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Analysis: With Holt Retiring, New Jersey Could Elect Two Women to Congress

Rush Holt
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt

New Jersey has not elected a woman to Congress since 2000, but with Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard mounting a strong campaign in the tossup 3rd District and state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) the clear front-runner in a strong field of potential woman candidates to succeed retiring Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), it looks like the shutout will end this year.

“What is encouraging for women in politics is that there are three open seats this year, and women are going to be running in two of them with a real shot to win,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “In the 3rd District Aimee Belgard has pretty much cleared the Democratic field for a very winnable seat. She was the first one out of the gate, and this time party leaders didn’t tell her to wait her turn when it became an open seat.

“And in the 12th District, it’s not just Greenstein’s name that’s out there, but Shirley Turner and Bonnie Watson-Coleman and Paula Covello and others, which shows what a deep bench of women there is in Holt’s district,” Walsh said. ‘That’s a real sign of progress.”

Belgard is running in the most competitive district in the state based on party registration numbers, and one of only 17 congressional districts in the country that is represented by a Republican. Still, it was carried by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012. National political experts moved the district from “leaning Republican” to “tossup” after Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ), a former Philadelphia Eagles football player, decided in December not to seek reelection.

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Meanwhile, Greenstein, who won four Assembly and Senate races in five years in the hotly contested 14th District, which spans Mercer and Middlesex counties in the heart of Holt’s safely Democratic district, wasted no time yesterday in jumping into the 12th District race, formally declaring her candidacy almost immediately after Holt announced he would retire after eight terms in Congress.

“I think I’m right for the district. I’m the only one who has represented both Mercer and Middlesex counties, and I have the largest footprint of any potential candidate in the number of towns I have represented,” Greenstein said last night. “And I really do think it is long past time that we had a woman in New Jersey’s congressional delegation.”

Greenstein’s potential opponents include Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), Assemblywomen Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer), Linda Stender (D-Union), and Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello.

But it was Greenstein that Emily’s List, the influential Washington, D.C.-based women’s political organization that is already working for Belgard, contacted yesterday as soon as her name surfaced as a candidate. “They called me and said they’re really excited and are working on trying to get me some early support,” Greenstein said.

In a Democratic primary where organization support is critical, Greenstein’s status as the only likely candidate from Middlesex County, which makes up 40 percent of the district, gives her a tremendous advantage and the likely party line. Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe would like to have a congressman from Middlesex, which is the second most populous county in the state, but has not had a home-grown congressman this century because Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a Monmouth County Democrat, has represented the Middlesex-dominated 6th District.

Greenstein also has represented a number of towns in Mercer County, which makes up another 40 percent of the district, although Hamilton, the largest Mercer municipality she represents, falls outside Holt’s congressional district.

Sticking With the Union

Nevertheless, Greenstein is the favorite legislator of the public employee unions that make up a large voting bloc in Holt’s district, particularly in Mercer County. Furthermore, the state AFL-CIO has worked hard in all of her campaigns, and she can also count on strong support from the private sector unions. Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), her longtime running mate, has been the president of the Mercer-Burlington Building Trades Council since 2007 and he announced yesterday that he would run for Greenstein's Senate seat if she goes to Washington. That would give Mercer a second Senate seat to go along with Turner's as a consolation prize if Greenstein is the congressional nominee.

Greenstein, who said she expected to be able to make some announcements of support in the next few days, would have a clear advantage in a large field, particularly if more than one candidate from Mercer decided to run. That's a distinct possibility with Turner, Watson-Coleman, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) all signaling or acknowledging yesterday that they were considering the race.

With everything in flux on the day of Holt’s surprise announcement, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, made Greenstein “a slight favorite” in the race.

One of the complicating factors, he said, is the role that the Democratic organizations in Union and Somerset counties, each of which make up 10 percent of the district, will play in the race.

In Union, Assemblywoman Stender, who ran two races against Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) before redistricting moved her out of his district in 2011, is considering entering the race, and so could Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union).

“There’s always the possibility that Jerry Green, realizing that he can’t elect a Union County candidate, would decide to play kingmaker,” Murray said. “The wild card here is Shirley Turner and the potential that Jerry Green would say he wants an African-American to represent the district.” A Greenstein-Turner primary race under that scenario would be a tossup, he said.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), who ran against Lance in 2012 even though he lived in Holt’s district, could decide to run, which could siphon off a significant Asian-American vote from towns like East Windsor and West Windsor that Greenstein has represented, Murray said.

Murray and national political experts agree that Holt’s district is “safely Democratic,” which is the reason Dr. Alieta Eck, who was trounced by Republican conservative Steve Lonegan in last August’s U.S. Senate primary, might remain the only GOP candidate in the field.

Time for a Change

Belgard, the consensus Democratic candidate for Congress in the adjacent 3rd District, said last night she was sorry to see Holt retire, praising him as “a phenomenal representative. But I'm excited that so many women have shown interest in the seat. New Jersey hasn't had a female representative in Washington in over a decade, and it's time to change that.”

Belgard has campaigned on women’s issues, noting that as “a woman, I bring a unique perspective to the table. In Congress, I'll be a strong advocate for issues like equal pay for equal work, and I'll fight to preserve funding for women's healthcare services like mammograms, cancer screenings, and pre-natal care.”

Belgard, who has already been endorsed by Emily’s List and raised $175,000 with an assist from U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), stands to benefit from a fractured Republican Party in her quest to capture the seat being vacated by Runyan.

Belgard has the solid support of her home county of Burlington, was welcomed on-stage at the Camden County kickoff rally for Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), who has already been coronated for the 1st District House seat being vacated by Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), and expects to win the support of the Ocean County Democratic organization.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party in the 3rd District appears headed for a deeply divisive June primary. The race is likely to match up a Republican establishment candidate from Ocean County, such as Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean), against conservative Steve Lonegan, the losing Republican U.S. Senate candidate in October, who is moving 100 miles down the Garden State Parkway from Bergen County to Ocean to run for the open seat.

Evesham Mayor Randy Brown, a popular Burlington County Republican who would probably have been Belgard’s toughest opponent, decided not to run and declared he would support the GOP primary winner -- but not if it is the “carpetbagger” Lonegan.

Murray said the 3rd District, while a tossup based on registration figures, still tends to lean Republican. “That doesn’t mean it’s not doable for Belgard,” he said. “The question is how much money can she raise. She’s not really a known entity outside of Burlington and even inside of Burlington. If Lonegan wins, he will be able to raise a lot of money. How much money can she raise to call him a carpetbagger, and make it stick?”

Belgard has an advantage running as a woman from Burlington County, which makes up half of the 3rd District, said Walsh. “I always think it’s helpful if you are running in a place that’s used to seeing women on the ballot and is comfortable voting for women. It’s tough to break down barriers and be the first woman elected, but that’s not the case here,” she said.

State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) is by far the most popular vote-getter in Burlington County. Sen. Dawn Addiego (R-Burlington) holds the county’s other state Senate seat, and Belgard is one of three women on the five-member Burlington County Board of Freeholders.

New Jersey's track record in electing women is not strong. The New Jersey Legislature ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation for percentage of women legislators for many years. Republican Christine Todd Whitman was the only woman governor; no woman has been elected to the U.S. Senate, and only five women have been elected to Congress -- none since Rep. Marge Roukema (R-NJ) won her last race in 2000.

Walsh and Murray were both intrigued by the role of the party bosses in the developing congressional races.

“Women face a stiff challenge in New Jersey because of how tightly power is held by a handful of political leaders -- some of whom are not even elected to office -- who make decisions about who gets to run and who doesn’t get to run,” Walsh said. “What is significant in the 3rd is we have a seat comes open in a tossup district, a Democratic woman is first out of the gate, and the party is not fielding other candidates. And in the 12th, when a seat comes open, we have multiple women well-positioned to run and nobody is telling them not to.”

Murray said what is interesting is what the different behavior of the candidates in the three districts where congressional seats opened up over the past two months says about the political power structure in those districts.

“In the 1st, Norcross still rules overall and you have the heir apparent already ordained,” Murray said, referring to South Jersey power broker George Norcross’s selection of his brother Donald to run for Andrews’ seat. “In the 3rd, you have all the Republicans keeping their powder dry because (Burlington County Republican leader Glenn) Paulsen and (Ocean County GOP chairman) George Gilmore are still deferred to.

“In Mercer and Middlesex, you don’t even know who the Mercer chair is, and in Middlesex, you have McCabe, but Middlesex has been on ‘Family Feud’ ever since John Lynch went to prison. It isn’t a power structure that commands respect. So you had a free-for-all within minutes of Rush Holt’s announcement, with everyone declaring their candidacy or their interest without even bothering to check with their county organizations,” he said.

The political free-for-all for Holt’s seat yesterday overshadowed Holt’s decision to retire, which came as a surprise. Holt had run in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in August, and had finished third to now U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in a four-candidate field.

Holt, a former Princeton University nuclear physicist and five-time Jeopardy winner, won a narrow upset victory in 1998 after Republican incumbent Michael Pappas embarrassed himself on the House floor by crooning “Twinkle, Twinkle, Kenneth Starr” to honor the birthday of the special prosecutor brought in to investigate the Whitewater affair. Campaigning for reelection with bumper stickers boasting “My congressman IS a rocket scientist,” Holt won his second election in 2000 by a recount, then was rewarded with a safer seat in redistricting the following year.

Noted for his support for science and the environment, Holt won his next five elections easily in a district that stretched from Hunterdon to Monmouth County. The 2011 redistricting gave him an impregnable Democratic bastion made up primarily of Mercer and Middlesex counties, neither of which has a single Republican legislator or freeholder.

If Holt had decided to retire before the last redistricting, the 12th District would have been regarded as a swing district, much like the 3rd District is today, and would have undoubtedly drawn strong Republican candidates from Monmouth, like state Sens. Joseph Kyrillos and Jennifer Beck (both R-Monmouth) into the race.

“It would have been a lot tougher,” Greenstein reflected last night. “But I still would have run. After running in the 14th District year after year, I’m used to tough races.”

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