Bob Smith Faces Primary Challenge from the Left

Democratic N.J. State Senator Bob Smith is facing a challenge from the Sanders wing of the party. Max Pizarro for Observer

One of New Jersey’s longest-serving state senators, Bob Smith, will face a primary challenge this year as a progressive ticket of nearly 100 candidates for state, county and municipal seats goes on the ballot in the state’s 17th legislative district.

Piscataway School Board President Bill Irwin will be leading the ticket and is gunning for Smith’s Senate seat in the June primary.

Smith became a state senator in 2002 for a predominantly Democratic district that includes Rutgers University and Johnson & Johnson. He is chairman of the state Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

Irwin said his campaign is not a rebuke of Smith’s record in the 17th district. The senator has a left-leaning voting record and usually takes the lead on environmental issues for Democrats.

Instead, Irwin said, he and like-minded candidates formed the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats, inspired by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and his call for “progressives to run for office all across the nation.” The goal in New Jersey, Irwin said, is to increase the number of progressive Democrats in elected offices and to reorient the party toward policies that promote economic equality.

“It’s not that we’re running so much against any individual as that we’re running for progressive beliefs and values,” he said in an interview. “And we believe the best way to do that is to make yourself heard within the party and demonstrate your ability to organize.”

Increasing the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, fully funding the state’s public pension system and fully funding New Jersey’s school aid formula will be the cornerstones of his campaign, Irwin said. The candidates will take a cue from Sanders and focus on small-scale donations, Irwin said, doubting that any candidate on his slate would accept campaign contributions greater than $250.

Irwin will be joined by Heather Fenyk of New Brunswick and Ralph E. Johnson of Piscataway, who are vying for Assembly seats. Catherine Hunt of Monroe and Atif Nazir of Piscataway will be running for seats on the Middlesex County freeholder board, and other candidates on the slate will pursue local seats.

“We initially started with a small group that were organizing and wanted to run for county committee seats,” Irwin said. “And the movement really grew in leaps and bounds.”

Smith did not respond to a request for comment. According to Election Law Enforcement Commission records, he has roughly $600,000 in contributions for his reelection campaign.