In CD 10, Gill and Rice try to make the most of Payne’s absence at Union County forum

LINDEN – The absence of Newark Council President Donald Payne, Jr., from a local candidates’ forum tonight gave more room to state Sen. Nia Gill (D-34) and West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice to good naturedly vie for attention in this county where the CD 10 Democratic candidates face an open primary.

“I want to be the congressperson, but he comes from good stock,” said Gill, referring to her Senate colleague, Rice’s father state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-28).

All the clutching and touching between the candidates underscored their mutual predicament: the fact that Payne occupies frontrunner status owing to his possession of the line in Essex County.

Just as painful was the fact that the son of the late U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10) received more political support last week when U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) endorsed him over and above Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) Chairman Mark Smith’s support of Gill.

If his establishment bulk-up gave Payne sufficient comfort to hit the snooze alarm on this forum sponsored by the Linden and Roselle Democratic committees, the Union County players here made sure the small crowd of about 70 people didn’t forget.

“We did have confirmations from (Irvington) Mayor (Wayne) Smith and Councilman Payne,” said Freeholder and Linden Democratic Committee Chairman Chris Hudak, but the pair must have had other commitments.

In anticipation of the newly redistricted tenth, Hudak noted that for the first time in 20 years Linden would not be split into two or three congressional districts, making this election especially important for the Union County factory town.

Gill and Rice tussled for the progressive affection in the room.

“I have passed more legislation than any other council person in the same time (six years),” said Rice, who ran with Mayor Cory Booker in 2002 and 2006.

“I love the mayor when he’s right but I’m critical of him when he’s wrong,” said Rice, who opposed Booker’s proposed 2010 municipal waterworks sale and came up with his own proposals he said helped save the city 400 jobs.

A grass-roots organizer going back to his 2004 endorsement of Howard Dean and his early 2008 support for Barack Obama, Rice noted that he has spent time in Union County – probably more than any other candidate running for the vacant CD 10 seat.

“It’s not the first time I’ve been in Linden and Roselle,” said the candidate.

Among those in the crowd sat Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley, for whom Rice campaigned door-to-door during Holley’s successful 2011 contest.

The candidate promised, if elected, to take on not just Republican extremism but extremism in his own party.

“I will take on Democratic leadership when it doesn’t step up for working families,” Rice said.

For her part, Gill emphasized her experience as the legislator of a diverse district, and as an attorney in private practice for 27 years. She pointed out that New Jersey lacks a woman in the delegation.

The Democratic Party must be prepared to field a woman to “stand up to the GOP’s continuous assault on the middle class and working families.”

The senator appeared to jab at Payne, son of the late Congressman, when she said, “I don’t believe this seat belongs to anyone but the people.”

A source close to Payne later told PolitickerNJ.com that while Rice and Gill scrapped for votes in Union County, the councilman was in Jersey City addressing the allies of Downtown Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop.