WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Redistricting in New Jersey has caused some long-time politicians — including Democratic heavyweight former Governor Dick Codey — to work harder to keep their seats ahead of the election next month.
Codey, the incumbent and longtime Democrat, will face off against fresh-faced Bill Eames, a tea party supporter, in the 27th Legislative District — an area where lines have been redrawn to include more traditionally Republican towns in Morris County.
About 30 percent of the state’s residents will be voting in different legislative districts on November 8, when they decide who fills the legislature's 120 seats.
Sitting at a desk in West Orange surrounded with the memorabilia of a 30-year political career, Codey said the same forces in his own party that deposed him as Senate president in 2010 were at work in how his district was redefined.
"The dynamics of my new district are that the power bosses within the Democratic Party — who I do not answer to, do not cater to, nor will I ever — have put me in this district and that's fine,” Codey said. “Bring it on, as far as I am concerned. I am running. I am running hard. And I am going to re-elected."
Codey does have high name recognition from his stint as the acting governor in the wake of the implosion of former Governor Jim McGreevey.
Courting Republican voters
Codey is actively courting Republicans because he said the Democrats who registered to vote for the hotly contested Clinton/Obama primary in 2008 can’t be counted on. According to Codey, just one in 10 of those new Democrats voters have voted since 2008.
He is focusing on Madison, N.J., the town where his cousin Ray Codey is the Borough Administrator. He said with foreclosures, underwater mortgages and long term unemployment are all taking a serious toll the economy is the top issue for voters.
"Since June 2010, New Jersey has had the largest increase in the number people who have become eligible for food stamps," Codey said. "Now you would think maybe it's Mississippi, maybe it was Alabama. But it was New Jersey."
Madison, N.J., also happens to be the location of one of Eames’ headquarters.
A fresh face on the trail
With the exception of three years as a public school teacher, Eames has spent his career working in economic development. He has held leadership posts with the Chamber of Commerce in Atlantic City and Newark.
For his first foray into electoral politics, Eames said he's tapped into his retirement savings to bankroll his campaign.
"Cause, I'll tell you frankly, I wasn't sure it was going to be worth anything in a few years the way things are going, so I might as well invest it in something I can control," Eames said.
When he's out campaigning, he's hearing the same complaints from voters as Codey is but his prescription as a strict Constitutionalist could not be more different — much smaller government and lower taxes.
"If you go out and talk to businesses here in Madison … they can't sometimes afford to pay their rent the next month," Eames said. "Over in West Orange, I was talking to a business owner there that is sleeping on the floor of his delicatessen because he can no longer afford employees. But if he is not there for customer he's not there for customers he loses the entire business."
Both Eames and Codey know it is going to come down to turn out, which will be tough with no high profile race on the ballot.
Political analysts predict only 30 percent of New Jersey voters will go to the polls. That means 70 percent of the registered voters are expected to let someone else pick their next state senator or assembly member.
Madison, N.J., a battleground
The Republican bastion of Madison, N.J., is also the commercial hub in Morris County.
Jack Dunne, the former Republican mayor of Madison, said he needs to hear more from Codey and Eames before he makes up his mind about for whom he will vote.
"I am not happy with our federal government, and I am not happy with out state government," Dunn said. "I think, for our district, I am still up in the air. They have to talk a little bit."
State legislators in New Jersey have been promising to fix property taxes for decades yet it still comes up repeatedly as a top concern for voters.
Outside the Madison Senior Center on a recent rainy morning, retiree Anthony DiNato was on the way out after getting his flu shot. He said his vote will be based on which State Senate candidate will be most effective in putting the brakes on property taxes.
"I am an asthmatic, so last year I had to put central air just upstairs," DiNato said. "So because I did that they hit me with an extra $600. When your on a fixed income, where you going to get the money from?"