While peace reigns over most party primaries, even the suggestion of an election triggers another battle among Democratic factions in the contentious 20th legislative district.
Three slates of candidates are fighting for the nominations to two Assembly seats in the district, which covers Elizabeth, Hillside, Roselle, and Union.
Incumbents Annette Quijano and Jamel Holley share the Democratic organization line. A. Tony Monteiro and Giuliano A. Farino are “Real Democrats for Change,” a bloc centered around the Elizabeth school board. Vivian Bell and Jorge A. Batista represent the Union County Progressive Democrats.
When it comes to policy, the distinctions among the factions are relatively narrow. But that does not mean they are any closer to burying the hatchet.
“The people of Elizabeth are very passionate about their politics,” said Quijano, a city resident, in explaining the long war between the Union County Democratic Party and the Real Democrats for Change.
“I do think it’s personalities,” said Monteiro, a school board member, who acknowledged the intramural battles have been wearing. “There’s an old African saying, ‘When two elephants fight, only the grass gets hurt.’”
An effort two years to make peace with the organization group, led by state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union), and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, foundered because the mayor would not go along, Monteiro said. So it is back to the trenches against incumbents who are not necessarily bad people, but have not been effective on key issues, he said.
“We need legislators who are willing to stand up and find solutions,” Monteiro said.
Meanwhile, the Progressive Democrats also are trying to build on the municipal level, backing Councilwoman Cecilia Dallis Ricks for mayor in Roselle. The group has a mission statement, declaring themselves “the voice of the voiceless regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, income level, or business connection.”
Bell, a teacher in Irvington, said she is happy to be running with a group that is “independent” of the party and school-board blocs. Although she followed the issues, Bell never ran for office until she met Batista, a former Hillside councilman. They talked about issues “and we just kind of hit it off,” she said.
She ticked off a list of complaints common among middle- and working-class Democrats: high property taxes, crime, inadequate funding for special education programs, “lack of respect for collective bargaining.”
“I decided to get off the sideline and do something about it,” Bell said, adding that public schools are paying the price for poor state financial decisions.
In particular, she said the highly publicized state cap on property taxes has proved inadequate. New Jersey’s tax system punishes middle-class and working people, who increasingly find the area too expensive, Bell said.
“I believe Christie was on the right track” initially on limiting property taxes, said Batista, a real-estate lawyer, “but he didn’t deliver.”
That failure has had a direct impact on area residents, he said, because clients tell him they are being priced out of the market. “We are being taxed to death,” and Trenton has failed to address the state’s overdependence on property taxes, Batista said.
He proposes an expansion of urban enterprise zones, which offer benefits such as reduced sales taxes, state financing, and tax credits for hiring new employees in designated areas around the state.
Enlarging that program would boost employment while giving municipalities increased revenues to fund their budgets without tax increases, according to Batista. In a time of economic stress, leaders “should be looking at everything” to change the state’s outlook, he said.
Among those measures should be a freeze on college tuitions, state funds for new high schools in Hillside and Roselle, and a Port Authority hiring preference for Elizabeth residents, according to the Progressive Democrats.
Holley was mayor of Roselle until recently, stepping down after he was appointed in February to fill the vacancy created when then-Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-Union) resigned to become Union County sheriff.
In economically challenging times for the state, Holley said legislative Democrats are working on a broad range of issues, such as replenishing the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which could in turn spur employment. At the same time, he said, his municipal experience allows him to pursue local matters of concern to constituents, such as filling hazardous potholes on Route 21, a state road.
"No one has a better record than me and Assemblywoman Quijano," he said. "As mayor, I created jobs, I stabilized taxes." Raised by his grandmother because "my father and mother were strung out on drugs," Holley said he appreciated help from government programs. Like him, local residents "are all looking for an opportunity," and want legislators who are available to listen and help, he said.
The public works director in Irvington, Holley is also concerned about trends in education, particularly the increased use of standardized tests. He has called for a moratorium on New Jersey’s use of the widely criticized PAARC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests. Holley said he does not object to testing, but to its poor implementation. Overemphasis on testing is "not good education," he said. But there is one issue that unites the opposition slates, what they term a “land grab” by Kean University to acquire the 46-acre former Merck site in Union, across the street from its main campus. The Kean family once owned the property, but a Superior Court judge ruled against the university’s claim to the parcel, which the township wants to keep on the tax rolls through redevelopment.
“This is a real opportunity for the township of Union to have some sort of commercial development” and bring tax revenues, as well as new jobs for area residents, said Farina, a technology teacher.
It may be a municipal issue, but one that legislators should take stand on, he said, noting that Holley has a masters degree from Kean and worked for the university. The assemblyman “said it’s not part of his job description” to comment on the dispute, Farina said.
Although he is making his first run for elected office, the Union resident is known in the community for At Heart’s Length, a charity he formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which delivers aid to needy families, takes homeless people to shelters, and raises money for multiple sclerosis, which afflicts his wife.
The experience of giving toys to children after the storm “made me want to do more to help the community,” Farina said. He was always skeptical about politicians, “I was always the guy who said, ‘Well, he said he was going to do this while he was running, but never did,” Farina said.
But as a teacher, Farina said he has been impressed by improvements in the Elizabeth district, the only one in New Jersey that has had three blue-ribbon schools as recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, including the Halloran School for 2014.
Monteiro has “been a great guy for the community, and he asked me to run,” Farina said. “I appreciate the great things they’ve done” in the schools, he said.
While he lost two previous Assembly bids, Monteiro said district residents are increasingly looking for more aggressive representation in Trenton. “There’s clearly a sense of change being needed,” said Monteiro, who owns a string of restaurants.
As the state economy continues to struggle, residents are responding to “my record of keeping property taxes under control as a councilman in Elizabeth and now with the school board,” Monteiro said.
An Assemblywoman since she was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2008, Quijano serves as deputy majority leader and chairwoman of the Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee. She is a lawyer who works as Elizabeth’s municipal prosecutor, and previously served as Lesniak’s chief of staff and clerk to the Union County freeholders.
Quijano said she is already promoting some of the issues raised by her opponents, such as ensuring that “local residents have access to good paying jobs” at the Port of Elizabeth. Agencies like the Port Authority should contract with local businesses, including small businesses, she said.
“The Democrats have been providing options like the Urban Enterprise Zones that would revitalize our area,” Quijano said. “We’ve been working on issues like the minimum wage,” which is $8.38 as of January 1, marking a slight increase tied to consumer prices under a referendum approved by voters.
She acknowledged some “frustration” that Christie has blocked a number of bills intended to speed economic recovery and help residents and small businesses still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession.
Her past experience, including a stint in the governor’s counsel office, provided good preparation for her to deal with arguments raised by Christie in vetoes or conditional vetoes, Quijano said.