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New legislator vows to be loud on wind, crime, and other issues impacting the Shore and beyond


New legislator vows to be loud on wind, crime, and other issues impacting the Shore and beyond

Feb 19, 2024 | 6:50 am ET
By Dana DiFilippo
New legislator vows to be loud on wind, crime, and other issues impacting the Shore and beyond
Assemblyman Paul Kanitra is a Republican who represents the 10th Legislative District, which stretches from Spring Lake in Monmouth County down the coastline to Seaside Park and Toms River in Ocean County. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

A week after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2022, Paul Kanitra left New Jersey to help Ukrainian refugees at the Poland border.

As war casualties in Gaza mount, he headed to Israel last month to tour a kibbutz, school, and hospital.

And with Texas busing undocumented immigrants to New Jersey and New York, he’s making plans to visit the southern border.

Some might wonder why Kanitra — a new state assemblyman and former mayor of a seaside borough — is such a busy globetrotter. More cynical observers might dismiss the trips as political stunts.

But Kanitra said he’s always been the sort who needs to see how things started.

“You can’t fully understand an issue unless you understand the root cause of it, and having a global understanding for where things start just makes you informed to make stronger decisions,” he said.

For the past six years, Kanitra mostly mulled municipal matters as a councilman and then mayor in Point Pleasant Beach. But last month, he headed to Trenton to represent Monmouth and Ocean counties’ 10th Legislative District in the state Assembly, where a third of legislators are newcomers.

Many legislative rookies spend their first months in obscurity, whether they’re taking a listen-and-learn approach or came from careers or communities where they hadn’t crafted a public persona.

Not so Kanitra.

He’s a Fox News regular and a rabble-rouser at protests and public hearings. As mayor, he almost came to blows with a councilman in a fight over borough spending that ended only after a cop intervened. In his first Assembly session last week, he challenged veteran lawmakers on an affordable housing bill, urging them to quit “jamming more development down every community’s throat.”

“I certainly am not going to be a backbencher,” Kanitra told the New Jersey Monitor.

Jeanette Hoffman, a Monmouth County-based Republican strategist, agreed that Kanitra, who’s 44, is “someone who doesn’t just sit back and write press releases.”

“He brings a fresh perspective as someone who’s younger than most legislators by many years. He was a vocal opponent of offshore wind and the impact that would have in his community at Point Pleasant Beach. When war in Ukraine broke out, he went there and delivered some humanitarian supplies that he collected from his community,” Hoffman said. “So he’s really someone who takes action, and I think he’s going to be a real force for change in Trenton even though he’s in the minority.”

From the Jersey Shore to Texas to D.C. and back again

A Jersey Shore native who first moved to Point Pleasant Beach in kindergarten, Kanitra almost went into television instead of politics.

He studied TV, radio, and film, along with political science, at Texas Christian University, where he DJ’ed on his college radio station and had a hip-hop and R&B show. He was an extra on shows like “Walker, Texas Ranger” and even has an IMDb page.

But he took a job after graduation as field director for GOP Congressman Mike Ferguson in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, and later went into lobbying for groups ranging from the Texas-based Associated Locksmiths of America to the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada to Carfax, the Virginia-based vehicle-history report company.

About 14 years ago, he launched his own Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, Lobbyit, with a mission to provide affordable, nonpartisan lobbying services to the general public.

That experience, he said, will serve him well in Trenton.

“We’ve been able to help over 200 organizations since our inception, and I’ve been able to see what works and what doesn’t and what bogs down good initiatives and what elevates others,” he said.

He made the leap to elected office in 2018, after he was the top vote-getter in the 2017 race for Point Pleasant Beach borough council. He beat an incumbent in his 2019 GOP primary bid for the mayor’s seat, and in last November’s general election, he and running mate Gregory McGuckin got almost twice as many votes as their Democratic challengers in a solidly Republican district that hasn’t been represented by Democrats in Trenton since 1991.

Offshore wind, crime, and other concerns

He set his sights on the Statehouse largely because of the Murphy administration’s full-steam-ahead approach to wind energy, he said.

“As mayor of one-and-a-half-square-mile, 4,500-resident Point Pleasant Beach, there were some limitations to how much I could elevate the issue and how much change I could affect,” he said. “I’m now representing a quarter million people and 15 towns in Ocean and Monmouth counties. I think that brings a little more standing to the table to look at what I see as the corporate bailouts that are underpinning the issue, the environmental repercussions, and the business and economic impact.”

As a resident and public official in the Shore region, Kanitra regards himself as “environmentally friendly.”

But policymakers should focus on solar energy, improvements to the electric grid, and research into renewable energies besides wind “instead of giving overseas corporations bailouts to make an industry that isn’t financially viable, viable,” he said.

“We’re trying to pick winners and losers for the future, when we don’t know how technology is going to evolve,” he added.

Aside from energy, he objected to changes in state law meant to decriminalize alcohol and marijuana use that some local leaders around the state say fueled juvenile misbehavior. He plans to take a hard line on crime issues during his Assembly term.

“I’ve seen the repercussions of some of our lax-on-crime policies, with the marijuana and alcohol laws that were poorly written and the lack of accountability that led to the rise of pop-up parties,” Kanitra said. “When we’re not enforcing laws, it encourages people to break more laws, and that has cascading effects and implications across the state.”

On issues like abortion that have prompted new protections, Kanitra described himself as “in the middle,” rejecting the “extremism” of New Jersey’s law that sets no time limit on when someone can get an abortion. And when it comes to new gun restrictions statewide now being challenged in court, he aligns more with gun-rights advocates.

“When people talk about banning guns, they compare us to other countries that don’t have guns already permeating society,” he said. “So any kind of gun ban would only benefit criminals in the United States, because there are already so many out there that all you’re doing is hurting law-abiding people from being able to protect themselves.”

His views on immigration are, arguably, more nuanced than the average Republican.

He has little sympathy for undocumented immigrants and wants to research their societal costs. But he said he appreciates New Jersey’s growing diversity. Many boardwalk workers are Eastern European, and his desire to give back to those demographics inspired his humanitarian trip to the Ukraine-Poland border. And New Jersey’s burgeoning Arabic and Jewish populations drove his controversial decision to visit Israel, he said.

I certainly am not going to be a backbencher.

– Assemblyman Paul Kanitra

One month into the new legislative session, Kanitra has already introduced 43 bills.

Many reflect the priorities of a public official in a coastal area, including bills that would change the law regulating the size limits of lobsters, hike fines for smoking marijuana on public beaches, give veterans’ families free or discounted beach access, and require new grocery stores to have emergency power generators. 

Others align with the priorities of his party, including bills that would cut taxes, require schools to post online lists of all library books, and direct the state attorney general to create a voting integrity task force.

He’s a self-proclaimed “dyed-in-the-wool conservative” going into a Democrat-controlled Statehouse where Republicans routinely have trouble getting their bills to move. But he’s intent on using his “very loud voice” to “furiously fight on the issues” while also searching for common ground.

“I’m not someone who’s quiet about the things that matter to me,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that at the end of the day, I can’t have real relationships with people across the aisle and we can’t work together to get things done. It’s politics, but I don’t think politics needs to be personal.”