How can the party that nominated a candidate for the US House in 2006 now cast that same candidate as a fringe Tea Partier? Welcome to New Jersey Republican politics. In 2006, the New Jersey GOP nominated Leigh-Ann Bellew to run for the 6th House district. She was the party’s standard bearer then, but is cast as an insurgent now that she’s running for state senate against an entrenched establishment incumbent.
Bellew is taking on state Sen. Joe Kyrillos in Senate District 13. Kyrillos has been in the New Jersey Senate since 1992 and in the legislature since 1988. District 13 is a red dot in New Jersey’s blue sea. Monmouth County is home to some of the state’s and nation’s wealthiest and best known people, including Jon Bon Jovi and Geraldo Rivera. It’s also home to many blue collar, Catholic, strongly pro-life Republicans and what were once called Reagan Democrats. It went 2-to-1 for Gov. Chris Christie in 2009 as he ran on a platform of reforming and cutting government. The district is anti tax and gun control, in a high tax and strong gun control state. It’s the kind of district that can send a strong conservative to Trenton.
But instead, it has sent Kryrillos, who according to Bellew is “not very Republican in a Republican district.” In a conversation last week, Bellew noted that when Kyrillos ran for US Senate against sitting Sen. Bob Menendez in 2012, he ran hard to the left on taxes and on abortion. It was that race that exposed the real Joe Kyrillos, according to Bellew, as someone to the left of his own party and far to the left of District 13 on a host of issues ranging from government debt and spending to gun control.
Yet the state GOP is supporting Kyrillos anyway. Gov. Christie is holding a cocktail fundraiser with him tomorrow sub-hosted by former NY Giant Christian Peter, a player with a very checkered past. Gov. Christie has put the kibosh on primary challengers across the state. The state’s method of balloting also makes it difficult for challengers to be heard. The party runs a slate of candidates listed together, with challengers listed elsewhere on the ballot. Bellew is running to a great extent against the state’s machine politics.
Still, Bellew is confident that when voters hear her message, it will resonate. The private school teacher and near full-time activist describes herself as a Jeffersonian: “The right to life and pursuit of happiness means maximum liberty and maximum personal responsibility.” The majority of the people understand these principles, she says, but “in this part of the world it hasn’t been articulated.”
“The reason that I’m running is that I really do believe in self-governance,” Bellew said. “I believe in the first principles that America was founded on. I believe that we’re a better country when we care about our neighbors and are not forced to care through taxes. I believe in religious liberty for all. I understand that this country was built on the idea that one person can make a difference and change the country.” Bellew is hoping to change New Jersey, for a start.
What has been articulated and acted upon in the state is government spending and government debt. Kyrillos, Bellew charges, has been in office while New Jersey has piled up more of both while maintaining its place as one of the most taxed states in the union. The state suffers high property taxes, a high sales tax and high personal income taxes. As a result, Bellew says and the statistics back up, people are leaving New Jersey for destinations like North Dakota and Texas, where taxes are low and jobs are plentiful. Bellew says the New Jersey government during Kyrillos’ years has treated its high income people as “cash cows” and taxed them more and more while they get less and less out of schools and other government services.
One major issue Bellew says she would tackle in the New Jersey Senate would be education. The state’s supreme court has more or less dictated education spending in recent decades, with poor results: The state’s Abbott districts haven’t gotten better even as the court has mandated more money flow to them from taxpayers outside those districts. Bellew says the state’s core curriculum is part of the problem, as it has taken power away from parents. The schools’ low performance and high dropout rates aren’t “just about money. It’s about parental involvement.” Moving money around has not solved the problem.
To reform the state supreme court, which she credits Gov. Christie with fighting earlier in his term, Bellew proposes retention elections. Under the current system, governors appoint justices and the state senate confirms them. They then serve seven year terms until mandatory retirement at age 70. They are routinely reappointed with no fuss, and therefore no accountability, as their terms expire. Bellew proposes having the judges stand for retention elections instead of the near automatic reappointment, so the people can have opportunity to turn out judges who displease them. If a justice is turned out by the voters, the governor would appoint another, who if confirmed would then begin service. Some states including Iowa hold retention elections now, so the idea has roots in current practices outside New Jersey.
Leigh-Ann Bellew is a conservative’s conservative. She is running for the right to life and against New Jersey’s strong gun control laws. She says she wants to bring concealed handgun carry and the Castle doctrine to the state. Under current law, if a resident is faced with an armed intruder in their own home, the law mandates that they retreat rather than defend themselves, their loved ones and their property. She is also running on a strong prosperity platform. She would work to cut property taxes to make education funding fairer to the suburbs and would fight against court decisions on education, housing and other issues. The contrast on issues between Bellew and Kyrillos is stark: While Kryillos states that he is pro-life he “doesn’t stand up for values” according to Bellew, is pro-gun control and has been party to building the state’s onerous tax regime.
To the plague of career politicians who spend decades on end in power, Bellew has a simple antidote that she pledges she would apply to herself: If she wins the primary on June 4 and is elected in the fall, she would serve no more than two four-year terms. “Legislators,” she says, “should live under the laws that they pass.”