One of the most salient and obvious difficulties a challenger faces when trying to unseat an incumbent, is that the incumbent has the advantage of being in office and actuating policy during campaign season. The challenger doesn’t have this ability and has to credibly present himself or herself as a viable alternative based on the electorate’s faith in the candidate, or displeasure with the incumbent.
The chief complaint about New Jersey has long been its affordability problem. Taxes are too high; it’s hard to get by in a state that has everything, but with a steep price tag. As such, property taxes have long been a sticking point for political campaigns from the local up to the state level. It’s a difficult task to deal with, being a multi-faceted issue, so most of the time nothing happens and the status quo prevails. This typically favors challengers.
As Insider NJ has reported before, LD-11 is one of the few, but also key, battleground races in the state. Incumbent State Senator Vin Gopal faces a challenge from businessman Stephen Dnistrian, a Republican who said he grew up “as a blue-collar Democrat,” son of immigrants, and can connect with diverse people given his own personal background.
Dnistrian has been assailing Gopal on matters related to education and parents’ rights with respect to curriculum, issues of sexual orientation, and gender identity. It has become a hot-button topic across the country with Republicans frequently taking the position that parents should be informed by the schools if students make any expression on LGBT identity. Democrats often take the position that it should not be the responsibility of teachers to potentially “out” students to their families, for fear that this can often endanger a questioning student, depending on the nature of the household.
Tying Gopal to Governor Phil Murphy on education matters is one way that Dnistrian has tried to shape the discourse of the campaign. His campaign called on Gopal to denounce Murphy’s threats to withhold millions in state funding for schools which enact policies of informing parents if teachers or faculty become aware of students making expressions on their own gender identity or sexual orientation. Lawsuits have been filed for what Democrats see as student protection, although Republicans see it as the state deliberately keeping parents in the dark about important family matters.
Dnistrian said in a statement, “Instead of filing lawsuits to keep parents out of essential discussions about their children’s health and well-being, the Governor should be helping school districts contend with the enduring learning loss kids are suffering from due to the pandemic.” His campaign asserted that Gopal was unwilling to stand up for the parents in the district.
Gopal, however, has the power of his office combined with the full backing of the Democratic Party which is keenly invested in protecting one of their rising stars. With few battleground races diverting Democratic energy over a broad area, they can concentrate on hammering back on Dnistrian and his incumbent Republican assemblywomen running mates. This time, Gopal has his name on a piece of legislation that just passed through the Senate Budget Committee 12-0, with Republican support, not just Democrats. This is for the StayNJ senior citizen tax relief program that would provide a hike in property tax relief for both homeowners and renters within the construct of the ANCHOR program. Seniors who are 65 or older can see the state bringing them a 50% property tax credit, up to $6,500. This applies to those seniors who make less than a half-million dollars a year. The benefit would go into effect on New Years Day, 2026, with three fiscal years building up hundreds of millions of dollars to provide for the credit. Further, the “Senior Freeze” relief program has been expanded so that those seniors who make up to $150,000 are eligible and the residency requirement has been shrunk from a decade to just three years.
The bill has Senate President Nick Scutari, Vin Gopal, and Joseph Lagana as its sponsors. Gopal has a tight fight on his hands with Dnistrian, and Lagana is facing Micheline Attieh in his own bid for reelection. Attieh, like Lagana, both have their roots in Paramus, where Lagana served as a councilman before entering state-level politics. The Lebanese businesswoman is credited with helping to flip the formerly blue municipality which straddles the economic arteries of Route 4 and Route 17 to red. This, coupled with Lagana’s fairly close-run match in 2021 against Richard Garcia, 52.9% to 47.1%, means that the 44-year-old Democrat must, like Gopal, fight hard if he wants to retain his seat in the state senate against a Republican challenger with a business background.
Herein lies the power of incumbency. With property taxes one of the most onerous complaints about New Jersey life, and one of the key platforms not-related-to-culture-war (broadly speaking) for Republicans to attack institutional Democratic power, they have a claim on one of the most powerful arguments.
James Carville is credited with saying, “It’s the economy, stupid,” back in 1992. These four words of political gold have not depreciated in the last 31 years. New Jersey property taxes are high. Now the budget committee has—with bipartisan support and Democratic sponsors—moved a Democratic bill to actually deliver significant relief to the state’s vulnerable senior citizens. It would be politically dangerous for Republicans to oppose delivering on a concrete plan for senior property tax relief, which has a component in place for it to be funded. Republican opposition has come, despite giving their votes, on the matter of timing—why later and not right away? Is it a political gimmick?
But whether relief comes now or later, should this be signed into law, Gopal and Lagana may have a chance to breathe a sigh of relief, putting a new legislative plank in their leaky hull to keep rising Republican votes from flooding and capsizing their offices. Republicans looking in from the outside, eager to get in, will waste no time in readjusting their campaign strategies. In the end, the bill with Scutari, Gopal, and Lagana’s name on it could yield a benefit to a potential future Republican governor once it comes into effect in 2026. This is a political gift incubating for whomever will occupy Drumthwacket, but, more importantly, it is an actual piece of governmental work that will benefit the public good—the reason anyone, whether an R or a D, is entrusted with the people’s constitutional mandate.
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