Tight Race for SBA Secretary Heads to a Runoff

Kimberly Yonta. (kimyontaforsecretary.com)

Kimberly Yonta. (kimyontaforsecretary.com)

A statewide election took place yesterday and it captivated the attention of … almost no one. But for the lawyers of New Jersey – specifically the ones who are members of the State Bar Association and voted to determine their next secretary—the election was filled with drama.

As PolitickerNJ reported a month ago, these races are supposed to be a gimme, with the candidate who gets the nominating committee’s endorsement all but assured of victory. This year’s endorsed candidate, New Brunswick solo practitioner Kimberly A. Yonta, faced not one but two serious challengers: Robert J. Brass and Fruqan Mouzon.

The balloting ended yesterday and the results are in:

Kimberly A. Yonta – 1,687 votes     46.95%

Fruqan Mouzon – 1,338 votes    37.24%

Robert J. Brass – 568 votes    15.81%

Since no candidate reached the “50% + 1” threshold, there will be a runoff between Yonta and Mouzon. The runoff “will be held in the coming weeks,” according to a release from NJSBA.

Yonta sounded a confident note, telling PolitickerNJ today, “Just as I presented my record of program and opportunity creation for all members to the Nominating Committee, I was able to do the same in getting my message to the NJSBA’s lawyers. I have worked hard to better the NJSBA and have plans to make the Association work better for our membership. I will continue to talk to our members about my message as the election moves forward and build on the momentum.”

It would appear at first glance that Yonta is the favorite. Assuming that each candidate holds onto her or his votes, Yonta only needs to inherit 110 of Brass’ 568 voters (19%) to reach 1797, which is the magic number if the same 3593 votes are cast. That compares to Mouzon needing 459 of Brass voters (81%) to reach 1797.

The math strongly favors Yonta, but elections don’t always play out logically. Often a runoff scenario boils down to “incumbent vs. field.” As the endorsed candidate, Yonta essentially plays the role of the incumbent in this case. So the voters might be seen as “Pro-endorsed candidate” vs “rebel candidate.” In that scenario, the people who voted for Yonta like voting for the committee’s choice and the people who voted for either Mouzon or Brass do not. In that case, Mouzon has a better chance of inheriting Brass voters, though 81% remains a high hurdle.

A classic example of this phenomenon occurred in the 2012 Republican primary for US Senate in Texas. Longtime LT. Gov. David Dewhurst was running against a large field. Dewhurst got 44.6% of the vote — compared to second-place finisher Ted Cruz, who got only 34.2%. Dewhurst’s margin was nearly 150,000 votes. But in the runoff, Cruz beat Dewhurst by more than 150,000 votes.

There is precedent for just such a scenario at the NJSBA.

In 2013, Tom Prol did not receive the “gentleman’s advance” from Secretary to Treasurer that was all-but automatic when moving up the ranks each year. So he skipped Treasurer and ran an insurgent campaign for Second Vice President against the establishment candidate, Nancy Erika Smith. With 49%, Smith got an even higher percentage of first-round votes than Yonta, falling just 17 votes short of winning. But in the runoff, Prol was endorsed by the third place candidate and squeaked through with the victory.

Indeed, a similar scenario may be shaping up in this race. Yesterday, Bob Brass sent a letter to his supporters asking them to support his preferred candidate, Fruqan Mouzon. In his note, Brass said “Fruqan was always someone I respected, both from my knowing him as a fellow member of the NJSBA Board of Trustees and by knowing him through close friends at his former law firm, Gibbons. … I was extremely impressed by his professionalism, courtesy, and demeanor. I learned to call my adversary ‘my friend.'”

Stay tuned.

(this story has been updated to reflect Brass’ endorsement of Mouzon; Mouzon did not return PolitickerNJ’s inquiries in time for inclusion in this story.)

Tight Race for SBA Secretary Heads to a Runoff