In 31st District, Half-Dozen Democrats Jockey to Stand Out From Crowd
With surprisingly similar views on Christie and economic development, candidates differ on education
Snuggled into the southern end of the peninsula once known as Bergen Neck, the 31st Legislative District packs plenty of politics into the congested neighborhoods of Bayonne and the south side of Jersey City.
The division between two cities often shapes the legislative team for this overwhelmingly Democratic area. A certain intraparty politesse usually ensures each city gets one of the seats, as exemplified by incumbents Jason O’Donnell, a Bayonne firefighter, and Charles Mainor, a retired Jersey City cop.
But Hudson County Democrats are also factionalized, and a prerequisite for power is staying on the right side on the inside. O’Donnell and Mainor misstepped, as each failed to back the winner of the most recent mayoral elections in his town, Steven Fulop in Jersey City and James Davis in Bayonne.
The result? No endorsement from the Hudson County Democratic organization for either man. Mainor initially tried to soldier on without it, but dropped out of the race. O’Donnell did not file for reelection.
Other contenders are undaunted, though, trying to make the organization’s selection process an issue in itself. Candidates have come and gone, even on the organization line, so voters may not be able to tell the players without a scorecard in this lively contest.
The Election Day line-up features three teams: Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight on the organization line; Bruce Alston and Washington Flores under the slogan “Uniting Community & Public Service;” Joseph Conte and Ramón “Ray” Regalado as “Hudson County Democrats United.”
On the Republican side, Matthew Kopko of Bayonne and Hermino Mendoza of Jersey City are unopposed for nominations.
What might be hot-button issues elsewhere find widespread agreement among these candidates.
All want to fight Gov. Chris Christie on pensions, saying that rather than reforming the system he is reneging on promises to public workers and retirees. Ignoring a deal with the Legislature, the governor maintains the state has insufficient revenue to make scheduled payments into pension funds.
Critics point out Christie has quintupled the fees the state pays to private money managers to invest the funds -- to more than $600 million in 2014 -- despite lackluster performance.
Conte, a logistics supervisor for Jersey City public schools, acknowledges he is as concerned about his own pension as he is about those of his elderly parents, retirees who depend on that income. He calls the governor’s approach “criminal.”
“I’m not sure if it’s criminal, but it’s certainly illegal,” said Chiaravalloti, a lawyer who has held numerous administrative positions with Bayonne municipal agencies and served a stint as state staff director for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
After years of abuse by Christie and predecessors, pension payments “should be taken out of the governor’s hands” through a constitutional amendment, said Flores, a production manager for an art and graphics company.
“Let’s not forget, Christie had a ‘bromance’ with a lot of powerful Democrats, who are the ones who let the pension deal go through,” he said. “It’s time for legislators to step up.”
Looking to increase revenues, almost all the candidates support, some enthusiastically, a referendum to allow voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana. McKnight, the founder of a nonprofit group that helps the elderly, tempered her comments, saying she favors it “to see what the public has to say.”
But Regalado has made support for “community policing” a key part of his campaign. He believes officers should get sensitivity training after being hired, and should be deployed to interact with their communities.
“I’ve made over 6,000 arrests and I’ve never had one complaint, because I treat people with respect,” Regalado said.
While he blamed “a few bad apples” for the perception that police violence is out of control, especially against minorities, Regalado joined other candidates in endorsing the idea of using special prosecutors to investigate charges against police.
Chiaravollati said he supports pending legislation, including. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), it would require the Attorney General to do just that.
The step is “definitely needed,” Conte said, but so are community policing and the use of police body cameras to record interactions with the public.
McKnight agreed that appointing special prosecutors “doesn’t go far enough.” The legal system should stop criminalizing minor infractions and behaviors, which inflames the public, while citizens should stop “demonizing” police stuck with difficult tasks, she said.
"Police should reflect the community,” Flores said. “They should look like your neighbor.”
Over the past 40 years, the United States has steadily increased its incarceration rate to the point where it has the largest prison population in the world. Much of that is attributable to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses, that fall disproportionately on nonwhites.
That makes finding jobs for parolees, and giving ex-offenders the right to vote, two other issues that draw widespread agreement among the candidates.
“We need to find jobs for people as they come out of jail,” Conte said, “and not just for them, for everybody.”
Boosting employment, whether through infrastructure projects, revived manufacturing, or increased education is the way to reduce crime, he said.
The effort needs to start even earlier, Alston said, with training and education for inmates “while they’re incarcerated, so when they come out, they’re ready to get a job.”
“We should prevent them from going to jail in the first place,” Regalado said, with programs in the schools to help students become police, firefighters, teachers, and other necessary professions.
As the campaign heads to the fall, the Democrats might be tempted to steal a line from Republican Kopko, who said America has created “one of the last great human rights tragedies of our time: the prison-industrial complex.”
When it comes to providing more jobs, the candidates agree the state needs to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund and put the money to work restoring the state’s deteriorating infrastructure. They say money could be shifted away from giving tax abatements to large corporations, which they describe as a failed strategy even as local municipalities and the governor continue to pursue it.
Again, development lawyer Kopko offered the snappiest take on the position also espoused by Democrats about such gifts, “There’s no reason to be handing out abatements in an area where developers are tripping over themselves to build.”
“There should be tax abatements for seniors, tax abatements for veterans,” McKnight said.
“I’m not 100 percent against tax abatements,” Flores said, but added, “The process is being abused.” Development in desirable locations “should be paying a premium.” But he proposes streamlining procedures for projects of 25,000 square feet or less as a way to promote small business.
As a legislator, Chiaravollati said he would want to be appointed to the budget committee to reshape Christie’s misplaced priorities, such as the $2 billion in tax breaks given out in 2014.
But he agrees with Alston that the state is not alone in financial favoritism. They point to a 2011 study of Jersey City contracts by a management consultant, MGT of America, which found pervasive discrimination against minority-owned businesses.
Looking at 2002-2008, the report found minority-owned businesses were virtually excluded from contracts with the city and with private interests there, found it harder to get loans and often were forced to pay higher interest. Those obstacles had a “negative effect on the earnings of African-American, Hispanic, and other minority firms,” the report said.
But the city sat on the report, known as a Croson study after a U.S. Supreme Court case, until last September. Candidates aware of the report agreed conditions have not materially improved since it was done, and called on the city to make changes.
“There’s structural racism in city government today,” Alston said.
Only when the subject turns to education do serious fissures begin to emerge among the candidates. But even then, there is general opposition to over-use of standardized tests and state control of local schools.
State control has not helped children in Jersey City, while standardized tests are a byproduct of misplaced federal policy, according to Alston. “It’s the Race to the Top money,” a competitive federal grant program, “that drives those tests,” he said.
Conte adamantly opposes overtesting but directs his real ire at charter schools.
“Republicans are using them to destroy the unions and undermine public education,” he said “The public schools are being set up to fail. I will fight for more money for the public schools.”
Chiaravollati noted Christie has failed to fully fund the state’s education formula, hurting local districts. He described charter schools as an initially useful idea for grassroots educational efforts, but said they have been “commercialized” by corporate interests.
Outside control is a problem for school districts, Chiaravollati said. His brother was an educator in Newark schools, “but just left because he couldn’t deal with (state-appointed Superintendent) Cami Anderson any more,” he said.
Charters “are not held to the same standard as public schools” when it comes to accepting students, Flores said. While “they’re here to stay… you have to know somebody to get in,” he said.
But McKnight serves on the board of a charter school, and disputes the characterizations from other candidates.
“The choice should rest with the parent,” she said. “The parent has to have an option,” adding she sends her children to a charter “because I couldn’t afford a private school.”
Noting charters are funded through local school boards, Regalado said, “They take our money and then they don’t accept our children. Send your kids to a public school, send them to a private school, but don’t have charters get rich from our tax money.”
Alston questioned how McKnight would represent public schools in education-funding disputes. Alston made the same point about Chiaravollati, whose children attend a Catholic school in Staten Island, leading to a brief shouting match between the candidates at a campaign forum.
Alston runs a real estate investment and consulting firm and a hedge fund, and is well known in his hometown as a community activist and a founder of Urban Concerns of Jersey City.
“I firmly believe hope has been lost for the African-American community, as well as many other ethnic communities across the 31st District,” he said in a campaign statement, adding the district “deserves leadership not divided by race, or chosen by political leaders.”
Flores, 34, lost a race for Bayonne council last year, and flirted with a race for Congress previously but did not file. Beyond politics, though, he points to his involvement with Little League, Thanksgiving charities, and other community activities. The district needs legislators who are informed about issues and who will “stay true to our roots,” he said.
Achieving change on issues like school tests and funding “is going to take more than your legislators down in Trenton,” Flores said. Local residents and officials must be prepared to join the fight, he said.
Flores said he supports project labor-agreements with unions on major developments, which he said would mean more jobs for local workers.
Although well-known in local political circles, Conte and Regalado also backed losing mayoral candidates in Jersey City. The pair emphasize that they are “working-class Democrats,” committed to bringing and maintaining union jobs in the district to combat income inequality.
“We need those middle-class jobs, we need those working-class jobs,” said Conte, a logistics supervisor for Jersey City schools and former city Democratic chairman. “It’s so important to the economy, for crime, and for democracy, because without a middle-class there is no democracy.”
When it comes to political and community involvement, “we have far more experience than the other slates,” Conte said. He and Regalado “deserved” organization support, he said, “but the good thing about not having it is that we’re not obligated to anyone.”
“I’m actually not concerned with what the other candidates are saying,” said Chiaravollati, who is a partner in Magis Strategies, LLC, a public policy consulting firm. He also serves as the executive director of the Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership at Saint Peter’s University. He made an unsuccessful bid for the nomination in 2007.
With the resources of the party organization behind them in the primary, he and McKnight are focusing on how to fight in Trenton for priorities like the Transportation Trust Fund, school aid, and real property tax reform, Chiaravollati said.
“I think a lot of people have realized that the reform legislation sounded good, but it actually didn’t cap property taxes,” he said.
Alone among the candidates, McKnight has no experience running for elected or partisan office. At times, that shows. Caught unprepared by an issue at a candidates forum, she called the moderator “unprofessional” for not giving her the questions in advance.
But she is on firmer footing defending her charity, AngelaCares, against suggestions of politicization or potential conflict of interest. A donation of toiletries rejected by the Jersey City school board was simply part of an ongoing program with other beneficiaries, McKnight said. The board decision is understandable, but the program began before her entry into the race, she said.
“We do not have any grants from the city, state or federal governments, so right now there are no conflicts of interest” with her political campaign, McKnight said. She started the program in 2011, spurred by her experience caring for her terminally ill grandmother.