Whelan and Balles square off in AC

ATLANTIC CITY – The Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger followed familiar scripts Wednesday evening.

New Jersey spends too much, residents are taxed too high and gay marriage should be decided by the voters, Republican Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles told about 100 people. His opponent is a career politician and the state would be better served by tightening its belt and opening up to small businesses.

Democratic Sen. Jim Whelan, on the other hand, supported gay marriage, in his words, “before it was cool,” argues in favor of increasing the minimum wage and wants a millionaire’s tax passed in the state to offset slashes to property tax rates.

Both agreed property taxes are too high and that the middle class needs someone fighting for them in Trenton.

But whether the Democratic incumbent will retain his seat in the competitive district that’s home to two Republican incumbents in the Assembly, all while a popular GOP governor tops the ticket in November, remains to be seen.

The two squared off in Atlantic City in the first of three debates set for the District 2 race. Both men fought to distinguish themselves as the person better suited to represent voters in an area of the state both agreed is hurting from high taxes and the lack of economic growth.

“It’s time for a change,” declared Balles, adding, “A positive change for a positive future.”

The sheriff argued Whelan is a “desperate career politician” and that under the Democrat’s tenure, the state spent too much and lost too many jobs. He promised to work with Gov. Chris Christie and build on the accomplishments the Republican governor made during his first term.

“We have a spending problem,” Balles said. “We need to look in our state budget and go through that line by line.”

Whelan, while noting he worked with the governor in areas they both agreed on, saw things through a different perspective.

“The rich are getting richer, the middle class are losing ground and the poor are getting buried,” Whelan said. “That’s not right, that’s not fair and that’s not good for the economy.”

He argued in favor of funding women’s health services in the state and said Atlantic City’s casinos are losing ground to competition in neighboring states.

The lawmaker defended his proposal to eliminate the gas tax by asking drivers to self-report and pay a lump sum for their mileage, saying it’s a conversation starter to address an aging infrastructure in the state that can no longer be ignored.

“Let’s put them up for discussion,” he said. “Let’s at least acknowledge there’s a problem here.”

The two presented their platforms to voters as the November election nears and Republicans hope to build off of Christie’s popularity and take additional seats in the upper chamber.

According to a September Stockton Polling Institute poll on the District 2 race, Whelan leads Balles by 12 points.

"The governor still has to come to bat."
—Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, on Atlantic City.