Joe Vas's stunning, lopsided defeat last night in Perth Amboy took most Middlesex Democrats by surprise. Most political observers hadn't anticipated even a competitive campaign against political neophyte Wilda Diaz, let alone a route of Vas, who's held the seat since 1990, and his two council running mates.
Now, the question amongst political insiders is whether Vas, having lost handily in the town that accounts for his biggest voting base and still bruised from an unsuccessful primary challenge to Rep. Albio Sires in 2006, has the political clout to hold on to his assembly seat.
For Vas, who was just sworn in to his third assembly term in January, it's too soon to start thinking about whether he'll even run for re-election next year.
"When the time comes to make that decision, I'll make that decision," he said. "I have every confidence that (Middlesex County Democrats) will look at everything. Not whether you have a political base but a record of achievement in the Assembly."
Vas, for his part, said that his own reaction to his loss last night was more disappointment than shock.
"I think if you know anything about what's gone on here over the last 18 years, most people's reaction would be to say that they were stunned, but the people on the inside of the campaign were more disappointed because it's hard to deny the kind of progress the city has made over the last few years," he said. "We're used as the poster child for redevelopment and all the other things that happened in urban government."
Vas ran his campaign on the scores of redevelopment projects he ushered through that helped transform an old, decaying industrial city – projects that helped him become the longest serving mayor in the city's history.
But last night, Vas seemed to lose as a result of two municipal tax increases over the last three years. That, despite the fact that there were only four tax increases during his 18 years as mayor. His opponent also hit him for being a prime sponsor of the new school funding formula, which was perceived to hurt Abbot School Districts like Perth Amboy's. Vas countered that Perth Amboy actually benefited from the arrangement – despite the local school board joining a lawsuit against it.
Vas sees himself almost as a victim of his own success – having set the expectation of no tax increases through his own record.
"When you're mayor for a long period of time, it makes no difference in how many things you do – economic development along our waterfront, new housing, new schools. What matters to people is what have you done for me personally?" he said. "This is not sour grapes, it's just me as a taxpayer and homeowner who owns other real estate in town. I'm fearful of the inexperience and sort of hatefulness (Wilda Diaz) and her running mates had towards government. They seemed to be so anti-government it's hard to understand why she wants to be a part of it."
To Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley, Vas's defeat shows a weakness in his campaign's organization. In a low turnout election like yesterday's, a strong organization that pushes voters out to the polls can make or break a candidacy. That won't be the case, however, in a general election.
"There's no automatic turnout for these local elections," said Woolley. "Everybody who gets out is pretty much cajoled, pushed and brought out by these highly motivated local organizations."
Despite ticking off more than a few politicians in his primary challenge against Sires, prominent state Democrats are not hankering for a replacement. If Vas wants to keep the seat, he will make his case to prominent local Democrats.
Also complicating the matter is that some of the more ambitious local Democrats and possible opponents are also local mayors. The names of South Amboy Mayor John O'Leary and Carteret Mayor Daniel Reiman surface as possible contenders. But with the recent dual office-holding ban having taken effect, no replacement can hold two elected positions (Vas was exempted by the law's grandfather clause). It's possible that no local mayors would want to give up their local fiefdoms for a seat in Trenton.
Reiman and O'Leary could not be reached for comment.
Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Joe Spicuzzo said that he'll talk with Vas about his assembly seat, but there's no rush to make a determination on an election that's a year and a half from now.
"It's too soon to tell whether that can have any affect at all on Joe Vas's ability to do his work in the state Assembly," said Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Joe Spicuzzo. "I'm going to talk it over with him and see what he has in mind, and talk it over with some other Democrats. We'll go on from there."
Meanwhile, Vas's running mates seem to be standing by him.
"There will be those who will say that the natural thing to do is to look now as to whether he's viable or not, or should remain on the ticket in the future," said state Sen. Joe Vitale. "I think the issue is how should be judged on his performance as an assemblyman. Not someone who's politically viable and has been damaged by the race."
Assemblyman John Winsiewski said that Vas has the district's interest at heart, and sees no reason to support anyone else for the seat.
"If Joe wants to run for reelection, I can't see any reason why I wouldn't be standing by his side," he said.
Political consultant Barry Brendel, who did polling for Vas, said that despite his loss, he remains popular with his base in Perth Amboy. Three weeks before the election, Brendel's poll showed that 60% of Perth Amboy voters viewed Vas favorably, though internal numbers did indicate vulnerability.
There was no mistaking an anti-incumbent mood with the electorate, but Vas, Brendel said, is still in good shape in a district-wide race. The argument that Vas's opponent used against advocating a new school funding formula may resonate in Perth Amboy, but not in the other large, middle-class district towns.
"And you can't use the dual office holding argument on him now," said Brendel.