The LD 20 Incumbent Democratic Ticket v. the Elizabeth Board of Education: the 2011 LD 20 Democratic Primary
The Set Up
Political leader Rafael Fajardo secured control of the Board of Education, a political movement that managed to branch out enough to help Carlos Cedeno win a council seat. But the BOE wanted to become more than just the BOE. A former unsuccessful candidate for mayor, Fajardo dreamed of winning other city hall contests. But arguably even more than that, he wanted to dislodge state Sen. Ray Lesniak, (D-20) – a veteran of the state Senate for nearly three decades. A year after challenging hard in the city and failing to make ground against the ward-by-ward alliance supported by Lesniak and Mayor Chris Bollwage, Fajardo’s allies assembled a ticket of candidates to challenge Lesniak, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan, (D-20), and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, (D-20), in their most robust offensive to date. Complementing their mostly Hispanic voting base, the Fajardo team ran an African American candidate, Jerome Dunn of Hillside, against Lesniak.
The incumbents knew they had a serious contender in front of them and started campaigning door to door, Lesniak hobbling on bad knees. What became clear early was that after years of deliberative body brooding in Trenton, the widely respected power broker no longer had house to house political combat readiness in his hometown of Elizabeth. Moreover, the challengers made him the target, rolling out a mail campaign highlighting Lesniak’s high-rolling lifestyle, savaging him for living in a mini-mansion in Mantoloking and chastising him for flaunting his trips to Paris. Lesniak’s support for school vouchers deprived him of NJEA union backing, which instead went to Dunn, an administrator in the Elizabeth public schools. The senator and the entire LD 20 ticket would have to lean heavily on Cryan’s base in suburban Union Township to offset Fajardo’s city-operational machine. Son of an Essex County sheriff and a former state party chairman who in his political travels ended up at odds not only with Gov. Chris Christie but South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III, Cryan was already occupied with his own backroom battles to remain in party leadership. But the old-school political organizer appeared in his element as he began stirring his hometown allies to withstand what most believed the BOE would muster in Elizabeth. In response to the Fajardo team’s repeated artillery attacks on Lesniak and some race-baiting pieces built around pictures of African Americans victimized by police brutality, Cryan in this Democratic Primary focused on a troubling BOE storyline: their support for Republican causes, including Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial candidacy. As the assemblyman headed up ground ops, Lesniak’s formidable law firm kept the challengers bogged down in court trying to explain how they paid for their political literature, a costly distraction for Team Fajardo.
Lesniak and his team won. The senator triumphed over Dunn, 53-47%, losing Elizabeth 3,100 to 3,600 votes, but winning districtwide, thanks to Cryan’s organizing in Union. The Union numbers – Lesniak – 1,999; Joe Cryan 2,128; Annette Quijano 1,998, compared to the challengers’ Dunn – 773; Tony Monteiro 643; Carlos Cedeno 590 – catapulted the incumbents to victory in one of the most vicious and combative primaries in recent history. The victory proved a well-earned high point to Cryan’s year politically, as Norcross made his move on him and toppled him from leadership, replacing him with Assemblyman Lou Greenwald of South Jersey. Cryan’s loss of Statehouse power even as he demonstrated his staying power on the ground in his district inevitably stirred speculation that he might challenge Lesniak in 2013 for the Senate seat – or move from Trenton politics to the lead role at the Union County Sheriff’s Office. Lesniak vowed revenge on the Elizabeth BOE and in the months following the election, Fajardo’s political operation sustained heavy damage with the indictment of BOE President Marie Munn on charges of abusing the school lunch program.