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.
New Jersey Democrats have been telling reporters for months that their best shot at picking up a seat in the House of Representatives is in the state's 3rd Congressional District that includes portions of much of Ocean and almost all off Burlington County.
The contest in New Jersey's third district pits freshman Republican Congressman Jon Runyan against Democrat Shelly Adler, whose late husband Congressman John Adler Runyan beat in 2010. It was in that non-presidential election year that Runyan rode the wave of the Tea Party's furor over Obamacare.
Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagles standout, now uses his TV ads to link cuts in Federal spending to fuller private sector employment. "Lower taxes, less spending and debt and more jobs--that's what I am working for. I am Jon Runyan and I approved this ad," the telegenic former shot putter tells the camera.
Shelly Adler is an attorney. Her husband John died of a heart ailment after he was defeated by Runyan. Shelley Adler, who served on the Cherry Hill City Council, is casting Runyan as too far right for the district and part of the partisan gridlock in Washington. One of her ads highlights her role as a single mother. "I am Shelly Adler and as a Mom of four boys I have had to do it all and on a budget. How come Washington can't do the same?," Adler says over a video image of her pouring pancakes on the griddle.
But the dueling TV ads don't really capture what's happening on the ground in the district economically.
These days along the Route 130 commercial corridor in Burlington County there are empty store fronts and vacant strip malls. Page one of the Burlington County Times this week had an article about municipal officials struggling with the growing blight of abandoned proprieties.
David Levinsky is a political reporter for the Burlington County Times.
He says locals are weary with the stalled economy---with unemployment averaging 10 percent---as high as anyone remembers it ever being. "Long ago manufacturing was a big part of the economy in Burlington County and that's why you see all these big wide expanses--empty factories.
"Route 130 used to be a big commercial thruway," Levinsky says.
Back in 2008 Levinsky recalls the Obama candidacy generated a wave of voter optimism especially among Burlington County's pivotal African American community who turned out in unprecedented numbers. "Those of us who had been here for awhile had never seen anything like it on 2008 with the lines," Levinsky says.
The late John Adler, than a Democratic state senator, benefited down ballot, becoming the first Democrat to be elected from the district in decades.
That year President Obama won Burlington County by double digits. But just a year later in 2009 Governor Chris Christie also carried it. Since redistricting has also helped Republican Runyan because the new lines cut out Cherry Hill in Camden County a Democratic stronghold.
Levinsky says the success of Shelly Adler's challenge now hinges on how well she does in Willingboro.
The Philadelphia suburb is almost three quarters African American and helped give President Obama his lopsided win. But the last four years have been hard on Willingboro. " Willingborro is one of the state leaders as far as the number of foreclosures," Levinsky says.
Farther down on Route 130 the Willingboro Public Library is packed late in the day. Every computer terminal is taken.
Reference librarian Susan Hacker says tight library budgets came down as demand for library services spiked. "Well Mondays are always busier because unfortunately our budget does not allow us to be open on Sundays anymore so we have pent up demand," Hacker says.
Hacker says unemployment in Willingboro is actually over 13 percent, much higher than the county average. She says the library is doing its best to help patrons find work in a job market where Internet access is essential.
"When you look at the people using the computers a great many of them are looking for jobs--or filing for unemployment," Hacker says. "A lot of people have had to drop their Internet service at home so they depend on us for being able to get to the Internet, e-mail apply for jobs that never required a resume before--jobs that you used to be able to walk in and apply for a job---now you have to go the Internet to apply for a job.
Back out on Route 130 Tony DePina seeks sanctuary from driving rain in a NJ Transit bus shelter. She says President Obama's health care plan is one reason why she vote for him come November.
"He delivered for me on the health care, yes. It helped me with my son. He's not working right now and he needed the health insurance so I put him on my insurance at my job," DePina says. "He's 22 after he went to the emergency room two times I had to pay over a thousand dollars right out of high school. So I think that was a good thing. Not every kid goes to college and they need health insurance."
DePina says she has more homework to do on her congressional pick. She recognizes Runyan's name but not Adler's.
Andre Staples came out of the Dollar Store with his grand daughter. Staples says he is voting for President Obama. He says there's some signs of recovery but he doesn't expect things to improve overnight.
"I was in construction and I see that there is construction going on all over still even though they say the economy is bad. From the Democratic point of view we are moving up slowly," Staple says. "its not anything fast and I don't think anybody who gets into office is going to be able to do anything immediately."
But his pick for Congress?
"I am not sure about that. Runyan has done some good things but he has also done some bad things too so I am going to have to look at the polls again and see which way I will go."
Every statewide poll shows President Obama with a commanding lead in New Jersey but national media outlets are now ranking the 3rd District as "likely GOP."