In the District 11 state senate campaign, an incumbent Republican and a Democratic challenger are running on similar platforms that focus on lowering taxes and working for small businesses, albeit with two distinct caveats: vote for me if you like what I’ve done, or vote for me if you like what I will do.
State Sen. Jennifer Beck, a Republican completing her first term as senator, is squaring off with Democratic political newcomer Ray Santiago for the remapped District 11 state senate seat. The typical incumbent advantage for Beck may not be so clear, however, as the redistricting includes a total of 18 towns, 11 of which currently have a different state senator representing them.
For Beck, a Red Bank resident, the pitch is simple. An active senator, Beck sponsored 34 bills during her term that were signed into law. Among the issues the bills addressed, she said during a telephone interview, were benefit and pension reform, redevelopment of Fort Monmouth, and creating a registry of offenders who have abused the developmentally disabled.
Despite her record, Beck said she feels as though the redistricting represents an additional challenge that needs to be overcome.
“The basic issue is one of becoming known to the electorate and introducing yourself. You (because of the remapping) haven’t had a chance to work on those issues that may parochial to them. You haven’t had a chance to be in their schools, attend their meetings,” she said. “But, in terms of being involved and being effective in representing my district, I believe I have been.”
Beck is no stranger to politics. Prior to being elected as a state senator, Beck served for a term as an assemblywoman. She also served two terms as a councilwoman in Red Bank.
As a Republican in a Democrat-controlled state legislature, Beck said she’s put up a fight to represent her constituency, despite being outnumbered by the Democrats, by opposing bills like Gov. Jon Corzine’s toll hike plan, which Beck said would have been hugely unfair for the residents in Monmouth County who live along the Garden State Parkway and use the highway regularly, especially.
Though the 44-year-old legislator is resolute in her belief that she has best represented the public, she’s also been largely criticized for failing to achieve lower taxes, and voting against gay marriage and funding for women’s health care.
When it comes to taxes, Beck places blame on the Democratic leadership in the state legislature.
On two separate occasions Beck voted against gay marriage. The decision to vote against it, she said, was because she believed that the state’s civil union law would provide equal rights to gay couples. Seeing now that is hasn’t, she said, she’s come out publicly with a promise to vote for gay marriage if it should come before the state senate again.
That decision, she said, is not based on the fact that Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, two towns with large LGBT populations, are now part of her district.
In recent weeks, Beck has taken on education, specifically in regards to how Red Bank and Freehold, two towns with student populations that are largely economically disadvantaged, are funded. Red Bank and Freehold, she said, are two of about 14 districts throughout the state that are underfunded – based on the state’s own determination – by more than 20 percent. In this regard, she said she’s tried to raise awareness by doing things like holding public meetings and inviting state education officials on tours of schools.
“You can point to all the bills, but the role of an elected figure is to be the voice for the people who don’t have a voice; to be an advocate,” she said. “You run for office, that’s part of it. You need to be accessible to the public.”
On the issue of school funding, like many of the issues both candidates agree need tending to, Santiago put the blame on the state for not ensuring that its school children have the funding they deserve. In Monmouth Count, Long Branch, Asbury Park, and Keansburg have been identified as Abbott Districts. While Red Bank and Freehold have similar student population demographics, Santiago said, they’ve had to do more with less.
He said one of his goals, if elected, is to ensure that Red Bank and Freehold won’t have to continue to do without.
“Give the funds to the municipalities and the school districts so they’re getting what they need,” he said. “You want to reward success, not punish it. They’re doing a good job; you don’t want to take money from them.”
Though schools are a large issue, Santiago, a Freehold resident and lawyer with his own practice, said one of the most significant issues facing Monmouth County is what he called an attack on small business. The state legislator has made it more difficult by increasing taxes and regulations, succeeding only in driving business away or even under.
Concepts like lower taxes and fewer business regulations are Republican hallmarks, but Santiago said they’re really just two ideas that work but have been abandoned by state legislators Republican and Democrat alike. As a small business owner and husband and father, Santiago said he chose to throw his hat in the ring because the current legislators have failed to live up to their promises.
“I want to see small businesses flourish and I think that’s a realistic goal,” the 37 year old said in a telephone interview. “Tax relief for residents and small businesses is what’s going to drive down unemployment in this state.”
Santiago said he’s being realistic about what he hopes to accomplish if elected to the senate, saying his efforts to lower property taxes – a tough sell no matter who’s pitching it – would likely take two terms to come to fruition. But, he said, the groundwork needs to be laid in the state legislature now so that real relief can eventually follow.
Short on political experience though he may be, Santiago believes he can make an immediate impact if elected.
“I’ve already made contacts throughout the entire state, from the north down through the south,” he said. “I will be able to state on day one and make those calls and make sure we’re ready to meet those goals.
District 11 includes: Allenhurst, Asbury Park, Colts Neck, Deal, Eatontown, Freehold Borough, Freehold Township, Interlaken, Loch Arbour, Long Branch, Neptune City, Neptune Township, Ocean Township, Red Bank, Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury Township, Tinton Falls and West Long Branch.