Democratic primary voters in the 15th Legislative District can choose between three candidates for two spots in the General Assembly when they vote on June 2: party insiders Reed Gusciora and Elizabeth Maher Muoio, and challenger Dan Toto.
Gusciora seeks his 11th term while Muoio, Mercer County Democratic chairwoman, was appointed in February to take over Bonnie Watson Coleman’s seat when she left for Congress.
Toto, who works as a compliance officer for the New Brunswick Housing and Redevelopment Authority and helped run the campaign of disgraced former Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, tried to run against Gusciora in 2011 but was thrown off the ballot when Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno ruled some of his petition signatures invalid.
The three candidates are running to represent a district that covers seven Mercer County municipalities, including Trenton, and three municipalities in Hunterdon County.
Though just over half of the district’s residents are white, Trenton contributes many of the African-American (29 percent) and Hispanic voters (18 percent) in the district. Though the district in the state in terms of population, it has a high number of children receiving public assistance. Several working- and middle-class towns, including Lawrence Township and immigrant-dense Ewing Township, border Trenton, then give way to more affluent neighbors like Hopewell Township, Hopewell Borough, Pennington, West Amwell and East Amwell, which remain slightly rural and have a heavy concentration of retired state workers.
Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans by a 3-to-1 margin, though the majority of voters (almost half) don’t affiliate with either party. Despite the large number of unaffiliated voters, they haven’t sent a Republican to the state capital since before 1995, when they elected Gusciora to his first term and elected current state Sen. Shirley Turner to her second Assembly term.
Formerly of Princeton, Reed Gusciora moved to Trenton after the last redistricting, presumably in order to keep his seat. The 55-year-old attorney serves as deputy majority leader and chair of the Regulatory Oversight Committee. He was the first New Jersey lawmaker to come out as gay, and he’s established a reputation as one of the state’s most liberal lawmakers for his advocacy of same-sex marriage, marijuana decriminalization and, recently, the extension of the Urban Enterprise Zone program that allows for a reduced sales tax in disadvantaged communities. He has a strong environmental record, earning 2nd place in Clean Water Action’s 2014 legislative scorecard.
Gusciora’ s running mate, Muoio, comes to the Assembly from the Mercer County Department of Economic Development and Sustainability, where she served as director for seven years. Before that, the Pennington resident held seats on the Pennington Borough Council and the Mercer County freeholder board. As Mercer County democratic chair, she strongly supported Watson Coleman’s bid for Congress.
Returning the favor, the congresswoman told a newspaper reporter of her successor, "We're going to have the same progressive voice, the same diligence and commitment to standing up and holding accountable the governor of the state of New Jersey."
Muoio received her law degree at Georgetown University and sits on committees that have oversight of women and children’s issues and regulated professions. During her four months in office, she’s sponsored 18 bills, including signing on to Gusciora’ s UEZ bill, boosting charges against domestic violence perpetrators and strengthening helmet laws. She also urges rejection of the Exxon Mobil settlement and opposes the PennEast Pipeline project. The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed her.
Toto, who hails from Lawrence, paints himself as the anti-establishment candidate and, without offering specifics, accuses his opponents of corruption.
“I am running because I want to rid the Democratic Party of its corrupt politics that have plagued Mercer County for the past 12 years, especially nepotism with jobs given to children of Democratic officials. This isn’t the Democratic Party we can be proud of if it stymies active voices. I will introduce legislation to stop pay raises for Democratic officials like what happened in Ewing Township, where the mayor and city council voted themselves a near 200 percent increase.”
Toto clerked for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and coordinated his campaign for mayor of Baltimore. He also served as chief of staff to former Mercer County freeholder Jim McManimon. He’s asking Gusciora and Muoio to debate him but, so far, nothing has been scheduled.
As Trenton’s representative in the Assembly, Gusciora keeps urban poverty issues close to his heart. He has worked to attract economic development to the city and touts his success in securing a new high school for its teenagers. In his next term, he said, he hopes to establish more suburban internship opportunities for Trenton students while preserving the quality of the highly successful school district in Hopewell Township and using it as a model for the city.
As for other issues, Gusciora says his constituents care deeply about environmental issues. Hurricane Sandy restoration funds and regulations affect district residents who own Shore houses. Open-space and land-preservation programs are important to residents of West Windsor, which used to be covered in farmland, he said, adding that while he fights for open-space measures, he works to ensure that urban parks get included.
Finally, budget cuts and the pension funding fight matter greatly to state retirees in his district, Gusciora said, so he considers part of his job to “push back” against proposed cuts by the Christie administration.
“The retirees were promised a pension and unfortunately the governor has reneged on that,” he said. Muoio said she opposes NJ Transit fare hikes, which pose greater challenges to low-income urban populations than their more affluent and suburban neighbors, and she also advocates for research into prevention of diseases that disproportionately affect urban populations, such as asthma. Because the CSX rail line travels through her district,
Muoio supports efforts to improve the emergency response to train incidents involving toxic materials. She did not respond to repeated interview requests.
If elected, Toto says on his website, he hopes to reform the court system to address what he calls, “the disparity of incarceration rates and punishment for the poor and disadvantaged.” Specifically, he wants to reduce incarceration rates for minor offenses and limit driver’s license suspensions for “unwarranted” offenses. He says these realities create financial hardships for taxpayers.
He’d also like to freeze property tax increases on newly renovated buildings for 10 years and is pushing for a 3 percent reduction in the state sales tax.
He says, “Currently, property owners are penalized for improving their homes or businesses by facing increases in taxes. The increase in taxes lowers the basic incentives to fix up and many of the properties become dormant and outdated.”
Toto did not respond to several interview requests.
The winners of the primary will face Republicans Peter Mendonez and Anthony Giordano in November’s general election.
Editor's Note: This story was revised after it was originally published. The changes were made after Dan Toto returned our phone calls.