by David P. Rebovich
Tuesday will be one of the most eventful legislative primaries in the last few decades in the Garden State. Twelve incumbent senators have decided to not seek reelection, creating the opportunity for several assemblymen to try to move up into the upper chamberof the legislature. With that there are many openings for otherfolkswho want to serve in the lower house. In the meantime there are competitive primaries for senate and assembly in some safe districts. The reasons? Personal ambition, intra-party squabbles, questions about ideology and hopes to have some influence over patronage. Then there is the simple fact that in safe districts winning the primary of the party in power essentially means winning the office.
The reality today – and of course in the years when Republican Bret Schundler was Jersey City’s mayor – is that the geographically compact countyis home to several Democratic Party fiefdomsand feuding politicalwarlords. How else couldBernie Kenny and Joe Doria,two long-time and generally respected Democratic legislatorswho had powerful positions in Trenton, be “encouraged” to retire? Not that there was any consensus about whom should succeed these two veterans.
In Kenny’s 33rd district, the two Democratic assemblymen – Brian Stack and Sal Vega – are competing for the Democratic Party’s senate nomination. In Doria’s 31st district, Assemblyman Lou Manzo is squaring off against Sandra Bolden Cunningham, the widow of former Jersey City mayor and state senator Glenn Cunningham.Each of these senate candidates are heading slates with their own friendly assembly hopefuls.
Are there issue differences between these candidates? In between themutual attacks about influence peddling and personal gain, Stack and Vega each claim that they will be stronger advocates for the urban communities in their district with large numbers of minority residents. Geez, Doria has always been a pretty good advocate for Hudson County and so has Kenny!
In the 31st district, Cunningham and Manzo eachare emphasizing their advocacy skills,with Cunningham adding that she will carry forward the policy and social vision of her late husband. She alsoclaims that she will work with other urban legislators to develop acomprehensive agenda for the state’s cities, somethingNew Jersey has never had. But Ms. Cunningham does not have any specifics to offer for that plan. Whether she can overcomecritical storiesabout the management of her husband’s foundation remains to be seen.For his part Manzo is stillpushing his own bold property tax reform plan recommending whatsome of his Democratic colleagues are thinking, i.e., hiking taxes on the ultra-wealthy, but are reluctant to support.
The story in Essex County is whether the slates that Cory Bookerorganizedin the 28th and 29th districts prevail. The Newark Mayor, along with popular Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and veteran community leader Steve Adubato, Sr., wants the six Democratic incumbents in these districts replaced by people who presumablywill better represent the new Newark and its new Mayor in Trenton.
Sharpe James, the former mayor and current senator in the 29th district, is leaving the legislature quietly. But Senator Ron Rice and Assemblypersons Craig Stanley and Oadline Truitt won’t, and they are seeking renomination. Even with James not seeking reelection, the situation in the 29th districtis complicated. Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo remains on the ballot. Assemblyman William Payne may run for senate this fall as an independent.So too may Luis Quintana, who may split the Latino-American vote – Teresa Ruiz is running on the Booker-endorsed slate – and work to Payne’s advantage.
The political intrigueaside, is the question remains as to what a pro-Booker team in the Legislature might mean in policy terms. It is nosecret that James and Rice have been renegades in their own party’s caucus who have been willing to hold up legislation to get their way. And, Jamesis rumored tobe the subject of investigations regarding decisions made during his years as mayor. Booker seems to think that unless reform-minded legislators represent the Newark, the Corzine Administration and the legislature may not take seriously requests for more municipal aid, economic development assistance, and funding for schools.
That’s a reasonable assumption. But Booker’s critics, including those incumbent legislators seeking reelection, argue that the Mayor is trying to become the new boss of Essex County politics by hand-picking legislators who will do his bidding and answer tohim.If Booker’s slates do win on Tuesday and in November, we will see ifbeing apoliticalbosswill help him be areformer. Ifhis slates don’t win, the Mayor may well be the biggest loser in state politics this year.
On the Republican side, the key primary races are in the 24th,26th and 40th districts. In the 24th, Assemblyman Guy Gregg and Sussex County freeholder Steve Oroho are seeking to succeed Bob Littell in the Senate. If the veteran Littellran again this year, Gregg planned to challenge him in the primary. This caused bad blood between the ranking Republican family in that part of the state. Littell’s daughter, Alison Littell McHose, is an Assemblywoman and his wife, Ginny, is a formerRepublican State chair.