(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009.)
Democratic state Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam won a close race that was arguably the most watched Assembly race in the state.
With 99 percent of the voting districts reporting, Albano had 31,948 votes and his running mate Milam won 29,443. Donohue was trailing with 27,398, while McCann had 26,479.
For Albano, at least, the win was an emotional one. His voice cracked as he thanked his supporters, particularly 1st District state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and their chief of staff, Allison Murphy, whom he described as his family now. He talked about how, over the past eight years, Albano’s son and father died, and his marriage fell apart in the wake of his son’s tragic death in a drunk driving accident that indirectly launched the political career of the Vineland shop steward.
“It’s been a tough eight years,” Albano said. “But when you got support from good people like this, how can you give up? This is my life now.”
Milam and Albano are Democrats in the 1st District, which historically has been a Republican stronghold. This year, they were running for re-election without the benefit of having state Van Drew on the ticket. Van Drew, a popular Democrat, broke through Republican control of the district in 2002 when he won an Assembly seat. In 2008, he wrestled the state Senate seat from Republican Nicholas Asselta.
The two Democrats said their victory was even more remarkable given the defeat of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine.
“It really showed that we stood independent,” Milam said.
Republican challengers Michael Donohue, a Dennis Township attorney and Ocean City real estate agent John McCann sought to paint Milam and Albano as rubber stamps for Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s administration. Albano and Milam distanced themselves from the governor, touting themselves as independent voices who have at times bucked their own party. At the same time, Albano and Milam leaned heavily on the star power of Van Drew, mentioning him frequently in their campaign material even though he was not running.
Donohue said he was waiting for the official word on the race. But with the numbers looking grim for him, he said he was disappointed in the outcome.
“This is a gut-check for Republicans if we’re going to be effective as a political organization,” he said.
Cape May County Republican Leader David Von Savage said the Democrats won by campaigning on traditional Republican issues such as cutting taxes, shrinking government and encouraging individual responsibility.
Donohue said the Democrats won by spending far more money and disassociating themselves from the other Democrats in New Jersey, particularly Gov. Jon S. Corzine.
“We have opponents who do a good job of convincing voters they are not Democrats,” Donohue said.
McCann said he did not know what it would take to get a Republican elected to the 1st Legislative District, which for years had been dominated by the GOP.
“I really felt we were great candidates. We ran a flawless campaign with a great guy at the top of the ticket in Christie,” McCann said. “What else could you ask for?”
Democrats hammered McCann and Donohue for collecting multiple public pensions. But McCann said he would not apologize for taking a pension after serving as a lifeguard for years as a kid growing up in Sea Isle City. He was recently named to the Cape May County Tax Board, where he is eligible for another pension.
“I wish Matt Milam well. I wish Nelson Albano well. I just hope they take to heart some of the wishes of residents in southern New Jersey about cutting taxes,” he said.
McCann joined Donohue as a candidate after Upper Township Committeeman Frank Conrad removed himself from contention this year. Conrad said he could not devote time away from his business to campaign.
But on Tuesday he said he was not sorry about his short-lived candidacy.
“I worked behind the scenes so I have no regrets — without a doubt,” he said. “When I dropped out of the race, it was about my family. When my business gets back on track, I’ll be back.”
The 1st District covers all of Cape May County, Maurice River Township, Millville and Vineland in Cumberland County and Buena, Buena Vista Township and Somers Point in Atlantic County.
All four candidates expressed similar views on many key issues. They all touted cutting state spending and slashing and restructuring state government, including the Department of Environmental Protection.
Each opposed video lottery terminals for horse-racing tracks out of concern for the economic impact it would have on Atlantic City’s gambling industry. All supported wind energy development in the Delaware Bay, despite DEP’s opposition to a proposal for 106 wind turbines that it contends will negatively affect migratory birds and the commercial fishing industry.
Both major parties targeted the seat as competitive, and Republicans saw as it a rare potential pickup in their efforts to close the 48-32 advantage that Democrats hold in the Assembly.
Both sides spent heavily on television and other advertisements. Milam and Albano spent a total of $1,199,898 in bid to win re-election, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Donohue and McCann spent $515,616 as of their 11-day pre-election finance report.
Milam has served one term in the Assembly, while Albano has served two and chairs the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.