Next-door neighbors in working-class Paterson are rivals in the Assembly race in the 35th district, a city hard hit by Hurricane Irene where tempestuous local politics define a once-booming textile town.
Contributing to this turbulent election is the unusual phenomenon that there are technically no incumbents for any of the three seats.
Redistricting shifted the incumbent senator’s hometown out of the boundaries of the 35th, and Sen. John Girgenti, a Democrat, opted to retire rather than move back to his native Paterson. His decision paved the way for Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, a longtime city worker, to run. She hopes to become the Senate’s second Hispanic woman.
Pou’s Republican challenger, Ken Pengitore, meanwhile, is weathering a different kind of storm as a former member of the embattled Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners.
And the Democratic Assembly candidates, Shavonda Sumter and Benjie Wimberly, are fending off criticism by their opponents over double dipping. There’s no incumbent on the Assembly ballot because the other Assemblywoman, Elease Evans, is retiring.
Paterson dominates the 35th district. It’s a Democratic stronghold with a cross-section of ethnicities and a Hispanic majority. The suburban municipalities include Bergen County’s Garfield and Elmwood Park, both also flooded by the Passaic River during the summer storms; and the Passaic County communities of Haledon, Prospect Park, and North Haledon.
North Haledon Councilwoman Donna Puglisi is one of the Republicans in the wide-open Assembly race. Commissioner of the North Haledon police, emergency management and safety committee, Puglisi is also the only Assembly candidate who does not live in Paterson, where the state race demonstrates the maxim that all politics are local.
Two of the candidates are actually next-door neighbors in Paterson’s Eastside: Sumter, who was Paterson Mayor Jeffrey Jones' campaign manager and works as the director of behavior health services at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, and William Connolly, a retired Passaic County employee who is the other Republican challenger.
They say their contest isn’t personal, but Connolly has made an issue of the dual city-school district jobs that had been held by his opponent's husband, Kenneth Sumter. Sumter is a teacher and the city’s former director of Information Technology. He resigned from the city job in September and is among Paterson leaders embroiled in a probe over paid overtime for the Hurricane Irene relief efforts.
Wimberly, the fourth candidate, was elected councilman-at-large in Paterson in May 2010. He’s also currently the city’s recreation director -- a position reportedly paid jointly by school district and city funds until recently. He has worked as a special education teacher at Eastside High School. Wimberly also coached the Paterson Catholic High School football team to seven state championships.
Pengitore, a former star quarterback at Clemson, has his own questionable past.
An accountant and the former mayor of Haledon, he resigned last February as chief financial officer of the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission, which came under fire for widespread patronage, nepotism and self-dealing. Pengitore has contested those charges, made in media reports and then by Gov. Chris Christie, calling the PVSC “an honorable operation.”
The race between Pengitore and Pou will put a new representative for the district in the Senate for the first time since 1990 when Girgenti moved up from the Assembly. All in all, he has represented the 35th in Trenton for 33 years.
Pou, who chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee, lives in North Haledon and works as the assistant business administrator in Paterson. She was elected 14 years ago to the state Assembly and serves on the NJ Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect. If elected, she would become first female and the first Latina to represent the 35th District in the state Senate.