Cunningham and Manzo battle before the battle

by MAX PIZARRO
PoliticsNJ.com

NEWARK – In a combative political state, it figures that it would come down to Jersey City and Bayonne and the 31st district that incorporates pieces of both those two-fisted towns, where Sandra Bolden Cunningham and Assemblyman Louis Manzo both want to be State Senator.

First the two rivals need to slog across that Normandy Beach of mayhem and doom otherwise known as a Hudson County Democratic Party Primary. But whether or not Cunningham will even be able to participate in the action now hinges on Judge Joseph Paone of the state Office of Administrative Law, who today said he needed more time to reach a decision in the case of Manzo v. Cunningham.

The case consists of Manzo’s challenge of Cunningham’s primary petition filing with the state Division of Elections last week.

The widow of former Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham and a rookie in the world of running for elected office herself, Cunningham filed her requisite signatures for the primary election and two state clerks validated those signatures. But the combative Manzo, a former Jersey City health official and an Assemblyman who saw both his running mates drop out of re-election bids this year for different reasons, said not so fast. Manzo pointed out that Cunningham technically submitted her signatures as general election and not primary election petitions, and argues that as a result her primary bid should be expunged.

Cunningham’s supporters say a desperation mode Manzo can’t beat their candidate in a June 5 match-up at the polls, so he’s trying to beat her up and oust her in the courts.

Wednesday’s showdown in a Newark courtroom to determine who’s right on the question featured an all day contest between two lawyers: Stephen Edelstein, who represented Cunningham, and Angelo Genova, who represented Manzo.

Edelstein argued that the state should accept Cunningham’s petitions because she clearly intended to file to run in the primary election. Clerks, candidates and voters all acknowledged an understanding of her intent. Even Manzo responded with a public statement to the news when Cunningham entered the primary race, Edelstein argued.

"Your Honor, err on the side of leniency rather than strict construction," Edelstein urged in his closing argument. "Louis Manzo is trying to get a free pass by not running in a Democratic Primary, and by trying to kick Sandra Cunningham, a formidable candidate, off the primary ballot."

Genova countered that without rules, there is no process, and strove to show how Cunningham’s failure to adhere to the rules undermined the legitimacy of the primary. Her failure to produce the appropriate cover sheet for her campaign- one marked general instead of primary – calls into question her intentions, Genova argued.

"Your Honor, we care about the first page, the Legislature cares about the first page, the Constitution cares about the first page," said Genova in his closing statement. "It has to mean something because it’s grounded in statute. …In this state, the right to participate in a primary is not a fundamental Constitutional right, but statutory."

Genova repeatedly tried to discredit the efforts of members of the Cunningham faction who collected signatures on her behalf. He attempted to show that another key "infirmity" in her filing was the presence of the slogan "Democrat" on the petition, which Genova pointed out was essentially an afterthought, included on the cover sheet after signatories had ascribed their names to the petitions.

Crowded in the small hearing room, Cunningham’s supporters in sideline conversations and in collective groans aimed at Genova, asserted that their rights as voters would be jeopardized if the judge prevented Cunningham from running in the primary. Genova countered that he is, in fact, concerned with protecting the rights of the voters, who depend on properly presented information in order to make educated decisions about who to support in political elections.

Edelstein repeatedly tried to show that because Cunningham had made her public announcement as a Democratic Primary candidate, and all manner of media had covered her declaration, there could be little doubt in the voters’ minds about her intentions to run in the primary.

When Genova had the candidate on the stand, Cunningham attempted to amplify Edelstein’s point.

"There was a great deal of publicity surrounding my race," she told Genova.

But the lawyer stayed focused on the names on Cunningham’s petitions.

"I’m asking you about 585 people, not the Jersey Journal, and not television," Genova said. "Were you circulator of the petitions?"

"No," Cunningham said. "No, I was not responsible for the petitions."

Genova tried to expand a tale of incompetence in the Cunningham camp but campaign worker Virginia K. Miller, a senior citizen, fought back on the witness stand.

"Sir, I have been a committee person for over 25 years," Miller told Genova. "I was so excited Sandra Cunningham was running, I signed it (the petition) and I started getting names. I didn’t deal with the first page."

The judge said he needed to time to deliberate. Looking at the clock he wondered aloud about what he had to do to comply with the state deadline. Technically it was 4 p.m. today, but that hour had already passed, and as Paone mused about his options, Genova put in that the judge could issue a stay in the ballot drawing.

And Edelstein, who all day had argued for a liberal interpretation of the law only to meet Genova’s hard declaration that the statutes exist for a reason, now took relish in strict adherence.

"The date," he told Genova, "is statutory."

The judge said he would have a decision filed and faxed to all parties concerned by tomorrow afternoon.

Cunningham and Manzo battle before the battle