Two Vinces vie for Atlantic County Senate seat

By: - October 4, 2021 6:53 am

The nearly $3.4 million in independent spending in the 2nd and 8th districts accounts for 52% of all such spending statewide. (Getty Images)

The campaign to fill former state Sen. Chris Brown’s seat is in full swing.

The contest between Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) and Republican Senator-select Vince Polistina, who represented the district in the Assembly for two terms roughly a decade ago, has in some ways defied recent conventions.

Polistina and his running mates — former state Deputy Attorney General Claire Swift and former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian — have largely eschewed the cultural issues that have defined Republican campaigns at the national and state levels in recent years.

“We are focusing on what we want to do for the people of the district,” Polistina told the New Jersey Monitor. “We’ve talked about making it more affordable. We’ve talked about controlling property taxes. We’ve talked about providing the best constituent services anyone has ever seen here in the district.”

That’s been the case since the primary, when Polistina faced a challenge from former Atlantic County Freeholder Seth Grossman, a 2018 House candidate fashioned in the mold of Donald Trump.

The departure is, in some ways, emblematic of the Second District, which has been composed solely of Atlantic County towns for nearly 40 years.

“Atlantic County is different,” Mazzeo said. “The ideology of Republicans and Democrats — I think people really stay focused on the candidate and what they have to offer, and fortunately I’ve been on the winning side every time I’ve run in the legislative district of two.”

Mazzeo and his running mates — Assemblyman John Armato (D-Atlantic) and Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick — have lent some focus to problems plaguing the district’s small businesses following more than a year of virus restrictions. The incumbents received a boost from their sponsorship of bills providing $170 million in small business aid signed into law this summer.

Both teams have put tens of thousands of dollars behind ads on cable networks, according to Federal Communications Commission filings, though Democrats have so far spent more on digital spots on platforms like Facebook.

It’s unclear which side has the cash advantage — the candidates were last required to disclose campaign finance figures in June — but the Democrats are near certain to have more money at their backs. South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross this summer pledged to put $10 million into races in the Second and Eighth districts. American Democratic Majority, a super PAC with ties to Norcross, has already sent out mailers in the Second and is already up on the air in the Eighth.

Democratic leaders found themselves roped into the district’s campaign last month after Polistina had a retired judge administer him an oath of office that has, so far, been denied by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and the Office of Legislative Services, which has said he must be sworn in during a Senate quorum.

The chamber’s plan to not call a quorum until after the election predates Brown’s July resignation — he stepped down to take a post with oversight over Atlantic City in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration — but the Republican candidate insisted the spat over his swearing-in would animate GOP voters in the district.

“I think it’ll energize people when you think about the fact that their tax dollars are paying for that office to be there, and the Democrats would stoop so low as to lock it up and not give me access,” he said. “I do think that yes, you’re going to see more people energized over that issue, more people upset over that issue.”

Because the Legislature is not meeting, there’s little impact to the delay. While it does deny Polistina the advantage of incumbency, he is already taking constituent services calls.

The Democrats are thoroughly unconcerned over what Mazzeo campaign manager Paul Weborg called an “insider baseball” issue, adding it hadn’t come up in conversations with voters.

“It didn’t really have any bearing on what I have to do, so that’s how I look at it,” Mazzeo said. “To me, it’s not really an issue in this campaign for me, so if they want to make it an issue, that’s on them.”

The Second and Eights districts are expected to host the year’s most competitive races.

It wouldn’t be the first time the district saw a tight race. Mazzeo won his first term in the Assembly by a razor-thin margin of just 51 votes in 2013. Armato’s 2019 re-election came down to paper provisional ballots and was not called until more than a week after Election Day.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.