MAURICE RIVER TWP. and RIO GRANDE – Understanding LD1 depends on balancing those two old, sometimes out of sync forces: economy and ecology. The district offers the beachside for surfers and bathers. But it also has the bayside, for oyster schooners and long-legged waders. Of course, it’s complex enough for one side to cross to the other, just as freshwater becomes salt, where the flat southern shore bears the brunt of the ocean’s weight, drumming a constant and recurring toughness into the land and people alike.
Politically, the two sides, more obviously demarcated, are up on television now, with Republican Michael Testa referring to incumbent Senator Bob Andrzejczak (D-1) as “a Murphy Democrat” and the incumbent saddling his foe with the boss mantle, a nod to Testa’s chairmanship of the Cumberland Republican Party. The messages somewhat stretch credulity, of course, as Andrzejczak opposes Murphy in key areas, in part the consequence of a significant rift in his own party but also as a matter of basic blue and yellow dog contrast. Heavily funded by the General Majority PAC connected to George Norcross III, organization Democrat Andrzejczak is perhaps more vulnerable to the charge that he lacks independence. But he doesn’t think so, and pushes back hard.
Not yet full blown with time ticking down on Friday night, the contest for a senate seat in LD1 hovered at the edge of a storm.
Nature plays a part in everything.
On Thursday evening, Testa (running with Lower Twp. Mayor Erik Simonsen and Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan) and his campaign team drove through pine country and marsh land to the southern end of Cumberland County, where East Point Lighthouse manager Nancy Patterson and Downe Township Mayor Robert “Bob” Campbell alighted on a ramp leading to a side door of a building erected in 1849.
Situated at the mouth of the Maurice River right at the edge of the bay in this remote natural paradise, the first manager of the lighthouse, according to log books, lasted all of 14 days on the job. Now the national and New Jersey historic landmark – the second oldest lighthouse in the state, and long literally the guiding light for schooners – itself faces an uncertain future at the edge of an eroded beach with white caps playing on the water’s surface in early October. At its best, a migration route for the milkweed-sustained monarch butterfly and habitable realm for horsehoe crabs to lay their eggs in the sand, providing food for shorebirds, the area suffers now, Patterson told InsiderNJ.
“All that’s been broken because they’ve let the beach erode so badly,” said the lighthouse manager, pointing at the cracks in the makeshift dunes just above the water. “It’s not being protected and it should be.”
With less than a month to go before Election Day in the state’s lone battleground senate contest, Testa stood among friends here who say his aggressive advocacy would make the difference in Trenton to turn this environmental apocalpse into a functioning ecostem, with some tourism thrown in, too, to make everything hum. The Republican climbed the winding stairs through rooms decorated as they would have looked in 1910, up to the top, to the glass enclosure of the lighthouse overlooking the bay.
“This is truly God’s country,” said the Cumberlander.
In the rarifed clime of this place, he addressed the accelerated gutpunching of the campaign, including a “slick Mike Testa” ad his opponent unveiled earlier this week.
“They’re trying to paint a very ugly and inaccurate picture of me,” said the GOP candidate. “For those that know me, I’m not a boss. It’s kind of ridiculous.” [Testa pointed out, too, that he holds conventions, and doesn’t “pick” Republican candidates).
He objected to what he says is an undertone of ethnic sterotypying, consistent now in the attacks against the Italian American, going back to a General Majority PAC mail piece he said toyed with a mob boss theme. But he also objected to Andrzejczak attacking him because he works as a criminal defense attorney.
“Utterly despicable,” said Testa. “I defend individuals’ constitutional rights. It amazes me that Bob, who fought for this country, made a major sacrifice, and fought for our constitutional rights, is now bashing me for defending individuals’ constitution rights; individuals who are innocent until proven guilty.
“When someone comes to me, they don’t say, ‘I’m guilty.’ They say, ‘I’m charged with this crime, will you represent me?’ The fact is I’m proud to be a defense attorney,” the Republican added. “I’m proud to be a defender of the cornerstone of an individual’s constitutional rights.”
The district is mostly rural, with big stretches of farmland running to marshland and fishing docks, offset by Vineland and Millville, with the old glassworks factory rusted at its core on Highway 47, which used to employ several of the family members of the mom of incumbent Assemblyman R. Bruce Land (D-1), who’s running with Andrzejczak and Assemblyman Matt Milam (D-1).
“The Democrats in the district are Reagan Democrats,” U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-2) told InsiderNJ. “They’re blue collar conservative, for the most part.”
So the candidates, for the most part, are trying to move to each other’s right. They agree on most issues, including denial of drivers’ licenses for undocumented workers. But Testa affrims that if the game comes down to that, he will win, while Andrzejczak argues that his opponent too readily fixates on party affiliation, apparently with the calculated expectation of playing to a Republican base.
“I dont know that I have to out-conservative Bob, and I’ve never changed,” Testa said. “People know I’m a true conservative. Bob Andrzejczak votes with Governor Murphy 95% of the time. In my opinion, it is feigned anger and frustration he’s showing over Governor Murphy vetoing the Wildwood boardwalk.”
Downe Mayor Robert “Bob” Campbell is a Testa guy.
A marshland mayor who looks like an old Hollywood cowboy, Campbell came down here from Camden and settled in, apparently for the duration. He ran for the senate seat once himself in 2013 and got badly beaten in the GOP Primary by Susan Adelezzi-Schmidt, who would go on to get mauled by Van Drew in the general. A policy wonk who revels in deep woods and maritime issues-advocacy Campbell staged a campaign comeback in 2017, landed the party nomination for an assembly seat, then lost by around 11K votes to Andrzejczak and Land.
“We need legislative support [for the lighthouse and the environs],” Campbell told InsiderNJ, with Testa standing nearby. “When Michael wins he will be a pitbull legislator to take it to the finish line. These other guys, after the election’s over, it’s like magic, they disappear. Nothing ever happens.” He gave a nod to the perennially stalled Highway 55 project, acknowledged the snarls of DOT and DEP red tape and said he traveled on Florida highway elevated over swamps “and alligators”, built, he said, because lawmakers had the will to get it done.
“I’ve had some success,” he added with a grin, “because I’m a little relentless.”
But he added flatly, “South Jersey doesn’t get it’s fair share. There, I said it.”
The Democrats informally disputed Campbell’s assertion that they disappear after elections, noting that despite few votes for them in Downe, they obtained Fortescue marina dredging, helped with Gandy’s beach and Money Island, and with the effects of Blue Acres. They noted their efforts to combat flooding issues in Greenwich, and working alongside Maurice River Township for years on dredging and erosion and PILOT funding; in addition to shepherding FIOS to Greenwich and Stow Creek, and joining several rural Cumberland towns in a lawsuit against Verizon.
On Friday afternoon, the LD1 incumbents climbed out of their cars and sport ultility vehicles in the parking lot of the Rio Grande ShopRite, just west of the Parkway and te bridge leading to Wildwood, and promptly hit the main entrance.
People received them with goodwill.
No one threw a temper tantrum over the presence of Democrats.
Van Drew appeared, impeccable.
Andrzejczak wouldn’t argue with Campbell about South Jersey lacking its fair share, but he made his case that he and his allies better – and more pragmatically – serve the district. Here the debate begins to get sharper, as the senator begins to identify the main framework of his argument against Testa.
“Our message is working with everyone and working for everyone and not one party or another,” Andrzejczak said. “You look at my opponent and he’s always talking about ‘Republican, a Trump Republican,’ whatever that means. He’s only talking about one political party. I think that’s ridiculous. If you look at this district, it has Democrats, Republicans, indepndents and everything in between. They all need to be taken care of equally. …It goes back to my military experience. When I was fighting with the guy to my left or right, I didnt care what political party he was from.“My opponent has shown no desire to work with the other party, the governor, or party leadership at all,” the democrat added. “All he wants to do is go in there and yell and fight and divide this country and divide this state. He would only be adding to the mess of what is happening in this nation right now.”
Responding to his opponent’s assertion that he’s a liberal Murphy Democrat, Andrzejczak lingered on the specific charge that he votes with the governor 95% of the time. “What does that even mean?” he said. “The governor doesn’t even vote.”
So where does he significantly disagree with Murphy, persona non grata down here.
“This governor was very open when he ran about raising taxes,” Andrzejczak said. “I disagree that living in New Jersey comes with a luxury cost. I disagree with that 100 percent. New Jersey is for everyone. Sure, the top one percent, but the majority are like you and me, who suffer from paycheck to paycheck.”
The Democrat didn’t apologize for calling Testa a boss.
“He absolutely is a boss,” said the senator. “He’s the one who singlehandedly picks people who run.”
If he were controlled by Norcross and Sweeney the way Testa says he is, he wouldn’t fight with his own party as often as he does, he said. “Look at how many times I’m yelled at by party leadership. Almost every time.”
The ShopRite doors opened at one point and a man shambled out and dropped something on the sidewalk. Andrzejczak, Land and Milam all dove at nearly the same time to retrieve the scrap of paper that fell out of the stranger’s pocket.
The man gratefully retrieved what he had lost.
InsiderNJ asked Andrzejczak about the lighthouse and protecting it against the elements.
“The reality we have is the value on the bayside, a lot of potential there,” the senator said. “We need to focus on the bayside more with resources. We’re finally getting funding. We’re working with the DEP. Somethin we fought for for a very long time is finally happening.”
Van Drew observed in admiration.
“I don’t endorse people,” said the congressman. “I rarely get involved. They’ve all succeeded in their own way. They’ve all given back to America in their own way.”
Asked about his Vietnam service, Land mentioned a recently circulated wartime photograph of himself posing with M-16 rifles standing on their stocks to make a kind of Christmas tree, a GI attempt at celebration in lieu of attendance at a Bob Hope USO show.
This contest will intensify over the course of the final days.
“He should expect a constant barrage of ads,” said former state Senator Nick Asselta (R-1), defeated by Van Drew in 2009, referring to fellow Republican Testa, up against the majority party machinery.
Asselta should know.
“The last four weeks, it’s all about voter connect,” he said. “Michael can win this thing. He’s got to get out there and connect with the voters. They will go after him on television, and they will get more aggressive every week. He has to get out there and connect.”
Republicans lament the heads-up move made by Sweeney to swoop in and stand with Andrezjczak in Wildwood after Murphy cut boardwalk funding. They say in the closing days Testa can’t allow the incumbent another advantage like that amid the coming airwar.
A GOP ally at the lighthouse asked for more signs.
He wants to pepper the landscape.
Rattling off a list of bipartisan accomplishments, Testa strongly denied the charge by his opponent that he has only the interests of Republicans at heart. “I’m an NAACP Unsung Hero Award Recipient,” he said. “Past Chairman of Cumberland and Salem County Big Brothers Big Sisters [serving as Board President in 2015 when we were recognized as top Board in United States], former Chairman of Vineland Downtown Improvement District/Main Street, recipient of 2016 Paul Aiken Cultural Arts Alliance, current Board President of Vineland Regional Dance Company, former Chairman of New Jersey State Bar Legislative Committee, trustee for the state bar association and former president of the Cumberland BAR Association.”
A storm was coming.
The sun retreated over the weathered sand dunes and over the river inland. Somewhere there’s a whole town down here, upriver, absent anyone, forgotten and eerie, in the words of a local man who hiked there once and found himself alone amid the ghosts of the underground railroad.
The ocean side and the bay side together make a district.
Ospreys nest on both sides.
Candidates fight for ground in between.
The bayshore requires a long-term dredging fix, or routine maintenance in the words of Campbell. This week the Delaware Bayshore Council, working in concert with elected officials and the DEP, annnounced a temporary, roughly five-year bandaid for that area around the East Point Lighthouse: geotubes filled with sand and other materials to protect the beach and keep it clean, not exactly the bulkheads and dredge Campwell wants but an impediment in any event.
“Temporary,” said Testa, “not permanent. Now the danger is imminent.”
Like Campbell before him, he believes he can do better.
But nothing comes easy here in LD1, a place conditioned by raw power plays bigger than men, and Andrzejczak also knows that, better than most.
- Bob Andrzejczak
- Cape May County
- Cumberland County
- Delaware Bay
- Downe Township
- East Point Lighthouse
- George Norcross III
- Jeff Van Drew
- Matt Milam
- Maurice River
- Michael Clark
- Michael Testa
- Middle Twp.
- Mike Testa
- Nancy Patterson
- Nick Asselta
- Rio Grande
- Robert Andrzejczak
- Robert Campbell
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