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Crowded Field of Assembly Candidates Takes First Step in Run-Up to June Primaries

Primary battles -- and victories -- are well worth watching since they usually predict which party will win the seat in November

election ahead

Control of one of two houses of the New Jersey Legislature is at stake this year and 177 candidates are going to be vying for 80 seats. Still, one party or the other is fielding challenges in only four of 40 state Assembly districts and the Democrats offering no candidates in a fifth.

All of the candidates had filed petitions by Monday at 4 p.m. to appear on either major party's June primary ballot. The two biggest vote getters from each party get to face off in the November election, where independents will also be on the ballot. New Jersey demands little of its Assembly candidates -- be a U.S. citizen and legal voter at least 21 years old, a resident of the district in which he or she seeks election for one year, and a resident of the state for two years. Candidates had to file at least 100 names on nominating petitions.

The primary elections are important because their outcomes usually determine who will win in November in nearly all of the districts, because one party or the other dominates in most districts. Only two -- the 1st and 2nd in South Jersey -- have split representation, a Democratic Senator and one Democratic and one Republican Assembly member.

Of 80 sitting Assembly members, only six are not seeking reelection -- the most prominent being Assemblywoman Linda Stender, a Union County Democrat representing the 22nd District who announced her retirement after news broke of her husband's attempt to get Habitat for Humanity to help replace his superstorm Sandy-damaged ranch house in Manasquan with a much bigger home.

Primary battles in three other districts could lead to a few other incumbent losses, especially in the 31st District in Hudson County, where Assemblyman Charles Mainor, a Democrat, lost the backing of the county organization and is running solo, offline. Fellow Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell chose not to seek reelection in the district that includes Bayonne and southern Jersey City. A total of eight Democrats, including Mainor and the county-organization-backed ticket of Angela McKnight and Nicholas Chiaravalloti, are on the ballot.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, termed it "the usual Hudson County shakeup."

Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia (D-33rd) is another victim of the shakeup. He chose not to run off the line when he lost the backing of the Hudson Democratic party. But in this district, which stretches from Weehawken into northern Jersey City, no other Democrats are challenging the county organization's endorsed ticket of incumbent Raj Mukherji and Annette Chaparro of Hoboken.

The other Assembly members who are not seeking reelection are Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, a Democrat in the 5th District, who is running instead for Camden County sheriff; Christopher Brown, a Republican in the 8th District who said he wants to devote more time to work and his family; and Alison Littell McHose, a 24th District Republican who took a job as business administrator of Franklin Borough earlier this year.

McHose's decision not to run has led to a GOP primary in the state's northernmost district, covering Sussex County and parts of Morris and Warren. Fellow Assembly-member F. Parker Space is running with Gail Phoebus against Nathan Orr and Marie Bilik.

There's a lively Republican battle in the 40th District, which encompasses parts of Bergen, Essex, Morris and Passaic counties also related to a fight for the party line. According to, one of the challengers, John Capo, came within a vote of winning the party line from Assemblyman David Russo in Passaic and that decision is now the subject of a lawsuit brought by one of Capo's supporters. Russo and fellow incumbent Scott Rumana are both seeking election, and Joseph Bubba Jr., the son of a former state Senator, is also on the ballot.

In another not-unexpected primary battle, this one in the Democratic party, two teams are challenging incumbents Annette Quijano and Jamel Holley, who won his seat at a party convention two months ago, in Union County's 20th District. Murray characterized it as "the usual Elizabeth School Board vs. Lesniak dispute," referring to the district's state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who has backed some school board candidates, sparking a feud with other board members.

Finally, Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson face one challenger in Jimmy Gencarelli of Fort Lee in the Democratic primary in District 37 in Central Bergen County.

In only one district -- Brown's 8th, which includes parts of Atlantic, Burlington, and Camden counties -- the Democrats did not field any candidates, virtually ensuring the election of the GOP primary filers in November. Republicans put forth full slates of challengers in all districts.

While the Assembly races top the ballot in this off year, there will be one Senate seat up for election -- in the 5th District, which covers parts of Camden and Gloucester counties. Nilsa Cruz-Perez was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Donald Norcross, who was elected to Congress last November. She will have to win the remaining two years of that term. Cruz-Perez, a former Assemblywoman, will be unchallenged on the Democratic side, and only one Republican filed petitions to be the GOP's standard bearer.

The primary is scheduled for June 2.

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