Three weeks out, the 16th Legislative District Democratic Primary has legitimate Election Day dogfight potential, say insiders watching a tenaciously focused Princeton Twp. Deputy Mayor Sue Nemeth run against disgruntled teacher turned YouTube celebrity Marie Corfield of Raritan Twp.
Even Corfield’s friends bristle when they hear her refer to her “legendary” YouTube encounter with Gov. Chris Christie. But no one argues that Corfield effectively carved out a piece of the bully pulpit in her 2010 town hall showdown with the governor. An art teacher who felt dissed by the pension and benefit ravaging Republican, Corfield stood up to him with a microphone and gave her fellow teachers a platform to fight back.
While Corfield embodied put-upon public workers, Nemeth as an elected official presided over the consolidation of the Princetons, making the Mercer County burghs a statewide model for shared services.
Herself a teachers’ union member and employed at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, Nemeth doesn’t mind pointing out what she identifies as a disparity in substance.
“Having a YouTube moment isn’t a thoughtful way to represent the district,” Nemeth said. “It’s pretty thin gruel. I’m the only one in the race who understands public policy. Marie can read a script, but I actually understand municipal budgets. I didn’t have an epiphany and stand up in a town hall meeting. I’ve been doing this for decades.”
If Nemeth finds it easy to go on offense, it’s because she has to, say insiders familiar with the contest. In preparation for the primary contest, Nemeth made a bid for Democratic Party establishment backing in four counties with portions in the 16th District.
She emerged with just one of four victories, as Corfield, who plunged into politics last year with an unsuccessful – but much closer than anticipated 2011 stab for the 16th seat – enjoys previously nurtured connective tissue.
The deputy mayor has a strategy to win, though, and the same establishment that beat her up during the convention process sees evidence of campaign trail toughness. “She has three mini Carvilles working for her, she’s fundraising and running a real campaign,” said a source observing Nemeth’s movements.
Her strategic calculation for victory appears to hinge on driving monster numbers in the Princetons portion, while holding her own elsewhere. The fact that she hails from the most Democratic rich section of the 16th District gives her sufficient fortress origins to beat a candidate who hardly projects local strength, Nemeth says.
“She describes her own county as a Democratic wasteland,” said the candidate.
The fact that Corfield leans on names like state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) to project endorsement strength doesn’t impress Nemeth.
“Loretta is very beloved,” said the candidate. “That’s her choice to get involved in this race. But if you have to go all the way to Bergen County for support, good luck with that plan.”
Corfield has more than names in other counties, as her backers on the Somerset County Democratic Committee point out, but no one denies Corfield versus Nemeth is a fight for the right to take on incumbent Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-16).
“This heated primary reflects the well-held belief that LD 16 is going to turn blue in November,” said Party Vice Chair Zenon Christodoulou, a Corfield supporter. “People take it seriously because they take the prospect of victory in November seriously.”
Transported post-redistricting out of the Princetons, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15) supports Nemeth.
“We have two dynamic women running, and the 16th District would be better suited by either one of them over the current crop, which is walking in lockstep with the governor,” Gusciora said. “My empathy is with Sue. That said, Marie is equally qualified.”
Towns in the new 16th Legislative District
Mercer County: Princeton Borough, Princeton Township
Middlesex County: South Brunswick Township
Hunterdon County: Delaware Township, Flemington Borough, Raritan Township, Readington Township, Stockton Borough
Somerset County: Branchburg Township, Hillsborough Township, Manville Borough, Millstone Borough, Montgomery Township, Rocky Hill Borough, Somerville Borough