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Legislative District 31

With registered Democrats outnumbering even unaffiliated voters, the 31st represents a fierce challenge for Republican hopefuls.

Hudson County, and especially Jersey City, is practically hallowed ground for Democrats, and there’s no reason to think November’s election will change the party’s domination in the 31st District.

But that’s not stopping Republicans from mounting a fierce challenge against the three incumbents. They say the Democrats have not done enough to address unemployment, failing to attract big businesses or to provide the education students need to learn job skills. In short, they say it’s time for a change in the 31st, which consists of Bayonne and the southern half of Jersey City.

Still, the Republicans have their work cut out for them, since this is one of the handful of districts in New Jersey in which Democrats outnumber even independents. For the June primary, registered Democrats numbered 55,234, topping the 48,953 unaffiliated and heavily outweighing the 7,297 voters registered as Republicans.

For the Senate, Democratic incumbent Sandra Bolden Cunningham faces opposition from Republican Donnamarie James and Louis Vernotico, an independent.

For the Assembly, Republicans Michael Alonso and Daniel Beckelman are challenging Assemblymen Charles Mainor and Jason O’Donnell.

Creating jobs is among the major goals for both parties. As of August, New Jersey’s unemployment rate was 9.4 percent, while Hudson County’s was 11.1 percent. In Jersey City, the state’s second largest city, 9.6 percent were out of work, while in Bayonne, the unemployment rate was 6.5 percent.

Education and public safety are other issues; both Bayonne and Jersey City have reduced the size of their police forces as a result of lower revenues.

The Democrats in power are relatively new. Cunningham, in office since 2007, is vice chair of the Senate’s economic growth and labor committees. She is also a member of the joint committee on public schools. She was the first woman legislator in the 31st and has been the majority whip since 2008. Cunningham is also the administrator of the Sandra and Glenn D. Cunningham Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that offers scholarships and money for books to high school students who otherwise might not be able to attend college.

In addition to working on increasing employment, Cunningham has been promoting key women’s issues. In 2010, she co-sponsored a bill that required the New Jersey Schools Development Authority to report on the number of school construction contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses.

Republican Senate candidate Donnamarie James, of Bayonne, ran unopposed in the June primary; she was a candidate for the Assembly in 2003. Louis Vernotico is running as an independent under the slogan Eliminate Primary Elections. He has been a frequent candidate, having made unsuccessful runs for state Senate in the last three elections, along with a Congressional run in 2008. In a written response describing his platform, Vernotico wrote, “Vote No … for Big Tax Cut.”

Democratic Assemblyman Mainor is finishing his first term in the lower house, where he sits on three committees: environment and solid waste; transportation, public works and independent authorities; and telecommunications and utilities. Mainor is a Jersey City police detective.

O’Donnell, who is also completing his first Assembly term, is also in law enforcement, serving as the director of public safety in Bayonne. He is a member of the financial institutions and labor committees. His stated priority is getting people back to work to spur the economy. He is also concerned that “lower revenue collections have forced Bayonne and Jersey City to reduce their police forces.” Getting more aid for Jersey City to control property taxes and improve education is also among his aims.

Two young, energetic Republicans are running for Assembly. Alonso, 29, is a real estate agent in Bayonne. His campaign is focused on creating employment. He is supporting better education and training programs to make residents better qualified for jobs as they become available. On his website, Alonso also says he would work to “clean up the ethics in New Jersey.”

Beckelman, also of Bayonne, is only 25. He said he previously voted Democratic but began supporting the Republican party while in college. Last year, Beckelman was named co-executive director of the Hudson County Republican Organization. If elected, Beckelman said, he would be more pro-business. He too has emphasized the importance of bringing more jobs to District 31.

“The waterfronts of both Jersey City and Bayonne are doing well, but it’s time for other areas to grow,” Beckelman said. “I think a pro-business assemblymember would serve the area better than reliable votes for public-sector unions.”

Beckelman said he would work to free the education system from government control, replacing public schools with charter and private schools. He also seeks to improve the highways in Hudson County.

Lisa Zambito is a freelance writer based in Hunterdon County.

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