Assembly candidates debate at Stockton Atlantic City.

ATLANTIC CITY – A tightly run debate held at Stockton Atlantic City Wednesday, Oct. 23 gave District 2 Assembly candidates little time for political rhetoric. Instead, each legislative candidate had a minute or less to respond to questions on important issues facing constituents.

The debate sponsored by the university’s William H. Hughes Center for Public Policy and The Press of Atlantic City lasted a little more than an hour and was attended by about 75 concerned citizens.

Incumbent Democrats Vincent Mazzeo and John Armato faced Republican challengers Phil Guenther and John W. Risley Jr.

Mazzeo, owner of B.F. Mazzeo Fruit and Produce, is seeking his fourth term in the legislature, while Armato, a retired HVAC mechanic, is seeking his second term.

Mazzeo is chairman of the State and Local Government Committee and is a member of the Law and Public Safety Committee and the Tourism, Gaming and Arts Committee. Armato serves on the Commerce and Economic Development, Health and Senior Services and Military and Veterans Affairs committees.

Guenther was mayor of Brigantine for 26 years and is the current superintendent of the Atlantic County Special Services School District, which includes the Atlantic County Institute of Technology. Risley, owner of an investment firm, has been an Atlantic County freeholder-at-large for 18 years and has served on the governing bodies of every community he has lived in over the years.

The candidates agreed somewhat on several issues including deversifying Atlantic County’s economy, shared services, climate change, investigating the NY/NJ Port Authority takeover of Atlantic City International Airport, and providing Transportation Trust Funds to finance boardwalk replacements. None of the candidates supported legalization of recreational marijuana.

They differed on the state takeover of Atlantic City, which Guenther said Mazzeo forced upon Atlantic County, reducing taxes through school consolidation, controlling state finances, immigration and how to combat the opioid crisis.

Guenther, who started his education career as a teacher 35 years ago at the old Atlantic City High School, said he got in the race after considering New Jersey’s current business climate, high taxes, out-migration of college graduates and the cost of living. His legislative priorities would be tax reduction and finding a stable source of school funding.

Risley said he strongly opposes Mazzeo’s Assembly Bill A-546, which would create a countywide tax assessment program, and that he is concerned about state finances.

“New Jersey’s bond rating has been downgraded so many times, that it’s pathetic,” he said.

His legislative priorities would be property tax reform and opposing North Jersey casinos, an issue that will not die, he said.

Mazzeo said he hopes to continue property tax reforms that fully-funded the Homestead Rebate and Senor Property Tax Freeze programs this year and would look to cyber-security to make voting more secure.

Armato said the Democratic controlled legislature has been addressing high property taxes, but more needs to be done for seniors, veterans and the addicted.

Risley said the state promised a lot when it took over the city’s finances, but he is “not impressed” with the results. The length of the PILOT – 10 years – should be shortened, he said.

Gunether said the Atlantic City PILOT bill Mazzeo sponsored is “an unmitigated disaster.” Although the casinos are on the upswing, the city is looking at another tax increase next year, he said, and tearing up collective bargaining unit contracts “disenfranchised” voters.

Armato “wholeheartedly” supported the state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances, which resulted in Stockton campus and South Jersey Gas Company being built in the city, he said.

Mazzeo said the PILOT program stabilized property taxes.

“I guess Mr. Guenther would rather see the city go bankrupt than pursue the PILOT and takeover,” Mazzeo said.

The Christie administration left NJ Transit in poor shape, Mazzeo said. He is seeking marketing funds to promote the Atlantic City Rail Line.

Guenther said NJ Transit rail line has not been functioning well for a long time.

“Only in New Jersey can you take a service, give a lower level of service after you take it away for six months, and then declare it a success. We need a rail service that is dependable and makes sense for Atlantic City,” Guenther said.

Risley called the train the “lifeblood” of Atlantic City and that it should be upgraded.

Armato said he would like to see an express train for Atlantic City residents who work in Philadelphia.

All the candidates agreed the Atlantic City International Airport is an “underutilized” resource that would improve through expansion of the National Aviation Research Park in Egg Harbor Township.

“One of my jobs as superintendent at ACIT is to prepare the next workforce for jobs in that sector,” Gunther said.

Risley said Sen. Steve Sweeney’s suggestion that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey take over Atlantic City International Airport to expand flights and aviation services should be further investigated, although “the proof is in the pudding” regarding of the details, he said.

“The trouble with government today is that people don’t take the time to study things and think things through and that leads to a lot of bad decisions,” Risley said.

Both Armato and Mazzeo said the takeover should be further analyzed to expand cargo and bring in additional airlines to increase tourism.

And regarding Sweeney’s “Path to Progress” recommendation to consolidate school districts to save on taxes, all the candidates agreed the state has too many school districts.

“Consolidation is the key to all our services and an opportunity to save money in the county and throughout the state,” Armato said.

However, Guenther said the choice to consolidate K-8 districts into larger K-12 regional districts should be up to local voters.

“I don’t think Trenton should force people to consolidate if it is not in their best interest financially to do so,” Guenther said.

If not done properly, districts could wind up paying more, he said.

Tackling state health benefits and pensions is something the state is already grappling with, Mazzeo said.

“This is something where everyone needs to be at the table,” Guenther said. “It cannot be mandated by Trenton.”

“Contract is a contract, a handshake is a handshake,” Risley said, but the state must live within its means by reducing the number of state employees.

“We have to find a way to fully fund pensions,” Mazzeo said. “An obligation is an obligation, but there has to be a conversation between collective bargaining units and the state to make health care costs come down.”

Stop the spending, then do a comprehensive audit of state departments to see where money is being spent, Guenther said.

“We need to think about a 2% cap for the state,” he said.

Risley said counties and municipalities are able get along with a 2% cap and so should the state.

Regarding climate change, the county should find opportunities to reduce carbon emissions, but natural gas must be readily available, Guenther said.

Risley said he is proud of what the “greenest county in the state” has done to tackle drainage issues and purchase hybrid vehicles.

Armato said he has “six important reasons” to work to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

“They are my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I will do my best to make the area a hub for the wind industry,” he said.

“Climate change is real,” Mazzeo said, stating he would continue to work with Orstead to ensure a wind farm is erected in the ocean off Atlantic City.

Risley said he supports law enforcement in their efforts to curb illegal immigration.

“Washington needs to fix what’s wrong with our immigration system,” Armato said.

“We have a federal immigration law in New Jersey is not being adhered to,” Guenther said. “It makes no sense not to have one law enforcement agency not talking to another. We need to make sure we are letting federal, state and local law enforcement agencies do their jobs.”

Jobs can be created by diversifying the economy beyond the casinos, the candidates said, pointing to the aviation research center as a way to add new, good paying jobs.

However, Armato said not everyone needs to be college educated.

“We have young men and women who can work with their hands. When you work with your hands, you will have a lifetime job,” he said.

“As we diversify aviation technology, we should never forget about the farmers as well. There’s a lot we can do to help them,” Mazzeo said.

The aviation hub needs financial incentives to create jobs, Guenther said.

As a freeholder, Risley worked to get the aviation park up and running, he said.

“We are going to leverage aviation to the max,” he said.

Regarding making college more affordable, candidates offered different perspectives.

Mazzeo noted the state increased Tuition Aid Grants, but more needs to be done to control the cost of college loans.

Guenther said the state has not adequately funded education, and that college loan rates hover around 7%, while the cost of purchasing a home is less than 4%

Risley said he recommends students consider going to community college, which is affordable, before obtaining degrees at four-year institutions.

Mazzeo said he supports decriminalizing possession of marijuana and expunging the records of those convicted of marijuana offenses, and that medicinal use should be further expanded.

Guenther said he is against legalizing recreational marijuana, which is marketed to today’s youths.

“We do not have to balance our budget on the health of our residents,” he said.

Risley legalizing recreational marijuana and decriminalization should be considered separately, but that he is opposed to recreational marijuana.

Armato, who serves volunteers as an addiction counselor, said there are many unanswered questions about legalization of recreational marijuana.

To address the opioid problem, Guenther said there needs to be more education for students and doctors, who should seek alternatives to pain relief after surgery.

Armato said he was proud of a bill that he and Mazzeo sponsored to get secondary labeling on opioid medications.

“When we remove the stigma of mental health and addiction, we can go a long way,” Armato said.

Mazzeo said his bill to get Narcan in high schools is a good first step, but more needs to be done with education and sober living homes.

All candidates agreed there needs to be more civil discourse in elections.

“All of us have to do better,” Risley said.

In their closing statements, Guenther said he is proud of his service to the community, especially in Brigantine following Hurricane Sandy, and in the field of education, but that changes in government are needed.

Risley said public service is his passion and that he would work in a bipartisan manner to get things done for Atlantic County.

Armato said his law to make hotel workers feel safer on the job – the first of its type in the country – is an example of delivering what constituents ask for.

Mazzeo said governance comes down to caring for people, recalling Sen. Jim Whelan who often said, “Show up, do your job and be nice to people.”

The polls will be open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5.