Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) and State Sen.-elect Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor) met tonight for a New Jersey Globe-sponsored 2nd legislative district debate that elucidated a number of local Atlantic County issues – and showcased the somewhat meaningless attack lines each candidate has chosen to hammer the other with.
One of the first questions of the night was on the state government’s takeover of Atlantic City, which was enacted in 2016 and was renewed for another four years by Gov. Phil Murphy this past June. Mazzeo and Polistina, who are each from suburban municipalities near the city, both said they supported the state takeover.
“No,” Mazzeo said simply on whether the city was ready to regain local control. “If you look at the takeover in the beginning of 2016, there was a lot of pushback. But as we extended it four more years, it seems there was no pushback, because I think that the governor and the elected officials … are working well together.”
“We’re not there [yet] to have Atlantic City municipal government turned back over to itself,” Polistina concurred, though he did say that the state government could better use its energies focusing on issues other than Atlantic City.
The state takeover wasn’t the only local issue about which the candidates agreed. On whether the city should continue to operate a needle-exchange program, both said yes, but that it should be moved to a less visible area. On whether smoking in casinos should be allowed, both said no.
Mazzeo and Polistina also found themselves in agreement on a number of statewide and national issues, among them Murphy’s nomination of Rachel Weiner Apter to the Supreme Court, a nomination which both said they’d lean towards supporting.
Even more surprisingly, the candidates appeared to agree on the subject of former President Donald Trump, with Polistina bucking the consensus of his party and saying he likely wouldn’t support Trump in 2024.
“I can’t imagine, given what we have seen, that I would be supporting [Trump] in 2024,” Polistina said. “We need to build a system where people come together and end this divisiveness, end this bitterness, end this acrimony – we’ve got to come back together, as Republicans and Democrats, and try to get things done.”
With so many points of genuine agreement, much of the debate’s energy was instead focused on two made-for-TV attack lines: namely, the supposedly unethical nature of Polistina’s engineering firm and a debate question Mazzeo flubbed no fewer than six years ago.
“You have made over $10.8 million from taxpayer-funded contracts steered to your engineering firm by your friends and cronies in government,” Mazzeo charged during a section of the debate where each candidate was given the chance to ask the other a question. “If you are elected, will you agree to give up these contracts and stop profiting off the taxpayers you will also be representing?”
“Municipalities must have engineers, Vince,” Polistina shot back. “We do very vital work in terms of building roads and bridges and parks and sewer systems and water systems. My company has done excellent work for many municipalities across this region, I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”
Polistina, meanwhile, hit Mazzeo over a long-ago controversy in which Mazzeo signed onto a resolution by former State Sen. Chris Brown (R-Ventnor) opposing North Jersey casinos, removed his name with Wite-Out, and later struggled to answer a debate question about the debacle.
“When you can’t even answer a simple question about how your name gets whited out on a resolution, and you stumble around and can’t answer it for 30 seconds, that’s what people mention to me as I’m going out and campaigning,” Polistina said.
Mazzeo scoffed at the idea that voters are focused on such a minor and outdated issue. “I’ve never heard anybody talk about the Wite-Out,” he said.
Also at issue during the debate was the “-elect” after Polistina’s name: Polistina, who was chosen at a party convention to fill Brown’s seat but has yet to be seated by the legislature, insisted he was the duly elected senator and that Democrats were playing political games with the district.
“I am the senator,” Polistina insisted. “They prevented me from being able to help our constituents here in the region, which is very, very sad. It’s just a sad commentary on the state of politics in New Jersey.”
Mazzeo offered little defense of the Senate Democrats’ tactics, instead simply saying that seating Polistina was not his call to make.
“I have no say over what the agenda is, or when they’re going to appoint Mr. Polistina,” he said.
The final major exchange of the night was on the issue of abortion, which has taken on increasing salience in the month since the Supreme Court declined to stop a six-week abortion ban from going into effect in Texas.
Mazzeo, a co-sponsor of the Reproductive Freedom Act in the state legislature, said that he fully supports a woman’s right to choose, but he sounded less than confident of the bill’s passage as written.
“It’s no secret that this is a controversial bill,” Mazzeo said. “I think at the end of the day, if you want to talk about this bill in its form, I don’t know if it’s going to be there.”
Polistina responded that the hesitance is a sign that the bill is too extreme and out of step with New Jersey voters.
“It hasn’t moved because it’s extreme and it’s radical, and shouldn’t happen,” he said. “You’re getting a lot of pushback from people over that bill, of which he’s a co-sponsor, because it allows abortions in months seven, eight, and nine… Roe v. Wade is the law of the land … but there has to become a point where you have to protect that life.”
In his closing statement, Polistina referenced the departure of people from Atlantic County – which lost population in the 2020 Census, the first time that’s happened since 1940 – and said that he would help put the county back on track.
“We know we have to get these policies turned around,” Polistina said. “If we don’t really get this turned around, come up with a system that is predicated on spending money responsibly, giving people opportunity, and investing people in their own personal responsibility to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their family, then we’re going to continue to see an exodus of people. We can’t have that.”
Mazzeo’s closing statement highlighted the key differences between himself and Polistina – many of which had been missing from the debate for the preceding hour.
“Tonight you have heard the clear and stark differences between myself and Mr. Polistina,” he said. “I restored the funding to women’s health care that he cut. I voted to cut taxes on working people when he did not. I was part of bringing Atlantic City back from the brink of bankruptcy.”
Perhaps no legislative district is as perennially competitive as the 2nd, and this year’s matchup between Vinces Mazzeo and Polistina is no different. Tonight’s debate provided no clinching exchanges or devastating flubs for Democrats or Republicans, but it did show the voters of Atlantic County where Mazzeo and Polistina stand on the district’s critical issues: for the most part, in agreement.