Economy is main issue in Second District races

Democratic State Sen. James Whelan , a former mayor of A.C.
Democratic State Sen. James Whelan , a former mayor of A.C.
Posted: October 31, 2013

ATLANTIC CITY Reducing property taxes, growing the economy, and revitalizing Atlantic City dominate this year's Second Legislative District races in Atlantic County.

Democratic State Sen. James Whelan, a former mayor of Atlantic City and a fixture in local and state politics for 30 years, is being challenged by Republican Frank Balles, the Atlantic County sheriff.

Republican Assembly incumbents John Amodeo and Chris A. Brown face two Democratic mayors, Nick Russo of Longport and Vince Mazzeo of Northfield. Neither mayor has statewide experience but both say they are hungry for it.

The competitive Second District includes Absecon, Brigantine, Margate, Mullica, Pleasantville, Somers Point, and Ventnor City. At its center is Atlantic City, home to a dozen casinos that provide jobs for 95,000 in the region, including ancillary businesses, and most of the county's tax revenue.

But the nearly $3 billion gambling industry has struggled in recent years because of new casinos in Pennsylvania and New York. About 10,000 casino jobs here have been pared since 2006.

"District 2 [voters] seem ready to split their ticket between Chris Christie for governor and Jim Whelan for state Senate," said Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Douglas said that in the 2011 Senate contest, Whelan beat his Republican challenger, Vince Polistina, by nearly 8 percentage points.

Undecided voters are expected to play a pivotal role on Tuesday. In the Oct. 22 Stockton poll of 626 likely voters, Whelan was leading Balles by 21 points, with 11 percent undecided in the Senate race. Among Assembly candidates, Amodeo was ahead, with the rest separated by two to three percentage points, and 15 percent undecided.

Here's where they stand on major issues.

Property taxes.

"Unquestionably, how to grow our stalled economy is our number-one priority," Whelan said at a candidates' round table sponsored by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber last week at the Tropicana Casino & Resort. "And the number-one complaint I hear related to that is over taxes, property taxes especially."

Five of the six candidates support reducing property taxes by 10 percent to help middle-class homeowners. Balles said he favors property tax relief including Christie's 10 percent income tax credit.

Mazzeo and Russo said shared services among municipalities was another way to reduce property taxes.

 The economy. "Our government taxes too much," Balles said during a debate this month. He said "creating a friendlier environment for business will bring back jobs."

Balles, 51, who became sheriff in 2008 after climbing the ladder at the Pleasantville Police Department, said he manages a sheriff's department with a $10.5 million budget and knows how to do more with less.

Amodeo and Brown supported incentives to attract business, while Russo and Mazzeo said keeping property taxes down was key to job growth.

Whelan, who turns 65 on Nov. 8, touted a pro-business, pro-development record. "Let's support business expansion so entrepreneurs can create jobs that pay a good wage with decent benefits," he said. "Let's make sure every student gets a good education, which has always been the ladder by which our poor have climbed out of poverty."

Minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 and installing yearly increases based on the consumer price index is a ballot question. Whelan, Russo, and Mazzeo all favor an increase tied to cost-of-living adjustments.

Amodeo and Brown support Christie's conditional veto of the minimum wage bill, believing an increase should be phased in over time, instead of all at once, and adjusted to changing economic conditions.

Whelan has accused Balles of wanting it both ways. On Tuesday, Balles said in an e-mail: "I support a minimum-wage increase, and Gov. Christie was right to veto the proposal on the ballot because tying the hike to cost of living creates uncertainty for business, increases the cost of consumer goods, and makes New Jersey uncompetitive with our surrounding states."  

Atlantic City. Republican Amodeo, of Margate, a semiretired crane operator, is running for his fourth term. A member of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee, he sponsored the measure to legalize Internet gaming, set to debut late next month from servers housed at Atlantic City casinos. He views I-gaming as "a job and revenue generator."

"Let's face reality," Amodeo, 63, said. "Gaming revenues are never going to be where they were in 2006 . . . so we have to redefine ourselves.

"We need to create the environment where we have transportation from our airport," he said. "Convention business in the offseason is key to keeping our facilities busy and our venues going."

Amodeo has proposed a hotel tax holiday during off-peak months to attract more conventions, as well as extending the neighborhood revitalization tax credit program to Atlantic City, and expanding the urban transit hub tax credit to include the resort so it can offer tax credits to businesses near the hubs.

His running mate, Brown, a lawyer from Ventnor, has worked closely with the nonprofit Atlantic City Alliance and sits on the Assembly Tourism and the Arts Committee.

"Nongaming attractions are the key to the future," said Brown, 49, a former municipal judge and a military veteran. "We have to diversify how we attract different businesses through incentives."

Brown is a sponsor of the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, which revised the formula for how funds were administered to better reflect regional differences in population and industry to benefit South Jersey, and the Internet gaming law.

"I believe that my approach to government is a reasonable, commonsense approach which has resonated across the aisle," Brown said.

Mazzeo, 49, who runs a family grocery in Northfield, said the creation of the Atlantic City Tourism District, adding ambassadors along the Boardwalk to aid tourists, and better marketing by the Atlantic City Alliance could create a second development boom.

"I believe Atlantic City is the economic train for all of us in Atlantic County," Mazzeo said. "It needs to be safe, clean, and all elected officials need to work together."

Russo, 64, mayor of Longport since 2008, is a former Atlantic City police officer and investigator with the state Division of Justice. He teaches online criminal justice courses at the University of Phoenix.

He supports promoting residential or commercial development on the bay side of Atlantic City, making Bader Field the site of a tourist attraction, attracting more conventions, and making better use of Boardwalk Hall.

Russo supports the year-old tourism district, "but . . . we cannot look at Atlantic City in that tourism vacuum alone," he said. "Atlantic City is first a community district and then a tourism district."

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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