Affordability and taxes top agenda for new legislator from South Jersey

Beth Sawyer and her GOP running mates flipped their district, toppling two of New Jersey’s most powerful politicians

By: - January 21, 2022 6:30 am

Beth Sawyer is sworn in during the Assembly’s Jan. 11, 2022 reorganization meeting at the War Memorial in Trenton (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Beth Sawyer doesn’t need any data-packed reports or alarm-sounding researchers to know New Jersey’s high taxes have chased people out of the state.

She’s helped them move.

As a real estate broker in South Jersey for 27 years, Sawyer has been at the table as a parade of longtime New Jersey homeowners sign the sales papers on their way somewhere else. Many of them are senior citizens unable to afford rising taxes on their limited incomes, she said.

“It really hurt me to see these seniors have to move south, away from their families and their grandchildren,” Sawyer said.

As a real estate broker, she has no control over taxes. But as a politician, she thought, she might have the power to change things.

Now a member of the New Jersey Assembly, she is one of 17 first-time state legislators sworn into the New Jersey Legislature earlier this month. Sawyer, a Republican, aims to focus her public service on taxes and affordability issues in her 3rd Legislative District, which covers all of Salem County and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland counties.

“I have sold so much new construction, brought so many people into the state of New Jersey,” Sawyer said. “That’s why I got involved, watching the taxes increase by leaps and bounds. It was crazy watching houses that I sold back in 2000, when the taxes were $3,500, and now those taxes are $12,000 to $15,000. I needed to get involved in politics so I can try to wrap my arms around this and bring some relief to my clients I sold houses to.”

Blue-collar background

Sawyer can feel their pain, personally.

She grew up the youngest of four kids in a blue-collar family in northwestern Pennsylvania, where her dad worked at a refinery and her mom worked for a polyester company.

A Penn State graduate, she got married and moved to Woolwich, a largely rural township in Gloucester County, right out of college. Divorced soon after, she was a single mother who hustled in real estate to support her son and daughter, now grown. She launched a side business rehabbing old houses a few years ago.

She has a few ideas already for legislation she aims to introduce, beyond tax relief.

She’d like to abolish a 2004 land conservation program known as TDR, for “transfer of development rights,” that she said multiple farmers have asked her to repeal.

“It was one of those things that sounded like a great idea at the time, but then the recession kicked in and development came to a screeching halt, and it really holds the farmers hostage from being able to sell their land to developers,” Sawyer said.

Improving services for military veterans is another priority, she added. Her brothers and father are U.S. Marines, and her son attended the Valley Forge Military Academy.

She also would like to toughen penalties against social media hackers and explore ways to improve digital security, an issue that grabbed her attention after someone last year hacked her Facebook account.

No surprise down there

Sawyer lays out her legislative priorities in the no-nonsense, self-assured tone of a veteran lawmaker.

“I want to hit the ground running,” she said. “I’ve been chosen to go up there and be the voice for my constituents, and I want to start from minute one.”

Her confidence might surprise strangers who still regard what happened in her district as a stunning upset.

Until the current two-year legislative session started Jan. 11, the district was represented by two of the Legislature’s most powerful politicians: then-Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Deputy Speaker John Burzichelli, both Democrats who, together, had served 40 years in the Statehouse.

But voters in November booted both men out of office, along with Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, a Democrat who’d served seven years in the Assembly.

Outsiders and even the incumbents themselves didn’t anticipate the loss, with Sweeney refusing to concede for over a week.

Sawyer snapped a photo last year with two of the former state lawmakers she and her GOP running mates later replaced — former Senate President Steve Sweeney and former Assemblyman John Burzichelli. At right is her campaign manager Steve Kush. (Photo courtesy of Sawyer)

Sawyer remembers running into Sweeney and Burzichelli at the first gubernatorial debate last September. Sawyer sarcastically thanked them for a negative ad they’d sent out about her that she joked expanded her name recognition and would help her win the election. Burzichelli retorted that he’d invite her to his inauguration, Sawyer said.

Their encounter ended with laughs and even a bipartisan selfie, which Sawyer joked she wanted to send to voters with the tagline: “Even Sweeney and Burzichelli are behind me 100%.”

Some longtime South Jersey residents said there is no shortage of reasons why Sawyer and her GOP running mates — Bethanne McCarthy Patrick, now an Assemblywoman, and Edward Durr, now a senator — won the district by thousands of votes.

Watchers agreed a “red wave of outrage” rooted in pandemic anger helped fuel the flip.

“This county and Salem County run more conservative, and the liberal policies coming out of Trenton offended people,” Gloucester County Republican Chairwoman Jacci Vigilante said. “There was a lot of resentment toward our governor in Trenton and the people who gave him the unlimited emergency powers. That was a head-scratcher down here. People felt like that was political and strategic — and not needed.”

Sawyer posing with Kim Klacik, a Republican from Maryland, and Jacci Vigilante, Gloucester County GOP chairwoman. (Photo courtesy of Sawyer)

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, agrees grievances over the governor helped Republicans win big in the last election. But he also suspects broader Democratic dissatisfaction could have specifically hurt the 3rd Legislative District’s incumbents.

“The Third District has become, in many ways, a Philadelphia suburban district, so you’re feeling the impact of regional and urban issues there,” Rasmussen said.

Sawyer has run for public office twice before. She narrowly lost a 2018 bid to join the Woolwich Township Committee, and she and Durr unsuccessfully challenged incumbents Burzichelli and Taliaferro in 2019 for Assembly seats. She also has served on her township’s land use board.

Whatever the reasons for her win this time, Sawyer vowed she won’t squander the opportunity.

She’s especially excited that she’s starting her legislative career with a wave of women that has helped diversify the Legislature’s mostly male, white ranks.

“Women get stuff done. We are multi-taskers, and we don’t necessarily look for recognition,” Sawyer said. “For the last three years, it’s been three men making decisions for South Jersey. We’ve got some pretty great women going into the Assembly on both sides, so I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.