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Legislative District 23

Michael Daigle | October 12, 2011

The 23rd is a conservative Republican stronghold, but the incumbents face a full slate of Democrats -- and an independent candidate.

Back in 2002 when he was a freeholder, Michael Doherty was willing to go to jail rather than have the county issue bonds for $5 million in order to build an addition to the main campus of Warren County Community College.

When Doherty balked at bonding for the expansion, a Superior Court judge ordered him to do it or go to jail. Doherty was spared time behind bars when the New Jersey Supreme Court overruled the judge and said Doherty and the freeholder board could ignore the earlier court decision.

Now the state senator for the 23rd district, Doherty is a staunch conservative and proud of it. He and a pack of similarly minded incumbents lead the November general election ballot in this GOP-leaning district alongside the Delaware River. But they are facing a full slate of Democrats and an independent running for the senate seat.

Opposing Doherty, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate next year, are Democrat John Graf of Bedminister, a former state worker who is now a non-denominational minister, and Daniel Seyler, an independent, from Phillipsburg.

In the Assembly battle, Karen Carroll, an independent insurance agent from Bound Brook, and Scott McDonald, the mayor of Washington Borough in Warren County, are the Democrats facing off against Assemblymen John DeMaio of Hackettstown and Erik Peterson of Franklin Township in Hunterdon County. Both of the Republicans are well known, having also served as county freeholders. DeMaio previously was the mayor of Hackettstown, as well.

For this group of Republicans, small government is the goal.

They generally have battled decisions made in Trenton -- specifically the Mount Laurel affordable housing laws, the Abbott v. Burke school decisions, and the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act -- as unnecessary state government interference in local decision-making.

On the Democratic side, Carroll has been critical of the Republican approach to education, especially the deep cuts that resulted in the loss of many teaching jobs. The Democrats have won the endorsement of the state’s teachers and other public employee unions affected by Republican-supported budget cuts.

But candidates from both parties agree on one issue: They oppose Gov. Chris Christie’s plans to close the Sen. Garrett W. Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital in Lebanon Township. The Republicans lobbied the governor to maintain the funding, but in the end backed off when Christie made it clear the hospital would close.

The Democrats called that the typical response from the 23rd District Republicans: They talk a good game, Carroll said, but in the end they give in to the governor.

Spread along the Delaware River and comprising Warren and Hunterdon county towns, the largely rural 23rd District has been a Republican stronghold for decades. For the June primary, there were 45,840 registered Republicans, 29,034 Democrats, and 59,742 unaffiliated voters.

The middle of the district now spreads along Interstate 78 from Phillipsburg to Bridgewater and Bound Brook.

In the Legislative redistricting of the spring, the 23rd lost a few North Warren towns to the 24th District and a few southern Hunterdon towns to the 15th District, while swapping a couple of eastern Hunterdon towns with some from Somerset County.

In the end, though, the moves are not expected to make much of a difference in the way voters cast ballots, as virtually all of Northwestern New Jersey leans Republican.

Michael Daigle is a freelance writer and journalist from Phillipsburg. He has worked for newspapers in Massachusetts, Maine, and for the past 20 years, in New Jersey. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting on housing policy, politics, environmental issues and as a columnist.

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