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N.J. town's drift could be omen for Democrats

WOODBRIDGE, N.J. - The Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and Routes 1 and 9 all converge here in a Medusa's nest of concrete ramps, right in the center of the state.

The Civil War Monument in downtown Woodbridge on Nov. 18, 2009. ( Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer )
The Civil War Monument in downtown Woodbridge on Nov. 18, 2009. ( Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer )Read more

WOODBRIDGE, N.J. - The Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and Routes 1 and 9 all converge here in a Medusa's nest of concrete ramps, right in the center of the state.

So do the main highways to political power.

To win statewide, Democrats must rack up big margins in the township and surrounding Middlesex County, and the party has managed to hold the mostly working- and middle-class territory in recent years. But last month, voters rebelled, helping elect Republican Christopher J. Christie governor.

Exit polls and interviews with a couple dozen Woodbridge voters suggest Christie's win was a rejection of Democratic Gov. Corzine amid anger over New Jersey's weak economy and high taxes - a local phenomenon rather than a statement about President Obama. Still, there are warning signs for the White House and national Democrats heading into the 2010 midterm elections.

Many voters expressed worry about the direction of the nation and concern about the new president's handling of the job, balanced in some quarters by a sense of grim realism that the problems won't be solved overnight.

On a recent visit, people were independent-minded in their assessments, with a range of opinions as unpredictable as the tangle of merging highways. They're unsettled.

They fret over the sick economy and continuing double-digit unemployment, wondering if they perhaps will be next. They think that taxes and federal spending are too high, are skeptical that plans to overhaul the health-care system will make things better, and question whether the nation can afford the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. And beyond all that, there are skeins of cynicism toward government.

"A lot of people are not too happy with the economy and feel Obama hasn't done anything to change it," said Jay Frangione, an independent voter who runs the counter at the Woodbridge Bowling Center. "I can't really give him a knock, though: He's no different than anyone else - makes promises, then gets in and things don't get done. Again."

The White House recognizes it is entering a period of political risk, with Obama's approval ratings down and the health-care debate in the Senate and the push to increase troops in Afghanistan ripening at the same time. The war is unpopular with the liberal base of Obama's party, and he faces a classic guns-versus-butter dilemma as he pursues an ambitious domestic agenda at the same time the cost of the military venture rises.

On Friday, Obama went to Allentown, Pa., to launch a "White House to Main Street" tour aimed at reassuring the nation that he feels its pain and is focused on creating jobs.

There, Obama touted news that the nation lost fewer jobs than forecast last month.

"This is good news, just in time for the season of hope," Obama said. "But I want to keep this in perspective. We still have a long way to go."

The president is scheduled to unveil specific job-generating proposals in a Tuesday speech.

Frangione believes the nation needs to rebuild its industrial might. He worked at a massive Chevron refinery in the Sewaren section of Woodbridge until it downsized in the 1980s and sent most of the work to cheaper places in the United States, and ultimately overseas. The area has a Shell oil terminal and several big warehouses now, but the smelting company and the plastics plant left long ago, Frangione said.

"I myself look at it now and think that politicians could have helped. They could have put a stop to it," said Frangione, 53, a registered independent. "People are ticked off."

'Democratic inclinations'

Woodbridge has a six-block-long Main Street, with longtime shops, trendy cafes, and restaurants. There are only a couple of vacant storefronts, despite the recession and the big-box stores along Routes 1 and 9.

The 27-square-mile township also has several walkable neighborhood business districts, miles of postwar subdivisions, corporate office parks, and an industrial section along the Arthur Kill, the river that separates New Jersey and Staten Island. Its demographics track the state averages in most respects, though it's a little more prosperous and more Asian.

Politically, Woodbridge is dominated by a mix of independent voters and Reagan Democrats who were part of Obama's winning electoral coalition, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

"They tend to have Democratic inclinations but will break that pattern when they feel Republicans can better represent their interests on taxes and cost-of-living issues," Murray said. "Obama courted these voters in '08 with an economic message, and they are the reason he won in places like Indiana and Ohio."

For Corzine, defection of voters here was stark. The Democrat carried Middlesex County by 17.6 percentage points when he was elected in 2005, but lost the county this year by 2.7 points - the largest swing in the state.

Christie carried Woodbridge by 2,084 votes, the first time in memory that a statewide GOP candidate won the township.

Sripriya Sathya, speed-walking with a friend on the indoor track at the Woodbridge Community Center, is one of the reasons. She voted for Christie because he promised to lower taxes, though she's not holding her breath, but last year she voted for Obama, hoping for a change.

"I can't say he's perfect, but he's trying," Sathya, 35, said of the president. She is the mother of two, and her husband commutes to a financial-industry job in New York. To some extent, Woodbridge is a bedroom community. It has two commuter rail stations and bus service to Manhattan, about a 40-minute ride away.

"We're struggling, but we've survived," Sathya said. She thinks that Obama is spending too much time on foreign relations and Afghan policy.

"He was talking about the recession at first, but it kind of dropped off the radar screen," she said. "I wish he'd concentrate more on us here at home than on international things."

Frank Tsien, a retired teacher and registered independent, voted for Corzine in 2005, Christie this time.

"People are corrupted after a while, and you have to get new blood in there," Tsien, 65, said. He believed that it was time to kick the Republicans out of the White House last year, but thought Obama was too inexperienced. He went with Ralph Nader.

So far, Obama has not sold him. He especially doubts that the $847 billion health-care bill before the Senate will ever rein in costs as the president insists.

"You never see anything that gets lower over time. Never," Tsien said. "Certainly not government. It just keeps growing. Every government program costs more than they thought it would."

June Sandy's vote for Christie had nothing to do with Obama, she said. It was because Corzine, a former Wall Street titan, "is a multimillionaire who can't identify with real people," said Sandy, 33, who was at the Auto Parts & Sporting Goods store buying bait worms to feed her pet turtle.

"I was not voting against Corzine. To me it was a vote against Obama as president," said Patricia Notchey, who was reading a murder mystery as she ate lunch at San Remo Pizza on Main Street. Getting a new governor "was just a bonus," she said.

All of the money being spent from Washington frightens her as the deficit climbs over $1 trillion and debt piles upon debt. "I think Obama's changing the face of the nation, and it may not be there for my eight grandchildren," said Notchey, 67, a retired receptionist for an obstetrician. "There's too much government."

Don Peck, a liberal Democrat who was getting a haircut at the old-school Main Street Barber Shop, approves of Obama's performance, but wants the United States to get out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq seems to be winding down, and he likes that Obama set a timeline to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. "The president is trying to lead us in that direction," said Peck, 71, who owns a manufacturing firm.

Turning on Corzine

Even as Middlesex County voters were turning on Corzine, they returned Democrats to the Legislature, and the party's local candidates ran ahead of the governor in 14 of the 15 towns with contested elections.

In Woodbridge, the successful Democratic candidates for council used green yard signs and fliers as opposed to the state-party blue, and they touted the endorsement of popular Mayor John McCormac, making no mention of the governor. Corzine never campaigned in the town, while Christie came several times. It probably didn't help that one of Corzine's proposals for getting out of the fiscal mess earlier in his term was to sell the turnpike and parkway to companies that would jack up tolls by a factor of eight to pay the debt on the roads.

"I think it's a sign of the economy. People are hurting," said Middlesex County Sheriff Joseph C. Spicuzzo, who has been the Democratic chairman for 16 years. "Corzine was up against some tough issues."

Still, there was patience for Obama from many, including some who did not vote for him.

"I guess Obama's still in school," said Warren Larsen, a registered Republican who owns the Main Street auto parts/sporting goods store, which also has a bicycle shop in the front. "It's a tough call. I wouldn't want to be president. . . . He's got how many irons in the fire? Forty, 50? It's tough."

Larsen even believes that something must be done about the soaring cost of health care, but has little confidence in Congress. "Some of those guys couldn't digest a milk shake," he said. "They're moving too fast. I don't think they're thinking about it long and deep enough."

Rina DePinto was picking up her daughter Alyssa, 9, one evening at the Dance Starz Academy in the affluent Colonia section of the township. The studio's windows were steamed up as parents crowded into the waiting room before a class ended.

"So far I'm unimpressed, but I'm willing to give him a shot," DePinto, 35, said of Obama. "My husband calls him 'The Messiah.' We need to give him more time to see if he can make a difference. People are too tough. He's only been in a year."

Tim Keiras made his way out of the studio with a tired, limp Lara, 6, on his shoulder, nuzzling his neck, wanting to go home. A registered Democrat who works in New York City for Con Edison, Keiras voted for Corzine the first time and then flipped to Christie last month, fed up over taxes and the state's fiscal mess.

As for Obama, he likes the new president's approach, even though he voted for McCain. "He came into a mess, and it's not going to be fixed overnight," Keiras, 36, said. "People want it to be right now. Whose fault is it that the bottom fell out?"

But as time goes on, voters may be less willing to cut Obama and the Democrats slack because of the problems left by the previous administration, argues independent Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

"Now, Obama owns the economy," he said. It could also be said that the president owns the Afghanistan war with his plan, announced Tuesday, to send 30,000 more troops.

If history is a guide, Republicans stand to pick up House seats next year. The out-of-power party usually does, and the question is how many.

To hang on to power, Democrats will have to reach fed-up and economically stressed voters such as Sandra Schwear, who was bowling late one afternoon as her two young boys begged for more coins for video games.

A native of Woodbridge, she's had it with central New Jersey.

Property taxes on her three-bedroom split-level home in Colonia have jumped from $4,200 to $7,900 in five years. "It's disgusting," said Schwear, 29. "We got the tax statement, and my husband threw it in the garbage."

The family is moving to Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York to a bigger and cheaper house; her husband got a promotion.

"It's getting too expensive to live here," Schwear said. "If we stay, we'll be on an endless cycle."


Obama trying to spur employers to hire.A21.