District 37 Debate: Who'll Lead Way On Ethics Reform?

The Record ( — Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Who is further from the taint of corruption that has been swirling around elected Democrats in the last year?

That was the question at the core of the District 37 debate Monday night between Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Republican challenger Clara Nibot, and their respective slate of Assembly candidates.

Is it Weinberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, who have publicly distanced themselves from the leaders of Bergen's Democratic Party, or their Republican challengers?

The Hackensack debate, sponsored by New Jersey Citizen Action, was the first of two mandatory encounters under the Clean Elections project, an experimental public financing program for which the 37th District was chosen this year.

Weinberg and her slate qualified for the program and have received a combined $300,000 in public funding. Their GOP opponents, Nibot and Assembly candidates Frank Cifarelli and Wojciech Sieniaszkiewicz, did not gather enough seed money to qualify. Both slates said they support the idea of public financing in the future, agreeing that it is key to curing the influence of special interests on state and local politics. The polite, two-hour debate centered on who would be more committed to ethical reform: Democrats who have been leaders in Trenton during the last year of arrests and resignations or Republicans who haven't.

"Do you want to continue on the road to disaster, to embarrassment?" Nibot asked.

"When you support this team," Johnson said, "You are supporting reformers from within the Democratic Party."

Vainieri Huttle said she and her colleagues had effected reform in some key practices in Trenton. They passed a law that would put the voting records of all legislators online, and Weinberg co-sponsored a bill that would ban political contributions from developers in towns where they seek to build.

But Republicans took issue with Johnson, who said he opposed dual office-holding while currently holding two elective offices.

"If you're going to reform something, reform it completely," Siemaszkiewicz said.

The sides differed in their opinions on stem cell research and Governor Corzine's proposal to sell the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway – a debt reduction plan known as "asset monetization."

The Democrats said they support a statewide ballot question that would dedicate public money toward stem cell research, arguing that the authorization would spawn a robust biotech industry in the state and a simultaneous construction boom to support that industry.

Cifarelli said he was opposed to embryonic stem cell research. Nibot said that though the idea is noble, the state has a looming deficit to consider and no time for what she called a pet project.

The Democrats said Corzine's asset monetization plan, the details of which have not been revealed, is worth considering. The Republicans said the heavily traveled roads belonging to the public would be subject to fare increases if privatized.

"We start with that, and tomorrow we sell the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel," Nibot said.

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