Center fits only 7,500 people “on a good day,” Byron said. The overflow will need to eat and might want to drink.

“A whole lot of people are going to be coming to town who are not going to physically be able to enter the Convention Center. But they want to be part of the experience,” Byron said. “To me, this is going to be like an Eagles tailgate, where people crowd around their cars in the parking lots, never expecting to go in, but they’re going to have their TVs and radios on.”

Pine Haven Camping Resort in Ocean View, typically closed for the offseason, is opening for RVs and campers next week after fielding a number of requests, said office manager Danielle Klinger.

“We noticed that (motels and hotels) are kind of raising prices in Wildwood for their typical stays offseason,” Klinger said, “so we’re keeping our prices the same and hoping that people will take advantage of it for the short drive away.”

A bit closer, the Oceanic Hotel, situated directly across from the Convention Center parking lot on Ocean Avenue, is not renting rooms for the event, said general manager Mike DiDomenico.

Workers, even so, were installing red, white and blue lights on the building Wednesday morning.

The Oceanic will be open for food and drinks. And they’ll make “Trump Toddies” in the hotel’s Barefoot Bar, which was draped with “Keep America Great” banners Wednesday.

Renting rooms for a day or two in the middle of the offseason would have been too much of an undertaking, DiDomenico said.

“A lot of my regulars ... they called up, ‘Hey, are you guys gonna be open?’” DiDomenico said. “It’s tough because around here it’s not easy to get the water on for something this big. It takes a couple days, and it takes a couple days to shut it off. (It could be) $5,000, all told.”

That might put them in the red, he said, especially if the pipes were to freeze in the process of turning the water on or off.

Next door, all the rooms in the Days Inn & Suites — which remains open year-round — are booked. It’s been that way since the morning after the rally was announced, said manager Jacquelyn Haas.

She couldn’t think of a time they filled up that quickly in the offseason.

“That quickly? On a Tuesday? Never,” Haas said.

Zippy’s owner Chambers, beyond selling buttons, is hoping to take advantage of the fact that authorities will likely close the blocks around the Convention Center to traffic.

“I am anticipating, or expecting people to rent bikes so they can get close to the event and afterwards get to their car,” Chambers said, “Or, people that are coming down for the weekend rent the bikes so that they can ride down, don’t have to worry about (traffic).”

Zippy’s is open in the offseason six days a week, but it is a rarity that they have this many potential customers in the winter, he said. He’s heard talk of people coming in late Monday night to stand in line.

“I think it’s crazy,” Chambers said. “I have tickets. I’ll try to get in the last couple hours, but other than that I’m not leaving when I have a business to run.”

Everything you need to know about Trump's visit to Wildwood

More than a rally: Wildwood Trump event cements Van Drew support

WILDWOOD — The Trump rally here will officially welcome U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew into the GOP fold, after a controversial party switch last month, according to political experts.

Van Drew has been racking up endorsements from Republican leaders since President Donald Trump announced he endorsed Van Drew and would visit the district for a rally with him.

“It’s going to be a big celebration, sort of a celebration of America and some fun,” Van Drew said, with good weather expected, as well as some protesters.

GOP political consultant Carl Golden said the impact of the rally will be even greater than Van Drew’s Dec. 19 news conference with Trump in the Oval Office, in which the 2nd district congressman announced he would become a Republican after decades as a Democrat.

“But when ... you pick up a paper and it says the president is coming to our district — there are 435 districts in the country, and he’s going to one in South Jersey — that’s a major development,” Golden said.

As of last week, all eight Republican chairs in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, Ocean, Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties had endorsed Van Drew. So had several state legislators, and local leaders in Galloway Township and Somers Point who had previously endorsed a primary opponent David Richter, of Avalon and Princeton.

The momentum seemed unstoppable.

Primary opponent Brian Fitzherbert, 30, of Egg Harbor Township, dropped out of the race, and Richter said he was considering running in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District instead of the 2nd.

Richter said Friday he will weigh all his options and decide soon about what he will do.

Coalescing the GOP behind Van Drew may be happening just in time, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added his race to its list of battleground races, where it plans to focus resources and energy.

The DCCC started Facebook ads Friday targeting Van Drew, telling voters Trump had said he is open to cutting Medicare in an interview with CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“Trump is turning his back on seniors,” the ad says. “Will Washington Republicans follow his lead?”

Van Drew said he is committed to protecting Medicare.

“It’s important for me keep Medicare stable,” Van Drew said Friday. “I believe at the end of the day the president understands how important senior citizens are.”

Golden said the rally will help Van Drew not only cement party support but also help with fund raising and everything else a campaign needs.

“Whether you agree or don’t, want to impeach or don’t, it’s drawing a great deal of attention,” Golden said.

It shows Trump cares about the district, and about Jeff Van Drew, Golden said.

Fund raising will be important, since the DCCC has said it raised $129 million in 2019, much of which will be used to defeat Republicans in battleground districts.

In announcing the ads, the DCCC accused House Republicans of backing Trump’s “efforts to eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions and keep prescription drug costs high. Voters deserve to know if Van Drew will also blindly support his plan to gut Medicare,” said DCCC spokesperson Christine Bennett.

But Van Drew voted for the legislation to lower drug prices, called H.R.3, which among other things would allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. It passed the House in December with mostly Democratic support, but some Republicans signed on to it. It is not expected to pass the Republican- dominated Senate.

Van Drew has said his support for H.R. 3 and other bills to lower drug costs remain unchanged after his party switch.

Everything you need to know about Trump's visit to Wildwood

New N.J. law will sustain college offerings for incarcerated residents

Lauren Bianco was in her late 20s, addicted to heroin and other drugs and had recently lost her home when she was arrested in 2013 after an armed robbery to support her drug habit.

Bianco, 34, of Eagleswood Township spent six and half years in prison. Two years in, she was introduced to NJ-STEP, a program through which she could build upon the associate’s degree she had already obtained toward a bachelor’s degree.

“I didn’t want to sit and waste my time. I already wasted enough of my life,” she said. “When I went away my son was 6. I came home he turned 13. I literally missed his whole life. It wasn’t an option for me to come home and not be OK.”

Thanks to a new law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this month, state tuition aid will now permanently be available to New Jersey residents who are incarcerated, enshrining an experimental federal education effort that began under the Obama administration re-opening access to higher education in prison.

The law is part of a series of legislation passed under Murphy opening educational opportunities in prisons.

Proponents of the legislation say the law is not only a win for those who are incarcerated through reduced rates of recidivism and opportunities for well-paying careers, but also the communities they return to once they leave prison.

“When they leave, they have hope,” said Sheila R. Meiman, director of Returning & Incarcerated Student Education (RISE) at Raritan Valley Community College, which helps administer NJ-STEP. “If we’re going to bring people back to a community, we want them as a society to be contributing members. I want them to be earning, paying taxes, being good community members. And education makes that happen.”

Statistics show that people who have access to higher education in prison are 48 percent less likely to return to prison. The state’s current recidivism rate is 31 percent.

In addition, a report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality found increased earning potential, larger pools of skilled workers for employers to draw from, and reduced prison costs from lowering the rate of recidivism.

NJ-STEP, short for New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium, is a partnership between New Jersey Department of Corrections, Raritan Valley Community College and Rutgers University-Newark that offers associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs to qualifying prisoners within the state prisons. There are also several other colleges, especially Princeton University, that contribute instructors and other resources to the program.

When a prisoner is released, if they did not finish their degree, they have the opportunity to apply and enroll in other colleges with assistance from NJ-STEP.

Prior to 2016, NJ-STEP was entirely funded through private money and institutions. Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education instituted the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative giving NJ-STEP the opportunity to use the Pell grants to offset the cost of education in prisons. Now, the availability of TAG money will make the program sustainable, said NJ-STEP Director Chris Agans.

Agans said the student outcomes are tremendous, so far.

“We have folks who are working for all sectors of industry,” Agans said. “A large number of our folks go into social work and nonprofits.”

He said the graduates are “uniquely qualified for that work because of their lived experiences.”

Allen Tally was 30 years old when he went to prison in 1989, facing 25 years to life, on robbery and aggravated assault charges — a father, an addict and uneducated.

At age 56, Tally enrolled a program called NJ-STEP, where he began taking classes toward a college degree. Now, after being released from South Woods State Prison last year, he is on his way to a bachelor’s in social work from Rutgers-Camden.

“I’m somewhere where I was never supposed to be. I’m no longer the person I once was. I am educated now and all I needed was an opportunity,” Tally said.

Bianco said NJ-STEP allowed her to make good from a bad situation. When she was released to a halfway house after leaving prison, she applied to Rutgers-Camden and was accepted. She will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a double minor in criminal justice and sociology. She is applying to graduate school now.

Bianco currently works as a peer recovery specialist in Camden County, finding a purpose in her current position to be able to help those who are in the same place she was seven years ago.

“They hired me because I’m educated and I can absolutely relate to any story that walks in the door,” Bianco said.

She said that allowing prisoners a chance to further their education will help those who want to better themselves.

“Education can help somebody, give them hope, and give them a chance,” Bianco said. “At 34 years old, it’s depressing to know that I’ve lost all of them years and if I didn’t have something to look forward to — I can get this degree and do something — I don’t know what I would be doing right now.”

Meiman, who started out teaching math as part of NJ-STEP 10 years ago, said they have seen a dramatic shift in students from when they begin taking classes to when they graduate.

“We get them fresh. They’re brand new students walking in, normally the first college class they’ve ever tried. They have a self-definition. They view themselves as inmates,” she said.

When the prisoners also become students, they begin defining themselves as students and scholars, and their pride increases and their aspirations rise.

“They don’t want to go back to the way they were,” Meiman.

For Tally, who now lives in Pleasantville, pursuing his education while in prison made it easier for him to continue when he was released to the halfway house, but the transition back to society in October was difficult and he admitted he stumbled a bit.

“Life came at me at a whole different level,” Tally said.

He was able to work with Rutgers and continue on a path to his degree as a full-time student.

He is also working part-time, but said finding a job in line with his education has been hard because of the 30-year gap in employment and criminal background checks. He hasn’t given up hope.

“I keep moving on because I know sooner or later someone’s going to give me an opportunity and I’m going to prove I’m worthy of this opportunity,” Tally said.

Tally said he wants to use his degree “to save children who were once like me.”

“I was a troubled youth. I didn’t have any guidance and it led me the wrong way. I think based on my life experience the things that I’ve been through I can contribute, especially (to) young black youth like me,” Tally said. “I went from a prison cell to one of the top universities in the state, and I’m doing my thing and I’m successful.”