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Elections 2014

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Watson Coleman Win Sets Stage for NJ's First Black Woman in Congress

Most contests fail to ignite voter interest, Democrats and Republicans alike stayed home and sat on their hands

bonnie watson coleman
A jubilant Bonnie Watson Coleman with Brian Hughes, Mercer County Executive.

Yesterday's primary all but guaranteed that New Jersey will have its first female Congressional representative in more than a decade, and first black woman ever, with Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman's win in the 12th District Democratic primary.

Camden-area voters also took the first step toward choosing their first new representative since 1990, and Burlington and Ocean Republicans picked the more moderate of two GOP candidates to replace their retiring Congressman in a district that two national political reports say Democrats have a chance of winning in November.

At the top of the ballot, Republican voters chose the man who unseated New Jersey's last elected GOP Senator in 1978, but went on to lose the general election, to wage an uphill battle to try to unseat freshman U.S. Sen. Cory Booker in November.

Unofficial election returns show turnout was very low across most of the state as generally Democrats and Republicans alike sat out the mostly ho-hum contests for the nominations for the Senate and a dozen seats in the House of Representative. About 12 percent of Democrats statewide went to the polls, and about 15 percent of Republicans, county turnout figures show. (Detailed results of primaries across the state are available online.)

Although the race would normally draw the most attention, it was virtually ignored this year because Booker was unopposed on the ballot and the four Republicans vying for the GOP nomination were mostly unknown, underfunded, and quiet. There's also a feeling that the Republican primary results may be anticlimactic, due to Booker's popularity and the fact that New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.

The GOP Senate race proved to be close, with no candidate dominating. Jeff Bell, who beat Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 Senate primary, only to lose to Bill Bradley in the fall, appeared to have won less than 30 percent of the votes cast. Bell had nearly 42,000 votes, compared with about 37,000 for Richard Pezzullo, who was in second with about 26 percent. Roughly 40 precincts were still uncounted as of midnight, leading Pezzullo, a technology consultant who has never held elective office, to delay conceding. Most recently policy director with a national conservative organization, Bell had spent the most on the race as of May 14 -- $86,000, meager by today's standards. Pezzullo reported spending less than $2,000.

Rich Danker, Bell's campaign manager, attributed Bell's win to his having suggested a solution to the nation's economic distress -- returning to the gold standard. Despite what all the pundits say, Bell is confident he can best Booker in November.

"He wouldn't have gotten into this race if he didn't think he could beat Corey Booker," said Danker. "Look, Corey Booker didn't win by that much in his special election last year and he didn't do a very good job running Newark, that's for sure. So we feel like he's very vulnerable as an incumbent and we're excited to be able to advance now and take him on in a statewide race in a year where Republicans look very fortunate in running against what has turned out to be a terrible economy. It's a really bad environment to be a Democrat in."

The most exciting of the House races was the one in the 12th District in Central Jersey, which ranges from Union County through Somerset and Middlesex down to Mercer and includes Trenton. What was expected to be a close race between Watson Coleman and Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), turned out not to be. Ultimately, Watson Coleman's home county of Mercer, as well as Plainfield in Union County, came out strong to help her win in the four-candidate field with nearly 43 percent of the vote. With nearly all precincts reporting, Watson Coleman had 15,413 votes, a 5,000-vote lead over Greenstein.

All night, the mood in Watson Coleman's election night headquarters at the Lafayette Yards Hotel in Trenton was positive, buoyed by an upbeat disc jockey. By 10 p.m., it was rocking. On hand were dozens of families and friends, many talking about "Bonnie" with the familiarity of a cousin or neighbor. As the night moved on, a few fellow Democratic colleagues also filtered in, many from Trenton and elsewhere in Mercer County.

Greenstein's party took the opposite trajectory. At 9 p.m., the turnout at the IBEW 456 union hall in North Brunswick was healthy, with senior citizens who were the core of the Senator's support making an especially a strong showing. But as the voting results started to come in, the friendly chatter hushed to make time for twitter scrolling and poll refreshing, and the mood switched to quiet, then anxious, then somber. By 10, the crowd was starting to thin.

Watson Coleman eventually declared victory a little before 11, walking into a jovial and dancing crowd. As she stepped to the podium, retiring Rep. Rush Holt joined her, as did state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes. She praised her team and supporters, including those from her native Trenton.

"My hometown showed up," she declared to a cheering crowd.

Greenstein won Middlesex County by nearly 6,000 votes, but it appeared to have the lightest turnout of the four counties in the district -- 11 percent, compared to 20 percent in Mercer. Watson Coleman beat Greenstein in Mercer by 8,000 votes .

A beaming Watson Coleman called her opponents "all honorable people, all people who believe in the things we believe in. That's the message I want to tell Democrats -- we are united front, we are different from Republicans."

She listed her priorities for Congress -- immigration reform, women's rights, gun control and public education -- before saying that there was much work first to do to win the general election.

"This is just the first step, and we have a big step to take in November," she said.

Holt praised her and her supporters. "We are not just making progress, we are making history," the outgoing congressman said. "She has endless energy, a compassion heart, and she has smarts."

Greenstein was far more subdued.

"One of the things you never know is how you are going to react," she said in her concession speech. "I haven’t cried yet and then I look around the room and I see all of the people who have been so helpful and so supportive of me . . . I am still a woman in the Senate.”

Supporters said Greenstein made a valiant fight."We had four great candidates that all ran great campaigns and it doesn't always turn out the way you hoped but now we will get behind Watson Coleman and hopefully we are one step closer to having a woman representing us in Congress," said Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin.

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