After having drubbed Carl Lewis out of contention in LD8 this year, the GOP establishment now wants to employ Lewis’s arguments to buttress one of its own candidates, says energized challenger William Spadea of Princeton.
Threatening to turn into a legal conflagration, the collision here involves 16th District GOP contenders William Mennen of Tewksbury and Spadea, who both want to occupy the Assembly seat vacated by the late Peter J. Biondi.
Mennen is decidedly the establishment choice, against an upstart Spadea, who aggressively challenges Mennen’s candidacy largely based on Mennen’s legal residency.
A long-serving Hunterdon County Freeholder, Mennen doesn’t technically live in the newly drawn, octopus-armed 16th District, but says he intends to move to Readington in the district shortly after the holidays.
Spadea says that’s not good enough, arguing that the state Constitution in Article IV, Section 1, Paragraph 2 requires a member of the N.J. Assembly to have “been a citizen and resident…of the district for which he shall be elected one year…”
Spadea said Mennen is free to run for the Assembly, of course, but that he should run where he lives: in the 23rd District.
“Unlike other recent examples, Mr. Mennen was not redistricted out of the 16th district – he simply does not live there,” said Charlie Spies, Spadea campaign attorney. “At a minimum, Mr. Mennen’s lack of residency in the district that he would apparently like to represent raises questions about his commitment to the constitutional right of the people of New Jersey to have representation from someone who actually lives within their district boundaries.”
Legal sources say if Spadea’s argument prevailed, Assemblyman Reed Gucsiora, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo – both of whom vowed to move once redistricting separated them from their old districts – would be unable to continue serving in the legislature because they have not lived for at least a year in their newly chosen towns.
Mennen’s lawyer Alan Zakin in response offered up Robertson v. Bartels, which anchored Lewis lawyer Bill Tambussi’s case for why his Democratic client should remain on the ballot, emphasizing the pre-eminence of the U.S. Constitution over the 1947 state Constitution.
Zakin bullet-pointed the argument, starting broadly with the 14h Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing voting as a fundamental right “which can only be restricted if the state has a compelling interest to do so.”
- Discriminating on the basis of legislative residency requirements impact on voters’ rights by substantially limiting their choice of qualified candidates
- There is no reason to protect district lines that are arbitrary, when candidates outside of that district can have just as much, or greater, involvement in the community than those who have lived in the district longer
- Legislative residency requirement is not a restriction for statewide office, where non-residency would imply no familiarity with the community, this restriction “relates to officials elected from political subdivisions of much smaller geographical dimensions, the precise boundaries of which are subject to periodic revision.”
- These restrictions were found to fundamentally violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because they would restrict the opportunity for citizens to support a friend and neighbor who, in some cases, already represents them in elected office.
- An arbitrary political decision made by party bosses in Trenton… should not restrict a voter’s choice.
- It is against the federal constitution to prohibit a voter from weighing the length of a candidate’s time resident in an arbitrary district, versus their familiarity with the issues in the community, and their experience making contributions to the region.”
Zakin and the GOP don’t see the irony of their party adopting Tambussi’s argument for their own ends in a different district. He says his crucial, differentiating point is that Lewis never adequately established himself as a resident of the state much less the district.
“The Court makes a huge distinction between district residency and state residency,” said Zakin. “Robertson v. Bartels held that the one-year requirement violated the U.S. Constitution where a candidate had been resident of a different district for a year, within the state of New Jersey. It did not speak to a legislative candidate running in New Jersey, like Carl Lewis, who was a resident of another state in the year prior to the election.
“Lewis lived 3,000 miles away in California, Mennen lives a footstep away from the district in Hunterdon County,” Zakin added. “In fact, as an elected Hunterdon Freeholder, and former resident and elected official in Somerset, Mennen has intimate knowledge of the District and it’s people, and they know him. The Court found that a state border is a fixed, historical and significant factor establishing residency, whereas a legislative district is an arbitrary and temporary marker of residency – which changes every ten years – a major significant and game-changing factor that Mr. Spadea chooses to ignore.”
Spadea said the Mennen Team’s contortions landing them in proximity – in his view – to Lewis’s legal brains on the residency issue, amount to a joke.
“They’re being selective,” said the candidate. “Many Republicans find it offensive to think the rules don’t apply to us. There are two things in play for me: I’m going to show the committee members I am the more qualified candidate to represent the district, and I also meet the criteria to serve here. Many Republicans are as offended as I am by the outrageous backroom deals. We as Republicans have a special obligation to prove this is nation of rules, not men.”
Along with Mennen and Spadea, South Brunswick health board member John Saccenti is also vying for the Assembly seat formally occupied by Mr. Biondi.