How many people, Chris Daggett wants to know, feel well represented by Republicans or Democrats in Trenton?

In a Bordentown crowd of a couple of dozen people, a few hands go up.

How many feel either party is addressing the issues facing the state? Even fewer hands.

Daggett says he, too, no longer believes either party will tackle the state's problems, which is why he is running for governor as an independent.

Daggett is new to the political game, but after a few months on the campaign trail, his pitch and delivery are growing more practiced and smooth. Trim and neatly groomed, Daggett, 59, looks the part of a candidate and engages the crowd on this warm August night with the ease of a college professor.

The Bernards Township resident talks about his background - growing up in New Jersey, his doctorate in education, his years leading the state Department of Environmental Protection and the local region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, his work in brownfields remediation, volunteering for nonprofits.

He also offers some alarming numbers New Jersey's elected officials rarely talk about: the more than $30 billion unfunded liability in government employees' pensions. The $60 billion to $70 billion in unfunded health-care liabilities. A state budget shortfall next year of between $4 billion and $10 billion, in a budget of $29 billion.

Other candidates talk about how they would solve the state's fiscal problems by cutting expenses. But do the math, Daggett says, and you would need to cut at least 80,000 state workers to close the budget gap. The state doesn't even have that many employees, which means some people would have to be fired twice.

The audience laughs.

Soon Daggett opens up the floor to questions. A woman stands up and asks what many voters are asking: As an independent candidate facing narrow odds, what, exactly, is his strategy to win? Can he win?

Daggett's objectives

Conventional wisdom is that Daggett doesn't have a chance - even though he is the first independent in state history to raise enough money to qualify for public matching funds, and in time to earn a seat at the two official debates. He has also won the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger.

Daggett contemplated races in 2001 and 2005, only to be talked out of running by various friends, who thought he couldn't win.

This time, he is not listening to them.

In Democratic Gov. Corzine, Daggett sees a surprisingly unpopular incumbent. In Republican Christopher J. Christie, he sees a one-issue candidate with no state government experience, whose lead has withered under the barrage of Corzine's negative ads.

Neither, Daggett contends, has laid out a clear plan about how he would govern New Jersey.

Add to that a debilitated economy, generous public-financing laws, and a public fed up with partisan bickering, and Daggett believes the job is within his grasp.

So yes, he tells the woman, he can win this. His first strategy: Get one more vote than the next guy. In a winner-take-all election, just 34 percent could win the race.

Daggett has momentum on his side, but still lags considerably behind the two front-runners. According to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released yesterday, 39 percent of likely voters support Corzine to Christie's 36 percent and Daggett's 20 percent, with a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points. It was Daggett's best showing in a major public opinion poll.

Daggett's underdog status is reflected in his fund-raising as well, although it, too, is on the upswing; as of Oct. 7, Corzine had raised $16.8 million to Christie's $9.6 million and Daggett's $890,000. Christie and Daggett, who are receiving public funds, are limited to spending $11 million. Daggett estimates his net worth at $1.5 million - more than most state residents, but not enough to do much good in an election.

To voters who are won over, Daggett is refreshing - charming, even. His quirky first television ad, featuring Corzine and Christie impersonators, is the work of political consultant Bill Hillsman, whose spots helped Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura win.

But to others, Daggett's belief that he can win is just proof he's politically naive.

Daggett pitches himself as an alternative to politics as usual, and throughout his campaign he has offered one jaw-dropping idea after another.

He proposes banning tenure for teachers, who make up one of the state's most politically powerful unions. He admits that to fix the state's transportation network, he may need to raise the gas tax. He wants to cut property taxes by expanding the sales tax. He has told state employee union leaders they need to cut costs along with everybody else.

A longtime Republican - he keeps two framed photos of himself with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in his living room and persuaded his wife, a Democratic National Committee worker in college, to vote for Ronald Reagan - Daggett leans left on social issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage. He says that he changed his party registration earlier this year from Republican to unaffiliated, but that he has long felt unhappy with the Republican Party. He didn't even bother, he says, to seek party leaders' endorsement.

"I got to the point that I was disillusioned. I just think that they've demonstrated the same inability to . . . step up."

Both parties, he says, are too stuck in ideology and too focused on special interests.

If elected, Daggett says he would find the best people to solve the state's problems, regardless of party affiliation.

Political beginnings

Daggett was introduced to politics in 1976, when he was home for the holidays from graduate school and a friend asked if he would like to join a political campaign.

By semester's end, he had finished his dissertation and moved back to New Jersey to work on Raymond Bateman's gubernatorial campaign, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

Four years later, Daggett worked on the campaign of Thomas H. Kean. When Kean was elected governor in 1981, he named Daggett his deputy chief of staff, overseeing education and the environment.

After a shake-up at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Daggett was appointed administrator for the region covering New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Daggett dived into his new job. Fearing he didn't know enough about the environmental issues, he worked 16-hour days to catch up.

"I just buried myself in the place," Daggett says, "and just learned it."

Daggett said he read every document at the EPA and DEP he was asked to sign, thousands of pages in all.

"Those are the kinds of expectations he has of himself," said Daggett's wife, Bea.

At the EPA, Daggett's first big decision was a whopper. For more than a decade, developers had tried to push forward a multibillion-dollar project known as Westway. The project involved filling in about 250 acres of the Hudson River to build a highway along the west side of Manhattan. On top would sit commercial and residential development and parks.

Elected officials from Manhattan to the White House supported the plan, along with businesses and labor unions, but Daggett did his best to ignore the politics swirling around him.

"I was so focused on trying to do what was the right thing," Daggett says. "It just wasn't on my radar screen."

Daggett realized the project could irreparably harm the striped bass population, which meant it should not be built. The law was clear and he was going to follow it.

At one point, a top EPA administrator in Washington wrote a memo saying it didn't appear that Daggett had "gotten the message" that he was expected to back down.

On Jan. 21, 1985, Daggett signed a letter recommending that Westway not be allowed. Out of courtesy, he faxed the letter to Alfonse D'Amato, then the senior senator from New York and a major proponent of the project.

Five minutes later, Daggett's office phone rang.

"Let's just say he wasn't happy," Daggett recalls. The 34-year-old was polite, but unruffled.

"After yelling at me for some time with a lot of four-letter words mixed in, I just told him I disagreed with him and I hung up."

The phone call wasn't the end of the Westway saga, but eventually Daggett's decision was upheld.

"We were vindicated in our actions and I felt like I got a good lesson again in doing what I believed was right," Daggett says.

Marcy Benstock, one of the leading environmental advocates who fought the Westway project, said Daggett "deserves enormous credit for refusing to back down," saying that his actions "helped save a national habitat of extraordinary national importance."

Daggett later left the EPA to join Kean's cabinet as DEP commissioner, where he tackled issues such as ocean pollution and toxic waste.

Saul Cooperman, who served as Kean's education commissioner, calls Daggett's integrity "unimpeachable."

"This is the only time in my life I've ever supported a candidate," says Cooperman, 75.

Daggett's work at the EPA and DEP have been widely praised by environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, which endorsed him this year in the gubernatorial race.

Today, Daggett owns a firm that acquires and redevelops contaminated properties. He also works as an environmental consultant at J.M. Sorge, of Somerville.

Daggett calls the environment "an integral part of our daily lives and our existence." Clean water and clean air are crucial to public health, he adds, and important to a region's economic viability.

But Daggett has environmental critics, too. Joe Morris, an organizer for Interfaith Community Organization, which has worked to try to clean up chromium-contaminated sites in Hudson County, said he was disappointed that Daggett had not done more to try to force a polluter to clean up a property Daggett had purchased with some partners.

"We're very disappointed that as a property owner he's missed his . . . opportunity to drive a cleanup of this critical site in Jersey City," Morris said.

Daggett said he would like to see the property cleaned up quickly so he can redevelop it, but that he cannot force the polluters into action. "The leverage we have is the court of public opinion, where we shout, scream, push, cajole, plead, do all the other things to get them to meet the timetables, but we don't have any actual leverage."

At the debate

At the first televised debate, on Oct. 1, Daggett was sandwiched between Corzine, to the viewers' left, and Christie, to the right. Daggett appeared nervous at first but quickly found his footing.

Corzine and Christie appeared at turns angry and defensive during the 90-minute debate. Daggett, poised and articulate, delivered a performance worthy of a political veteran. And unlike his opponents, he looked like he was having fun.

At one point, the moderator asked if Daggett was really in the race to win.

Yes, he said. "I believe people are willing to hear the truth finally about what's going on in New Jersey and looking for someone who will give them a responsible set of alternatives for how we're going to deal with the issues facing us."

"I think people will gravitate toward me, and they are."

Christie and Corzine both followed up by complimenting their opponent.

"Sounds like both these two guys," Daggett deadpanned, "might vote for me."

Christopher Daggett

Age: 59; born in Orange, N.J.

Residence: Bernards Township. Grew up in East Orange, Nutley, Linwood, and Bernards Township.

Family: Married with two grown daughters.

Political experience: Unaffiliated. Interviewed for township council in Bernards Township in 1984 but withdrew from the race when named regional EPA administrator.

Education: University of North Carolina, bachelor's degree in 1972. University of Massachusetts, doctorate in education in 1977.

Occupation: Owns a firm that acquires and redevelops brownfields; also is an environmental consultant for J.M. Sorge of Somerville. Commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, 1988-89; New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean's deputy chief of staff and cabinet secretary, 1982-84. Regional administrator for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1984-88. Worked at William E. Simon and Sons, a family investment firm, 1990-96. Holds positions with nonprofits including the Regional Plan Association, Trust for Public Land, and Mount Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center.

Notable: Daggett was the first independent candidate in New Jersey history to qualify for public campaign funds in time to participate in the state-sanctioned debates. He and his wife, Bea, were married at the governor's mansion in 1982.

On the issues: He has proposed property-tax credits of 25 percent, up to $2,500, for homeowners, with all senior citizens to receive the maximum. He would extend the sales tax to most services not now taxed, including legal counsel, accounting services, and dry cleaning.

Quote: "In the past few weeks, momentum on my campaign has clearly been moving forward while my opponents have been sliding backward."

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Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.