LOOKING AT THE PRIMARIES AND BEYOND

by David P. Rebovich

Tuesday will be one of the most eventful legislative primaries in the last few decades in the Garden State. Twelve incumbent senators have decided to not seek reelection, creating the opportunity for several assemblymen to try to move up into the upper chamberof the legislature. With that there are many openings for otherfolkswho want to serve in the lower house. In the meantime there are competitive primaries for senate and assembly in some safe districts. The reasons? Personal ambition, intra-party squabbles, questions about ideology and hopes to have some influence over patronage. Then there is the simple fact that in safe districts winning the primary of the party in power essentially means winning the office.

What are the key contests? For the Democrats they are in two of the party’s biggest strongholds, Hudson and Essex counties.When most New Jerseyans think about HudsonCounty politics, two things come to mind. One is the huge pluralities the county’s voters regularly deliver to Democratic candidatesfor governor, US. Senate and president.The other are the legendary tales of the county’s Democratic Part machine, its organization,power anduse and abuse of patronage.

The reality today – and of course in the years when Republican Bret Schundler was Jersey City’s mayor – is that the geographically compact countyis home to several Democratic Party fiefdomsand feuding politicalwarlords. How else couldBernie Kenny and Joe Doria,two long-time and generally respected Democratic legislatorswho had powerful positions in Trenton, be “encouraged” to retire? Not that there was any consensus about whom should succeed these two veterans.

In Kenny’s 33rd district, the two Democratic assemblymen – Brian Stack and Sal Vega – are competing for the Democratic Party’s senate nomination. In Doria’s 31st district, Assemblyman Lou Manzo is squaring off against Sandra Bolden Cunningham, the widow of former Jersey City mayor and state senator Glenn Cunningham.Each of these senate candidates are heading slates with their own friendly assembly hopefuls.

Are there issue differences between these candidates? In between themutual attacks about influence peddling and personal gain, Stack and Vega each claim that they will be stronger advocates for the urban communities in their district with large numbers of minority residents. Geez, Doria has always been a pretty good advocate for Hudson County and so has Kenny!

In the 31st district, Cunningham and Manzo eachare emphasizing their advocacy skills,with Cunningham adding that she will carry forward the policy and social vision of her late husband. She alsoclaims that she will work with other urban legislators to develop acomprehensive agenda for the state’s cities, somethingNew Jersey has never had. But Ms. Cunningham does not have any specifics to offer for that plan. Whether she can overcomecritical storiesabout the management of her husband’s foundation remains to be seen.For his part Manzo is stillpushing his own bold property tax reform plan recommending whatsome of his Democratic colleagues are thinking, i.e., hiking taxes on the ultra-wealthy, but are reluctant to support.

The story in Essex County is whether the slates that Cory Bookerorganizedin the 28th and 29th districts prevail. The Newark Mayor, along with popular Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and veteran community leader Steve Adubato, Sr., wants the six Democratic incumbents in these districts replaced by people who presumablywill better represent the new Newark and its new Mayor in Trenton.

Sharpe James, the former mayor and current senator in the 29th district, is leaving the legislature quietly. But Senator Ron Rice and Assemblypersons Craig Stanley and Oadline Truitt won’t, and they are seeking renomination. Even with James not seeking reelection, the situation in the 29th districtis complicated. Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo remains on the ballot. Assemblyman William Payne may run for senate this fall as an independent.So too may Luis Quintana, who may split the Latino-American vote – Teresa Ruiz is running on the Booker-endorsed slate – and work to Payne’s advantage.

The political intrigueaside, is the question remains as to what a pro-Booker team in the Legislature might mean in policy terms. It is nosecret that James and Rice have been renegades in their own party’s caucus who have been willing to hold up legislation to get their way. And, Jamesis rumored tobe the subject of investigations regarding decisions made during his years as mayor. Booker seems to think that unless reform-minded legislators represent the Newark, the Corzine Administration and the legislature may not take seriously requests for more municipal aid, economic development assistance, and funding for schools.

That’s a reasonable assumption. But Booker’s critics, including those incumbent legislators seeking reelection, argue that the Mayor is trying to become the new boss of Essex County politics by hand-picking legislators who will do his bidding and answer tohim.If Booker’s slates do win on Tuesday and in November, we will see ifbeing apoliticalbosswill help him be areformer. Ifhis slates don’t win, the Mayor may well be the biggest loser in state politics this year.

On the Republican side, the key primary races are in the 24th,26th and 40th districts. In the 24th, Assemblyman Guy Gregg and Sussex County freeholder Steve Oroho are seeking to succeed Bob Littell in the Senate. If the veteran Littellran again this year, Gregg planned to challenge him in the primary. This caused bad blood between the ranking Republican family in that part of the state. Littell’s daughter, Alison Littell McHose, is an Assemblywoman and his wife, Ginny, is a formerRepublican State chair.

After McHose decided not to try to move up to the senate, her father and family and most Sussex County GOP officeholders rallied behind Oroho.The freeholder has campaigned on the importance of keeping the senate sat in Sussex County where mostresidents of the 24th district reside. Oroho also claims to be a better conservative than Gregg, a point that can matter in their part of the state and that is easier to make when one hasn’t had toengage in the give-and-take of the legislature to garner aid for one’s district. Just ask Bob Littell.

In the 26th district, Assemblyman Joe Pennacchio will be the GOP’s nomineeto succeed Bob Martin. Alex DeCroce, the Minority Leader, Jay Webber, and Lawrence Casha are competing for the two nominations for the Assembly.DeCroce is favored to be one nominee.Webberis touting his strong conservative credentials in this Republican stronghold, while Casha is highlighting his experiences in local government.

In the 40th,Kevin O’Toole is another assemblyman who wants to replace a retiring senator – Henry McNamara. He’s running on a slate with veteran Assemblyman David Russo and Scott Rumana. They are being challenged by as slate headed by Todd Caliguire, the former gubernatorial and Bergen County executive candidate, John Ginty and Joseph Schweighardt.Caliguire’s slate is backed bya Bergen CountyRepublican organizationthat is trying to remain relevant after some embarrassing defeats.Attacking O’Toole,one of the strongest and smartest voices the GOP has in the legislature, does not seem likea good way to try to help your party.

David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Directorof the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.