District 34 in Essex and Passaic counties may be one of the safer Democratic districts in the state, but its legislative election still comes with suspense to what may happen afterward to its highest-profile incumbent, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
Oliver, of East Orange, heads a Democratic ticket widely predicted to sweep to re-election against Republican and independent challengers.
But the race comes with the backdrop of internal dissension within Oliver’s Democratic membership in the Assembly over her support of the governor’s pension and health benefit reforms earlier this year.
If Oliver wins the election, a leadership fight within her own ranks afterward is not out of the question. In this election, Oliver’s backing of the reforms has held back some union support as well, with the big statewide unions refusing to endorse her.
Still, she and her fellow Democrats are expected to win easily against their challengers. The other Democratic incumbents are Sen. Nia Gill and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, both of Montclair.
The Republican challengers come from Clifton, Ralph Bartnik for Senate and Joan Salensky and Steve Farrell for Assembly. There are also two independent candidates for Assembly, Clenard Childress and David Taylor, running on the “A Better Tomorrow” ticket.
“All three incumbents are very safe,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Center for Politics at Rider University. “Their only concern is the Democratic primary [in June], and once they win that, they effectively win the election.”
Gill, a Montclair attorney and the Senate President Pro Tempore, was elected to the Senate in 2002 after four terms in the Assembly. Gilbin, business manager of Local 68 Operating Engineers, is a former Essex County Freeholder and was elected to the Assembly in 2006.
The Democrats said the biggest issues are the economy and jobs. “I have never seen anything quite like this in the last year, just so many people hurting,” said Giblin, adding that he sees the struggles up close as a labor leader.
Gill said the election is about the Democrats continuing to argue against Gov. Chris Christie’s reforms and providing jobs and tax relief, including new school funding.
“This election is a referendum for middle-class tax relief and stabilizing jobs in this state,” she said.
This year, the challengers have so far run a low-key race. Bartnik is a business owner, operating Clifton Building Supply. Salensky is a longtime Republican leader in Clifton and ran an unsuccessful campaign for municipal council last year. Farrell is a Clifton law enforcement officer. Several efforts to contact them for this article were unsuccessful, including through the state’s Republican State Committee.
Straddling Essex and Passaic counties, the district has ebbed and flowed to its party preferences over the past two decades. It was once Republican stronghold, but the 2000 redistricting brought in solidly Democratic communities in Essex, and it has remained that way through the 2010 redistricting.
But as strong as the home base is for the Democrats, how the party holds together into the next session of the legislature should provide some drama. A few fellow Assembly members have been reported to be considering leadership challenges.
Gill and Giblin, who both voted against the pension and healthcare changes, said the split in the party is real, and the party’s leadership – namely Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Oliver -- face some dissension. But neither believe the challenge is insurmountable or all that threatening to them.
“Obviously there’s not unity in the party given the different votes [on the pension changes],” Gill said. “It’s not clear yet how much that will be a factor.”
“There were some wounds there, no two ways about it,” added Giblin. “But I do think they have been healed to a great degree.”
Dworkin, the Rider University pundit, said Oliver should survive as Speaker. She is only the second female in the job, and the first African American woman. She is also a key piece in a coalition between North and South Jersey political leaders that, in turn, has placed Sweeney in the Senate presidency.
“That coalition is not fundamentally changing,” Dworkin said. “There may be dissent in the caucus, but not sure anyone has the stomach to challenge Oliver, let alone the votes.”
Giblin agreed: “We have to deal with geography, gender and race, and look at the reality. If Oliver is not there [for re-election as Speaker], she almost is.”