The candidates for District 16 State Assembly and State Senate agree a top priority is to help the middle class achieve and maintain a high quality of life.
How exactly that’s going to happen is up for debate, as a packed crowd learned at Tuesday’s 16th Legislative District debate at the Princeton Township Municipal Building.
“I, like you, love living in New Jersey, but New Jersey becoming a state that is not affordable,” said State Senate Republican incumbent Christopher “Kip” Bateman of Somerville.
On Nov. 8, Bateman will face Democratic challenger Maureen Vella, an attorney from Hillsborough, for the four-year Senate seat.
Redistricting earlier in the year moved the left-leaning Princeton Township and Borough and South Brunswick into the 16th District, which has been historically Republican.
For the two two-year State Assembly seats, Republican incumbent Peter J. Biondi of Hillsborough and Republican Somerset County Freeholder Jack Ciattarelli of Hillsborough will face Democrats Marie Corfield of Flemington and Joe Camarota of South Brunswick.
Incumbent Republican Denise Coyle is not seeking re-election.
All of the candidates were at Monday’s debate except Biondi, who had a death in the family.
In the State Senate race, Bateman opposes all tax increases, including the so-called "millionaires" tax. He wants to attract businesses and jobs to the state, and said eliminating beaurocratic red tape helped a new ShopRite Supermarket open in Somerville, which brought 235 jobs.
But Vella countered that the state’s unemployment rate is at 9.4 percent.
“Where are all the jobs,” Vella asked. “We need to all share in the the sacrifice, not just the poor, not just the middle class- we're feeling it- but we need the wealthy in this state to share as well."
The candidates disagree on pension reform, specifically the legislature’s elimination of the cost of living adjustment for retired state workers earlier this year.
Bateman said the pension system needed reform to be saved for future generations, while Vella argued collective bargaining is guaranteed under the state constitution, and it was unfair to tack the reform onto a healthcare bill.
Both support legislation to require local voter approval before a charter school could open.
Both candidates want to ban fracking, a controversial process of extracting natural gas from the ground that has many concerned over potential groundwater contamination. Bateman supports an indefinite fracking moratorium, while Vella would like to see a ban in effect at least through 2014, when the EPA finishes studying the issue.
The assembly candidates told Monday’s audience that they want to help New Jersey’s middle class.
Corfield said she began her teaching career on Sept. 11, 2001, a day when police, fire and rescue workers were hailed as heroes for running into burning buildings so that others could live.
“Here we are 10 years later...and those very same people, along with teachers, hospital workers and other public employees are being demonized,” Corfield said. “And I would like to change that. I want to go to Trenton to fight for the middle class, to fight to keep this state strong, to keep the backbone of this state functioning, which is the middle class.”
Camarota, who has spent the last seven years serving on the South Brunswick Township Council, said change is needed.
“What I find is that Trenton is broken,” Camarota said. “There’s a real disconnect with Trenton and we need to change that: we need to change the culture of that. We need to send people to Trenton who will focus on the middle class and real property tax relief. We need to create jobs and we need to focus on ethics reform.”
Ciattarelli focused on his accomplishments: not raising Somerset County property taxes in five years, decreasing county personnel rolls by 12 percent, reforming unions benefits and not taking a taxpayer-funded salary or benefits as freeholder.
He wants smaller, more efficient and less expensive state government and has a plan to revitalize cities to achieve property tax relief.
The three assembly candidates support the proposed Blue Acres program, which would allow municipalities to use open space money to purchase homes located in flood plains and turn the property into open space.
The candidates differed when it came to an audience question about how to prioritize women’s health issues in light of state women’s clinics closing earlier this year.
Corfield said not only were individual women affected by the clinic cuts, but that women without access to health care will cause a financial strain on taxpayers.
Ciattarelli said funding for museums, education and psychiatric hospitals was also cut. Six of the state’s 58 women’s health clinics closed, leaving at least two, sometimes more, clinics per county across New Jersey.
“This is a different time and era," he said. “I think every constituency is doing its very best to deal with the hand it has been dealt, I know the state has been doing the best it can in terms of our economics.”
Camarota disagreed and called the cuts a “disgrace” that negatively affect the most vulnerable residents of New Jersey.
Monday’s debate was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area, AllPrinceton.com and Princeton Community Television.