Democrats take the fight to the 39th

In the once rock solid Republican Bergen County, the Democrats have a new target: the 39th district.

It may at first not seem like a realistic choice for a battle — the district hasn’t had a Democratic state representative since 1981, and its three current Republican legislators have occupied their seats for a political eternity. State Senator Gerald Cardinale and Assemblyman John Rooney have both served for well over 20 years, and assembly woman Charlotte Vandervalk has served since 1991.

But the Democrats have put up new blood and are expected to throw some serious money into this race. Joe Ariyan, the state Senate candidate, is the county’s Public Advocate for Land Use and has never held a competitive elected office, but he clocks in at a relatively young age of 39 and is said to have already raised $140,000.

“I believe it was Roll Call that described Bergen County as classic Northeast Conservative, which for the rest of the country interpreted means objective, rational, moderate people,” said Ariyan, who was a Republican until 2004, when the party’s stance on embryonic stem cell research drove him to the Democrats. “That’s what it means, and that’s what I am. Senator Cardinale probably more accurately represents the district from the early 1980s.”

His running mates, River Edge Councilwoman Esther Fletcher and Dumont Councilman Carl Manna are 44 and 58, respectively. Both have business backgrounds – Manna worked for years at the New York Stock Exchange and Fletcher was a consultant for IBM — and serve on their town councils.

That the Democrats are going to wage a serious challenge is an indication of just how much Bergen County has changed since the three 39th district incumbents took office. What was a mostly white, bedroom county for New York City has had an influx of minorities from across the George Washington Bridge and from other, more urban parts of New Jersey. Between 1990 and 2000, the county’s Hispanic population alone increased by 82%. And while the 39th district does not encompass the county’s more populous municipalities like Hackensack and remains one of the wealthier parts of North Jersey, it has seen an increase in ethnic and economic diversity.

One of the incumbents, John Rooney, was recently knocked out of his long-time post as Northvale Mayor after Democrats put John Hogan in the race with a lot of money behind him.

The leftward drift of Bergen voters, combined with Democratic fundraising prowess under County Chairman Joe Ferriero, has helped Democrats turn the tide in Bergen County, gaining control of the majority of towns – 17 town governments in the county have gone from Republican to Democratic majorities since Ferriero took over in 1998.

But more is at stake in this election than the Democrats merely padding their legislative majorities. Since Kevin O’Toole of Essex County won the GOP primary in the 40th district, Cardinale would be the only Republican with senatorial courtesy in Bergen County.

The last Democrat who represented the district, former Assemblywoman Greta Kiernan, recalled just how dominant the Republicans were as far back as the 1960s.

“The local legend was that if you registered as a Democrat you couldn’t get utilities in your house,” said Kiernan. “You didn’t register Democrat. You could vote that way but you didn’t let anyone know about it.”

That’s not to say that the district has gone liberal. All three Democrats describe themselves as moderates, though they all line up with Democratic social issues like abortion and stem cell research. But each candidate directs the question about their ideology away from themselves, instead pointing to their opponents.

Incumbent obsolescence is more or less the Democrats’ campaign theme. Cardinale, all three Democrats argue, is too far right for the district. They say he spends too much time on pet causes that would play better in the Deep South – issues like second amendment rights, gay marriage and opposition to stem cell research. They also say that the district pays far more in taxes than it gets back – an issue that could gain traction with conservatives.

“In positioning themselves in this manner, one of the things they’re doing is trying to accent the generational politics. By calling him a non-moderate Conservative and highlighting those issues, they’re also playing the theme that he’s not up to the times. He’s been around too long and it’s time for fresh blood,” said Brigid Harrison, a Professor of Political Science at Montclair State.

Cardinale, however, said he has his finger on the pulse of the district’s top concerns: school funding and property taxes. He noted that he helped draw up the a bill that aims to put more tax money into suburban school districts by requiring that all districts receive at least 30% in state aid.

“What else would you expect a challenger to say? You know, I focus on a lot of issues. I focus on issues like property taxes and have made many attempts to get school aid back to our district,” said Cardinale.”

Cardinale also downplayed the demographic change in his district since he was elected, noting that more republicans voted in primaries than Democrats.

“I think it’s a lot of puffery, and we’ve got a lot of problems in the state and the problems really come from the fact that the Democratic Party’s idea of redistributing stuff from the suburbs to the urban areas and its myriad of forms,” said Cardinale.

As for the two assembly representatives, the Democratic challengers say they haven’t been active enough representing their districts.

“My whole concept is that anybody who comes to borough hall is our customer. And whether or not they get the answer they’re looking for, they will get an answer and will be treated with respect, and they will be followed up with after that. I haven’t found this with our representatives,” said Manna. “If Dumont, which is probably the largest population town in the district, is treated like this, what’s going on in the rest of the district?”

Fletcher took issue with what she said was the representatives lack of direct involvement in the community. She pointed to an instance when she was at an Eagle Scout meeting at the same time as Assemblyman Rooney, and some of the people present didn’t know who he was.

“If you’ve been our legislative representative for 25 years and people don’t recognize your face or your name, that tells you something about the lack of your involvement in our community,” said Fletcher.

Both assembly persons balked at the idea that their constituents don’t recognize them, arguing that they had developed great relationships with their constituents. They also defended their records on taxes and spending.

“They travel in Democrat circles, obviously,” said Rooney of the Democratic candidates. “If you ask any group of Eagle Scouts within the districts, they all know me. They know Gerry Cardinale also, because we go to every event.”

Rooney touted his record on taxes, noting that Northvale only raised them 2% a year during his time as mayor.

“In the last six years that the democrats have been in control, the state budget has risen about 60% – that’s 10% a year – now they keep complaining that there’s a structural deficit, and they keep adding to that deficit by spending and spending and spending,” said Rooney. “They don’t want any voices to speak out against them. I’ve been one of those voices, and so has Gerry Cardinale. Recently Charlotte has spoken out too.”

Vandervalk challenged Manna’s assertion that she didn’t help Dumont during its time of need.

“I’m at almost every event in the district t- I’m all over the place all the time, and that’s just doesn’t hold water, that charge. And as far as not representing Dumont, I write letters on behalf of any municipality in need. If they sent me a letter or request or something for help, I would have written a letter on behalf.”

Both incumbents, however, acknowledged that their positions are not as secure as they used to be due to demographic shifts and, most of all, Democratic money.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” said Rooney. “The demographics are changing in the county and the realities are changing. Right now the reality is that there’s a lot of money on the Democratic side, and there’s not so much on our side.” Democrats take the fight to the 39th