MOUNTAINSIDE — Attorney Annette Quijano came to the Union County Democratic Committee’s special election tonight as the party leaders’ favorite to replace former Assemblyman Neil Cohen in District 20, but Elizabeth Councilwoman Patricia Perkins-Auguste put up a serious fight.
Quijano, 46, an assistant counsel to Gov. Corzine, bested Perkins-Auguste 87-82 in a vote by county committee members from the legislative district’s four towns: Elizabeth, Kenilworth, Roselle and Union. It’s the first time a minority will fill a seat in the district, which despite having a minority-majority population, has long been represented by three white men.
Quijano’s term begins immediately. She replaces former Assemblyman Neil Cohen, who resigned from his seat amid allegations that he possessed child pornography on his legislative office computer. She will have to run again against a Republican in November to hold the seat, although the district’s registration breakdown makes her a near shoe-in.
Perkins-Auguste and Quijano both gave speeches in front of the committee members, but although members were voting to send a new legislator to Trenton, the meeting was closed to the press and general public.
The controversy surrounding Cohen made the occasion a little more somber than it otherwise would have been for Quijano.
“I’m excited, but I’m not. I’m saddened because these are the circumstances,” said Quijano, who didn’t let the accusation against Cohen get in the way of what she saw as an altruistic legislative legacy.
“I always admired Neil for being such an advocate for the people, and I have, as I see it, big shoes to try to fill. I used to sit in his Assembly financial institution committee and I saw first-hand how he was an advocate for the people,” she said.
Quijano, whose name did not pop up in the initial field of candidates, said that she was approached by “a few people” about running for the position. Although she’s never run for a legislative seat before, Quijano said that she’s always wanted to fill one.
But with such a whirlwind candidacy, Quijano hadn’t yet outlined much of her legislative agenda.
“I’m going to represent people in my community. We’re going through a tough economic period and I want to make sure that seniors don’t have to decide between groceries and medication. I want to bring jobs back into the district,” she said.
In her speech to the committee members – provided in written form after the meeting – Quijano listed her experience as a past experience as a campaign volunteer, her work as the Clerk of the Union County Freeholder board, and her work in as an assistant counsel during the McGreevey, Codey and Corzine administrations. She said that she would work to improve schools, fight for aid for cities and stabilize property taxes.
There were actually two votes tonight—one to send a legislator to fill part of Cohen’s unexpired term, and one on who should get the party’s nomination for the November election. After her defeat on the first vote, Perkins-Auguste moved to make the second vote unanimous for Quijano.
Despite that gracious move, however, Perkins-Auguste, who’s African-American, was critical of Quijano, accusing her of using her Hispanic heritage as a campaign ploy in a district where Hispanics outnumber blacks.
“She stood up there and said she was Latino… Basically she race-baited, but she’s entitled to that. You use what you have to your advantage.” she said.
Among Perkins-Auguste's allies was Joseph Adair, a reverend and relocation officer from Elizabeth who used to run the local NAACP has long been the councilwoman's political ally.
While not a county committee member himself, Adair bussed in 25 members from Elizabeth to support Perkins-Auguste, who he said had a better record of public service than Quijano.
“I don’t even know who[Quijano] is. I’ve lived in Union County for 46 years. Never heard of her. I have a problem with that," he said.
Although the local party’s heavy hitters like State Sen. Ray Lesniak, Assemblyman/Democratic State Chairman Joe Cryan and County Chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo remained officially neutral, Perkins-Auguste cast herself as the rebel candidate against the machine. She did, however, have Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage – a close Lesniak ally—behind her. Perkins-Auguste also expressed disappointment that committee members from Roselle went with Quijano instead of her.
“I went up against the machine, the political power brokers of the stat eof New Jersey. I lost by five votes. Ray Lesniak, Joe Cryan and Charlotte DeFilippo. People I have great respect for,” she said. “I believe in God and that’s who I get my direction from. I don’t believe in backroom politics. I believe in serving the people.”
Freeholder Director Angel Estrada, who took his name out of the mix for the seat after he found that “the numbers didn’t add up,” was forthright about the importance of the seat being filled by a person of Hispanic heritage.
“The 20th legislative district is a Latino district, no matter what anybody claims,” he said. “The reality is we need to start recognizing Latinos' contribution to our society in terms of the work we do every day.”
Quijano, however, disputed Perkins-Auguste’s claim that her ethnicity is what ultimately won her the seat.
“I can’t say it’s solely because I’m latino. If you saw a number of individuals here, they were from a lot of nationalities, and I want to represent all of the community.
Defilippo, meanwhile, played up the fact that the race for the seat came down to two women, showcasing what she said was an effort to recruit more women into local government.
“I think were both were very articulate, but Annette has a depth of government experience,” she said.
Update: Below is the response from Union County Republican Chairman Phil Morin.
"Tonight, the Union County Democratic machine had an opportunity to fill a disgraced former assemblyman's seat with a fresh face of change. Instead, party insiders have selected someone who represents more of the same. Instead of choosing someone who will change the culture of corruption in Trenton, they have chosen someone who is inextricably linked with the failed policies of the Corzine and McGreevey administrations. Undoubtedly, the newest member of the Trenton aristocracy will be a loyal footsoldier who will blindly vote for higher property taxes, bigger government and sweetheart deals for connected insiders.