Four Jostle for Position in NJ’s Most-Watched Congressional Primary
Democratic hopefuls bring impressive credentials and expertise to 12th District campaign
In what may be New Jersey’s most competitive and closely watched congressional primary, two senior state lawmakers are locked in a fierce battle to become the only female in the Garden State’s congressional delegation, while two male scientists – one also a state lawmaker -- try to do more than watch from the sidelines.
It’s the race for Central Jersey’s strongly Democratic 12th district, where both front runners are polling evenly, all four candidates label themselves as progressive, and the winner will almost certainly take the seat vacated by retiring eight-term U.S. Rep. Rush Holt.
Politics, polls and the party line
Each office-holding candidate has received the all-important official endorsement by party officials in his or her home county: state Sen. Linda Greenstein from Middlesex, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman from Mercer, and Assemblyman (and former engineer) Upendra Chivukula from Somerset. A fourth candidate, physicist Andrew Zwicker, hasn’t landed any formal endorsements, while Watson Coleman scored backing from “free-agent” Union County.
Hamilton does not lie in the 12th District but that municipality and two other Mercer municipalities do fall within Greenstein’s current state Senate district.
The senator’s campaign later defended her remarks by crying sexism, issuing a a statement that read: “This thinly veiled attempt at intimidation from unnamed party bosses unfortunately reeks of the kind of sexism successful women have had to contend with throughout history. Anonymous smears, calling an accomplished female senator ‘erratic’ and claiming that she has a pattern of ‘confused behavior’ is nothing so much as code for ‘keep the little woman out of our smoke-filled back room.’”
But this defense alienated Mercer County Democratic Party Chair Liz Muoio, who told The Daily Beast, “For Senator Greenstein to play the sexism card as the reason she did not receive the endorsement of Mercer County -- one of only two Democratic county parties in New Jersey with a woman chair and a county in which another woman candidate received the endorsement -- is disingenuous and an insult to the countless women who have suffered and fought true sexism in the political world.”
According to a Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic voters released on May 19, Greenstein trails Watson Coleman by a 42-19 percent margin in Mercer County. Overall, Greenstein leads Watson Coleman by 25 percent to 24 percent, though more of Watson Coleman’s voters pledge an unwavering commitment to their candidate than do Greenstein’s. Chivukula garners 11 percent of the likely vote, Zwicker gets 6 percent, and 35 percent of respondents still haven’t decided.
Middlesex County and Mercer County comprise most of the district, with a small portion of Union County added during the most recent redistricting to replace pieces of Monmouth County that were removed. The redistricting produced a more reliable Democratic populace whose rolls climbed from 33 percent to 37 percent of registered voters. Only 14 percent of district voters have registered as Republicans, and the rest of the population remains independent, though they’ve voted for Democratic presidential candidates for the last two decades and have almost always sent Holt back to Congress by double-digit margins.
On one end of the economic spectrum, the district includes struggling Trenton. Yet it also encompasses affluent Princeton, suburban areas of East and West Windsor, North Brunswick and South Brunswick, Scotch Plains/Fanwood and urban Plainfield.
The 64-year-old Greenstein has been re-elected to the state Senate twice after serving six terms in the General Assembly. She serves as assistant majority leader in the Senate and is the vice-chairwoman of the Law and Public Safety and the Environment and Energy committees. She also sits on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Joint Committee on the Public Schools. As a member of the General Assembly, she was deputy speaker and assistant majority leader and she chaired the Judiciary Committee.
Before joining the Legislature, Greenstein was a deputy attorney general in the Division of Criminal Justice in Trenton, and assistant district attorney in Philadelphia and a senior staff attorney at the Community Health Law Project in Camden, along with teaching at Seton Hall Law School. She earned her academic degrees at Vassar College, Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University.
She’s been named New Jersey legislator of the year by organizations like the Jewish War Veterans, the AFL-CIO, the AARP and the Policemen’s Benevolent Association. Her endorsements come from organized labor, Middlesex County politicians and ethnic societies (including those that represent Asians and African-Americans), and the state’s police and firefighter associations. As of April 16, she’d raised $93,000.
Though similarly decorated, Watson Coleman calls herself the candidate with the most statewide leadership experience. During her eight terms in state government, the 70-year-old Ewing resident became the first African American woman to serve as Assembly majority leader and holds the same distinction as chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. If elected, the Thomas Edison State College graduate would be the first African-American woman to represent New Jersey in Congress. Watson Coleman had raised $124,000 as of the last quarterly filing deadline.
She serves as vice-chair of the Education Committee and previously chaired the Appropriations Committee for three years. Her endorsements come from labor, several members of Congress, the mayor-elect of Trenton, and former governor Jim Florio, who said, “Bonnie has never shied away from the tough fights and has always stood on the front lines battling for her constituents.”
Indeed, she said of herself, “I think I’m one of the only legislators who consistently has raised the issues that weren’t the issue of the day and stuck with them.”
She chaired Barbara Buono’s gubernatorial election campaign and is one of Gov. Chris Christie’s most vocal critics. At a time when many of the state’s Democrats, including Greenstein, were running re-election advertisements pledging to work with the governor, Watson Coleman defended her party’s candidate when few others would. Her loyalty won her the endorsement of the progressive Blue America political action committee, which decries Greenstein for not speaking up as loudly as her opponent on issues like the death penalty and marriage equality.
On its website, the organization wrote, “Linda is not progressive, Linda has never been progressive, and Linda will not be progressive. The truth is that she has flirted with being progressive because her polling and focus groups said that is what the voters of the 12th district want.”
Greenstein counters that she did actively support Buono -- more than most of her colleagues -- but couldn’t devote much time to the top of the ticket because she was consumed by fighting for her own political life in an exceptionally competitive Senate race. And although she touted her bipartisan credentials on TV, she notes that she consistently votes against Christie’s agenda and that he’s publicly said she’s worked against him more than almost any other Democrat.
“Two different times he’s made it very clear I was no friend of his,” she said. And as for her progressive credentials, she says she always stands by her constituents, even if that means sometimes sliding slightly to the right. “There’s absolutely no question I’m the most progressive candidate. I have a few votes that a progressive might not agree with but I have a progressive legal career and voting record. I’m the most independent person in the Legislature.”
Like Greenstein, who spent her childhood in a Brooklyn housing project, Chivikula grew up poor. After living with his parents and four siblings in a grass hut in India, he went on to earn an engineering degree in his home country before immigrating to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from City College of City University of New York. He became councilman, then mayor, in Franklin -- Somerset County’s largest municipality -- and represented New Jersey three times at the Democratic National Convention.
He was elected to the Assembly in 2002 and currently serves as deputy speaker, chair of the Telecommunications & Utilities Committee, vice chair of the Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee and as a member of the Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Authorities Committee. He has also served on the National Conference of State Legislators, which has sent him abroad on trade missions and brought him into contact with federal agencies like the State Department.
Chivukula was the first Indian-American elected to the New Jersey lLegislature and only the fourth such state lawmaker nationwide. He ran for Congress in 2012 but was defeated by Republican Leonard Lance.
“I’m a different type of candidate,” he said. “Not only am I a scientist, I have gone through two different systems of education, I was born in a different country, I’m able to speak many languages, and I bring different viewpoints to government.”
As of April 16, Chivukula had raised the most money, with $179,000. With just $5,000 in his campaign chest, Zwicker had raised the least.
Zwicker also calls himself different because of his science background and says it’s precisely that difference that would make him so valuable in Washington. Though the 50-year-old physicist has never run for office, he says he’s doing so because Holt’s retirement leaves only one scientist in Congress and he wants to ensure they have a voice in the national political debate.
“Being a scientist is not so much about what you know but how you think,” he said. “I’m skeptical, data drives my conclusions, and I’m trained to change my opinion, which is the complete opposite of politics.”
Zwicker works as the head of the Science Education Department at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and as a writing lecturer and faculty advisor at Princeton University. But the Bard College and Johns Hopkins-educated doctorate-holder isn’t an academic who’s too intellectual to communicate with laypeople. He’s won awards for his communication style, and The American Association of Physics Teachers named him to a list of 75 leading contributors to physics education. He’s also says he’s got more federal experience than his three opponents combined. To wit, he’s worked with the Energy Department on its budget and he’s brought more than $10 million in federal funds to the district for skills-training programs for students, teacher development programs, a NASA collaboration to research zero-gravity and a five-year grant for energy efficiency.
Though the Kingston resident understands his lack of experience makes him a longshot, he says this campaign is just a start to what he hopes will be a meaningful career in politics.
“I can’t lose on Tuesday because it’s the beginning for me,” he said. “I have no intent on being the type of the person who comes out once and disappears.”
Zwicker believes that many of the issues debated by Congress pertain to science, and it’s these outcomes that he wants to influence. Climate change, clean energy, healthcare, Internet neutrality, domestic spying, job creation in the STEM fields, science education – they all relate to science and according to Zwicker, they’re not being handled well enough by the lawyers, business people and career politicians who currently hold the vast majority of seats in Congress.
“It is just too important not to have an analytical thinker in there, especially with climate change being the biggest threat to our planet ever,” he said. Chivukula, too, emphasizes his engineering background and downplays his political insider status when he talks about the issues.
“When you look at 21st century challenges you don’t need just career politicians. I worked in the private sector for more than 35 years so my knowledge of the issues is first-hand,” he said.
While in the private sector, Chivukula worked in waste and water treatment, telecommunications and product design, and he’s written six books on design, testing and supply-chain management. He says this experience has taught him how to make things better and more efficient, and his business background trained him how to work off a balance sheet.
He believes strongly that innovation in fields like nano-technology and the life sciences will spur development that can help the United States better compete on an international level. To that end, he’d like to see the country invest in education, training and workforce development for high-tech manufacturing jobs.
He said he strongly champions human rights – especially for the LGBT community – a liberal immigration policy, strong Social Security and Medicare programs, and a minimum wage of at least $10.10 per hour.
Greenstein also highlights her commitment to gay rights; support for a $10.10 hourly minimum wage; support for Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act; and her stance on the right of immigrant children to access a college education. She’s very pro-Israel, pro-woman, and pro-clean energy and equally anti-gun and anti-Tea Party. She was instrumental in passing ethics reforms in the Statehouse.
So what differentiates her from her fellow progressives in the race?
“Time and again I’ve had to be a tenacious fighter and take a position of leadership,” she said of her legislative history. “We all know down in Washington the operative word is ‘gridlock,’ and I’m the person who has a proven track record (of getting things done).”
Watson Coleman echoes her challengers on issues of gay rights, women’s equality, immigration, dependence on fossil fuels, open space, and gun violence. She fought to increase the minimum wage in New Jersey, though she doesn’t specifically call for $10.10 an hour.
She also praises her opponents and deflects questions about her front-runner status.
“The news media says I’m one of two front runners but I don’t dismiss the possibility of others coming to the fore,” she said. “They’re all good candidates.”
In November, the winner of Tuesday's primary will face Republican Alieta Eck, a physician.