Voters have the usual choice between candidates of the major parties in the 2nd District Assembly race next week. The politics of those candidates, though, are all over the map and occasionally the reverse of what party affiliation might suggest.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, for example, credits the “pretty strong” caucus of 14 South Jersey Democrats he’s part of with blocking Gov. Phil Murphy’s push for an added tax on millionaires.
His Republican opponents, meanwhile — longtime elected official John Risley and former Brigantine mayor Phil Guenther — say all past pension promises to public employees must be honored and fully funded, which is Murphy’s position.
In a recent meeting with The Press editorial board, Mazzeo pointed to several accomplishments he supported and worked for in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Among them: a $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, extended family leave, a strong equal pay for equal work law, fairer school funding and the restoration of $154 million in Homestead rebates for seniors. He said his perspective as a Northfield businessman helped get the region’s tourism and agriculture industries more time to adjust to the higher minimum wage.
Mazzeo, who is seeking his fourth term, was an architect of the legislation enabling the state to take over nearly bankrupt Atlantic City and stabilize its finances.
“It’s hard to argue things haven’t gotten better in Atlantic City,” he said, with a smaller city government, a tax cut and a financial outlook that has encouraged economic development such as the Hard Rock and Ocean casino hotels.
Risley argued against the takeover legislation, saying the “state has not done a very good job with the takeover” or the casinos’ payments in lieu of taxes to end tax appeals that cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. A stock brokerage owner and former Linwood and Somers Point councilman, Egg Harbor Township committeeman and county freeholder of 18 years, Risley said he would seek to shorten the 10-year PILOT program. Under it the casinos pay the city $130 million a year, which is expected to rise to $150 million soon when their total revenue reaches $3 billion a year.
His running mate would end the PILOT. Guenther is a career educator who started in Atlantic City, has been superintendent of the Atlantic County Institute of Technology for 15 years and also of the Special Services District, and was a longtime Brigantine councilman and mayor. He told the editorial board that the state, which gets $200 million a year in revenue from taxes and fees in Atlantic City, should put more money into the city to make it work.
Democratic incumbent John Armato pointed to accomplishments in his first Assembly term such as a law giving panic buttons to hotel staffers to keep them safe, and another that takes effect March 1 requiring a second label on opioid prescription drugs stating their addiction and overdose risks. “Some families I’ve talked to were unaware that some of the drugs they were using are opioids,” Amato told the editorial board.
Armato also worked toward adding fraud and sex crimes to reasons for public employees to lose their pensions upon conviction, and another law that ensures veterans can get representation in law-enforcement matters.
Goals for his next term include working to protect senior citizens from fraud and reducing infant mortality in Atlantic County and Atlantic City, Armato said, with legislation if needed.
Risley said another goal would be enacting a cap on annual increases in state spending to force it “to live within its means.” Another would be fighting Mazzeo’s effort to enable municipal tax assessment to be consolidated at the county level, which Risley said would cost millions to implement. Mazzeo said it would save money and already is saving Gloucester County $2.3 million a year.
Another goal for Mazzeo, who now chairs the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, is updating to more secure voting machines that make a verifiable paper record.
The opposing tickets also dispute the state’s management and budget cutting in Atlantic City, which has just seen its sixth corrupt mayor forced from office since the 1970s.
Guenther said it was “un-American” for the state to use its emergency takeover powers to reduce contractual spending on city employees. Mazzeo said the only alternative, municipal bankruptcy, was unacceptable.