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Elections 2015

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Where the Action Is: A Guide to New Jersey’s Most-Contested Primaries

In districts across the state, ‘Common Sense Conservatives’ are mixing it up with ‘Real Democrats for Change’ and other hopefuls, adding some spice to this year's party contests

statehouse (trenton)
Credit: Amanda Brown

Voters in just one-eighth of New Jersey's legislative districts will have a choice in tomorrow's primary election for state representatives.

With Assembly nominations topping the ballot, this is one of the quietest elections in recent memory in most of the state. That's surprising, given that the stakes are high -- control of the Assembly. In total, 170 candidates are running for 160 slots on the November ballot, 80 for each party. Independent candidates may also file to run in the general election.

“Competition over legislative seats was more intense two years ago because the governor was running for reelection and state Senate seats also were up for grabs,’’ said Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. “Assembly candidates this year are running alone, and most incumbents are facing little or no primary competition.”

The last time the lower house topped the ballot was 1999. That year, less than 15 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans went to the polls, just 6 percent of all those registered, including those unaffiliated with a party. Unaffiliated voters can cast ballots in a primary by declaring for one of the two major parties at the polling place.

While it seems hard to believe turnout could be even lower this year, there are contested races in only five districts. (There are, however, some competitive county and municipal primaries.)

In the 9th District, which includes portions of Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean counties, Republican incumbent Assembly members Brian Rumpf and DiAnne Gove are facing Howard Height and Fredric Kociban, running under the slogan Common Sense Conservatives. The challengers have done little campaigning. Kociban said he has become disillusioned and felt it important to challenge elected officials who have gotten too comfortable in their positions. Rumpf and Gove said they are looking to lower taxes, seeking cuts in government spending and the number of state workers, and to help their constituents continue to recover from superstorm Sandy.

In the 15th District, which includes Trenton and six other Mercer County communities and three municipalities in Hunterdon County, it's the Democratic incumbents who face a challenge. Dan Toto is looking to unseat Reed Gusciora or Elizabeth Maher Muoio. She was appointed earlier this year to fill the seat left vacant when Bonnie Watson Coleman joined the House. Gusciora has been in the Assembly for two decades. Toto, who had sought to run in 2011 but a judge ruled he had not gotten enough valid signatures on his petitions, works for the New Brunswick housing authority.

The 20th District, encompassing Elizabeth, Hillside, Roselle, and Union, has among the most contentious Democratic primaries this year, as the incumbents face two slates of challengers, though the candidates differ little on policy. Assembly members Annette Quijano and Jamel Holley share the Democratic organization line and racked up union endorsements. A. Tony Monteiro and Giuliano A. Farino are running on the slogan “Real Democrats for Change,” a bloc centered around the Elizabeth school board. Vivian Bell and Jorge A. Batista are representing the Union County Progressive Democrats.

An ELEC report found that the $540,000 spent in this district is the second-most spent this year after the 7th, where there is no contested primary. That includes the only independent spending on a district in the state this year: $125,000, mostly from the National Association of Realtors Fund. The incumbents have reported spending $415,000 so far, with no reported spending by any of the challengers. It is unclear who the realtors are supporting since they do not need to report that information.

The 24th, the northernmost legislative district in the state, covering 36 communities in Morris, Sussex and Warren counties, is the other Republican contest. Set off by the seat Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose is vacating, Assemblyman Parker Space and his running mate Gail Phoebus, a Sussex County freeholder, are being challenged individually by Marie Bilik, a former New Jersey School Boards Association executive director, and Nathan Orr, a recent college graduate. Space and Phoebus own small businesses and have made the easing of business regulations and taxes prominent in their joint platform. Bilik has tried to differentiate herself as slightly more moderate and as a relative political outsider. Orr portrays himself as a libertarian with a fresh voice.

The most contentious race is not surprisingly in Hudson County's 31st District, where Democrats often fight among themselves. Covering Bayonne and South Jersey City, neither of the district's incumbent Assemblymen is seeking re-election, although Charles Mainor had originally filed to run without the county party's backing but then dropped out.

Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight received the party line and have gotten union backing. Bruce Alston and Washington Flores are running under the slogan “Uniting Community & Public Service.” Joseph Conte and Ramón “Ray” Regalado are “Hudson County Democrats United.” Dejon Morris is running by himself, under the banner "Committed to Restoring the Peoples Trust." The Democrats essentially agree on most of the major issues.

There are two districts where Democrats have no candidates on the ballot: in the 8th, which includes parts of Atlantic, Burlington, and Camden counties, none filed; in the 23rd, a Republican challenge to two Democrats' petitions were successful and the candidates were removed from the ballot.

In total, seven current Assembly members are not seeking reelection. In addition to McHose, Mainor, and Jason O'Donnell of the 31st, Democrat Gilbert "Whip" Wilson of the 5th, Republican Chris Brown of the 8th, Democrat Linda Stender of the 22nd, and Democrat Carmelo Garcia of the 33rd are also retiring.

There is one state Senate seat on the ballot, since Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez has to run for the unexpired term to which she was appointed earlier this year to replace Donald Norcross, who won a seat in Congress. Cruz-Perez is the only candidate of either party seeking that seat.

The primary elections are especially 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.

The ballots also include local and county races.

Polls are open statewide from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters who can't make it to their polling place on Tuesday can still get an absentee ballot until 3 p.m. Monday.

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