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Candidates: Legislative District 31

In the Democratic 31st, the Republicans lack one essential thing: voters.

One in 10 people is out of work in Jersey City and Bayonne, a rate one Republican termed as “out of control” and one reason why his team is running for a change in leadership representing the 31st in Trenton.

But the Democrats, who have held power here for as long as anyone can remember, are expected to win, if for no other reason than because there are so few Republican voters.

The Democratic Senator since 2007 is Sandra Cunningham, who not only has been Senate Majority Whip since 2008, but also is the first woman legislator for the 31st District. Cunningham is vice chair of both the Economic Growth and the Labor Committees. She is also a member of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, Budget and Appropriations, and Legislative Oversight.

Cunningham was part of the team that initiated the Silver Alert program, which notifies the public when senior citizens are missing. Large signs posted on the highways flash the license plates and car makes of elderly drivers who may have become lost due to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

“I get a little thrill whenever I see one of those signs,” Cunningham said.

To help boost employment, she sponsored a bill to give ex-convicts, many of whom are trying to turn their lives around, a chance to hold a job. Through this bill, counties and municipalities can give a percentage of public contracts to businesses that employ former prisoners.

Cunningham also co-sponsored a bill limiting handgun purchases to one per person per month. This has been already enacted in other states. The law also is partly geared towards reducing gang violence by prohibiting gun purchases.

If reelected, Cunningham said, “I will continue the progress of moving our district forward.”

Running against Cunningham in the Senate race are Louis Vernotico, an independent, and Republican Donnamarie James.

Vernotico, of Jersey City, said that if elected, he would strive to pass a bill that would allow restaurants, food stores, and other places of business to voluntarily give senior citizens a 15 percent to 20 percent discount.

“I would like to get rid of primaries,” Vernotico added.

Repeated efforts to reach the Republican Senate candidate, Donnamarie James of Bayonne, were unsuccessful.

Democratic Assemblyman Charles Mainor of Jersey City has a robust set of plans to improve the economy. He said he will fight for state programs that boost urban investment, and he will address entrepreneurs and incubator business programs. Mainor will also ensure that small businesses, as well as those owned by women and minorities, are included in the state’s economic development plan.

Mainor said he “will encourage and support social innovation and social entrepreneurship.” He also said he will work to “incent alternative energy companies to relocate their headquarters to or open manufacturing plants in New Jersey.”

Mainor is on the state’s Environment and Solid Waste, Telecommunications and Utilities, Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Authorities Commissions.

During his first year, Mainor member drafted a bill to study the benefits of creating an e-licensing department for those who need state licenses to conduct business.

“I am particularly proud of this bill, because I hope it will lead to establishing a system that will be much more efficient for people to do business in the state,” he said. “Furthermore, I am hoping that it will make New Jersey much more attractive for others to want to relocate and do business in our state. I believe this can contribute to creating more jobs for New Jerseyans.”

The other incumbent in the lower house is Jason O’Donnell of Bayonne. He joined the Assembly in September 2010 to complete an unexpired term. He is the director of public safety in Bayonne and a member of the Assembly’s Financial Institutions and Insurance Labor Committees.

If re-elected, O’Donnell said his top priorities would be to encourage and streamline construction and rehabilitation projects and to provide tax incentives for job opportunities. O’Donnell also would strive to reduce local property tax burdens to provide incentives to streamline municipal operations, reduce red tape and bureaucracy, and centralize or regionalize services.

O’Donnell has sponsored a bill that would mandate screening for congenital heart defects for all newborns before they leave the hospital. His own son was saved by this inexpensive and non-invasive test, known as pulse oximetry testing. Congenital heart defects affect about one out of every 100 babies.

The Service Employees International Union’s state council endorsed the Democrats.

Mainor and O’Donnell’s opponents are the youthful Daniel Beckelman and Michael Alonso, a Bayonne event planner, both of whom are critical of the Democrats’ effects on the district.

The two are working together to build up a Republican base in a traditionally Democratic area.

“The unemployment situation is out of control, in comparison to the national economy,” Beckelman said. “We are two points above the national average when we should be two to three points below. The Democrats’ complete control of the area is not encouraging in creating an appetizing environment for companies to come in.”

Alonso’s reaction is similar. On his website, he posted, “I am running because I believe our legislature should reflect the views and values of the people and our current representative does not. The people of the 31st district do not feel that their current leadership is being responsive.”

“Republicans have done nothing more than cripple the low income and middle class children and families [who] represent a great deal of the 31st district constituency,” Mainor said. “Gov. Chris Christie and the Republican legislature cut funds for women's healthcare, education, law enforcement, and Economic Development programs such as the UEZ [Urban Enterprise Zone, a state program that has revitalized specific urban areas economically since 1983].”

He said this has prevented the cities from providing “healthcare to our neediest, preventing crime in our cities and properly fixing our education system.”

If elected to Assembly, Alonso promises to bring more jobs into Jersey City and Bayonne. He also said education is an important part of the economy.

Beckelman’s campaign priorities include reducing the double digit unemployment rate, creating jobs and making streets safer.

All the candidates seem to agree that improving education programs is imperative to give the next generation the appropriate job skills. Jersey City is an Abbott district, which receives additional, court-ordered school funding.

Cunningham administers the Sandra and Glenn D. Cunningham Foundation, which provides scholarships for college and money for books to high school students who otherwise may not be able to attend college.

Mainor’s platform centers on the schools.

“We all must be a part of educating tomorrow’s leaders,” he said. “Today! I only support ‘Community Based Education Reform.’”

Mainor promises to strive toward bringing the community, the schools, policymakers, administrators, and teachers together to ensure that a comprehensive education plan is developed and executed in the best interest of every child.

The two Republican Assembly candidates said the Democrats have not done enough for children’s education.

“I think urban schools need to be totally re-examined as we spend thousands per student for little in return,” Beckelman. “Rim towns like Bayonne, which have more viable conventional systems, need more funding. I also believe the education system needs to be freed from government control. Jersey City would be served better by charters and vouchers. Private and charter schools consistently clean the clock of the antiquated public schools."

Alonso said parents have the right to choose which school would be best for their children to attend and he supports programs to recruit, train and retain high quality teachers.”

O’Donnell, on the other hand, said the public schools are successful, adding that in most cases, there is no proof that charter schools do any better. He said he would focus on addressing the few public schools that are not doing well. He also wants to change the way the state funds schools.

“We should not be funding the education of our children with regressive property taxes,” O’Donnell said. “We should wean ourselves off of our over-reliance on property taxes for education funding across the board and look to the income tax as a progressive replacement.”

Another issue being debated is how to repair the crumbling highways that run through both Jersey City and Bayonne.

Vernotico would like the federal government to send funds to repair the decaying highways. “That’s what other states, such as California, are doing now,” he said. “I’d like to see us getting the federal money as well.”

O’Donnell said he would like to see a small gas tax hike put toward to solving both of these problems, as well as improving the economy.

Alonso supports making commuters who drive on the roads pay higher tolls to fix them, rather than burdening district residents with the costs.

Beckelman is interested in allowing more billboards and expanding highway rest stops and shopping centers. The revenue would go toward a fund to improve the infrastructure.

The candidates take opposing views of Gov. Chris Christie’s pension and healthcare reforms for state workers. Alonso and Beckelman supported the governor.

“The [pension fun] money’s eventually going to run out,” Alonso said. “We all have to contribute to the pension plan.”

“The fact is public sector workers are still getting a better benefit package than most private employees, but it’s a closer balance,” said Beckleman. “Christie is taking us in the right direction but he needs more legislators to back him up.”

Both also agree with Christie’s opposition to the “millionaire’s tax” increase.

The Democrats take a different stance.

Although Cunningham said that she supports Christie’s pension reforms, she does not stand behind his reduction in healthcare benefits.

“I believe people took their jobs with certain expectations that just didn’t happen,” she said. O’Donnell, whose wife is a teacher, says the healthcare reductions have not addressed high-cost issues.

“Healthcare is growing at a rate faster than anything else, including salaries,” he said, adding that reforming healthcare in the public sector should have been done globally. “We need to ask, ‘How do we make public health care affordable for everyone?’”

According to Mainor, “I think the budget cuts and cutbacks for state workers’ pensions and health benefits hurt a lot of New Jersey families, most specifically, working-, middle-, and low-income families.”

Both O’Donnell and Mainor said they realize New Jersey has to make hard choices but they support the “millionaire’s tax.”

“What kind of New Jersey do we want?” O’Donnell asked. “Do we want to take money away from the disabled and the defenseless, who can’t fend for themselves?”
“It is unfair to ask those who are on the fence of homelessness and starvation to contribute more than those who are more fortunate,” said Mainor. “In times like this, we should be trying to bring people together to share sacrifice and work together to solving problems.”

“Everyone should have to give fair share,” said Cunningham. “Everyone’s in this together. The sacrifice should not just be on the people making the least (money).”

Vernotico had a succinct reply when asked if he favors the higher tax: “No.”

Lisa Zambito is a freelance writer based in Hunterdon County.

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