All but a sliver of North Jersey below the New York border is a “red” zone, with Republicans dominating elections, but Democrats in the 26th, 39th and 40th legislative districts are trying nonetheless to wrest Assembly seats from the GOP.
The last time a Democrat represented the 40th Legislative District in the Assembly, Richard Nixon was president and the United States was still fighting in Vietnam.
Democrats Paul Vagianos and Christine Ordway want to change that. The pair, who call themselves “independent” Democrats seeking reform, raised three times as much during the 2015 primary cycle for their candidacies than their Democratic counterparts did in 2013 – just shy of $75,000 compared with about $25,000 for Anthony Galietti and Leo Arcuri, who ended up raising about $50,000 for the 2013 general election.
While the Democrats are likely to have a larger war chest this year, they still face a daunting task. They are running against two incumbents – Scott Rumana and David Russo.
Rumana, 51, is an attorney who has served in the Assembly since 2008 and has raised $262,703, according to the New Jersey Election Commission, while Russo, 62 and also a lawyer, has served since 1990. He has raised only $11,935, but enjoys wide name recognition in the district.
Shu-Yen Wei, the Democrats’ campaign manager, said he expects Vagianos, an attorney and restaurant owner, and Ordway, an auditor and financial planner, to “definitely have enough to compete in these last few weeks,” but he would not say how much the pair expected to raise.
The 40th District covers parts of three counties – Morris, Essex and Bergen. It is both wealthier and whiter than the state average, according to indicators collected by the NJ Data Book compiled by Rutgers University. African Americans make up less than 2 percent, and Hispanics make up about 8 percent of the district’s population, compared with 13.7 percent statewide for African Americans and nearly 18 percent statewide for Hispanics.
Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a nearly 3-to-2 margin.
Rumana, the ranking Republican member of the Assembly Transportation Committee, says his three priorities would be cutting taxes, setting standards on “dangerous light-wood-frame construction” in the wake of the Avalon Bay Edgewater apartment fire that displaced hundreds, and finding a long-term solution to flooding in the Passaic River Basin.
“Flooding in the Passaic River Basin been estimated to cost almost $4 billion,” he said. “And while that number alone is significant, it does not take into account the human costs and the long-term damage it continues to cause our economy.”
The Democrats, discussing their platform jointly, say the most important issues facing the state “are fiscal reform, creating jobs, and improving our state’s transportation and infrastructure.”
They are proposing that towns share more services to “eliminate cost inefficiencies,” and say “job creation” would expand the tax base and lead to lower taxes.
“Our efforts would include encouraging businesses and colleges and universities to work together to develop programs that align the educational requirements and skill set needs of employers with the school’s curriculum,” they said in their joint statement.
They also are calling for a reduction in the number of jobs that require licenses and certifications in the state to make it “easier for employers to put people to work.”
The Democrats said they support a new Hudson River rail tunnel. They also would support increased funding for the nearly exhausted Transportation Trust Fund by constitutionally dedicating such funding sources as registration and heavy-truck fees, along with contributions by regional planning agencies, for the TTF.
“In addition, we would support legislation or a constitutional amendment that would ensure that revenues dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund and/or the Transportation Trust Fund Authority would only be used to support or expand the transportation system in the state,” they said.
Rumana is calling for “an honest discussion on what our priorities are and what potential sources of income we have.”
“We need to ensure that we do not unfairly burden our businesses or in the end the consumer,” he said. “Nor do we want to put our port at regional disadvantage damaging our entire economy and destroying an entire sector of our economy. It will be a delicate balancing act, for sure.”
Russo did not respond to emails asking for comment on his positions.
The neighboring 26th District, which covers portions of Morris, Essex and Passaic counties, is similar to the 40th District both demographically and politically. African Americans make up just 2 percent of the district, while Hispanics make up 8 percent.
The district is represented by Republican Assembly members Jay Webber and BettyLou DeCroce – and has been represented by Republicans in the state Legislature since 1982.
Webber, 43, is an attorney who was elected in 2007, replacing Republican Joseph Pennachio, who was elected to the state Senate. Webber served as state party chairman from 2009-2011. DeCroce, 62 and a real estate agent, was appointed to the Assembly in January 2012, after her husband, Alex DeCroce died in office. She was re-elected in 2013.
Challenging the incumbents are Democrats Wayne Marek and Avery Hart, and Green Party candidate Jimmy Brash. Marek is a former member of the Morris Plains School Board, while Hart is a psychologist and author who founded the Kinnelon Conserves environmental preserve in 2006. Brash, who lives in Parsipanny, is a member of the construction workers’ union.
Webber, considered one of the more conservative members of the Assembly, did not respond to questions about policy, saying he “usually reserve(s) judgment on proposed legislation until those proposals work their way through the legislative process.” He said his policy views could be found on his website, which lists tax reform and government reform among his priorities.
“In all, I have sponsored bills that would provide more than $1 billion of tax relief for New Jersey’s beleaguered taxpayers, and proposed real reductions in the property tax, income tax, sales tax, estate tax, inheritance tax, and various fees,” Webber said.
According to his website, he also wants to reduce government red tape that he said stifles businesses and, in particular, wants to make it easier for people to start home businesses.
DeCroce, who served as deputy commissioner of community affairs in the Christie administration, also lists reducing taxes as her top priority.
She is sponsoring A-3378, the Government Crowdfunding Act, that she said would give governmental bodies the ability to do "fundraising" -- from bake sales to golf outings to online appeals -- for certain projects. She also is cosponsor of A-262, the Tax Relief for New Jersey Families Act, which would give “income tax credits for property tax relief” and would increase both the homestead property tax credit and the earned income tax credit.
Marek, who considers himself a “third-way” Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton, said the three biggest issues are "The Economy, The Economy and The Economy.”
He said, “The old right/left solutions of cut and/or tax are no longer a sufficient way to address these issues. I do believe there is an alternative, a third way. I believe the solution is to generate new and reoccurring revenue through economic expansion. I believe an invest-and-grow economy will create new jobs, close the wage gap, address the fiscal issues of our state and provide a sustainable way to get this economy moving again.”
Hart calls environmental preservation the state’s top issue, along with dealing with a nursing shortage and rising property taxes.
The goal, she said, should be “to protect clean drinking water and breathable air for the future” and “to avert environmental disaster in the form of shore erosion.” She endorses having the state re-join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or RGGI, a regional effort to reduce carbon pollution, and wants to provide “rebates and other incentives to assure the development of renewable energy.”
Brash, who grew up in Essex County and now lives in Parsippany, wants to address cost-of-living issues by attacking the foreclosure crisis and increasing the state minimum wage. His proposed increase to $15 an hour would be phased in over several years; towns would be given the power to set their own wage floors. He also is calling for property tax cuts for seniors – by reducing the school portion of an individual’s tax bill – and allowing towns to implement their own income taxes. He proposes decriminalizing recreational marijuana use and then asking voters whether it should be legalized, while also calling for the release of nonviolent drug offenders from state prison.
Republicans Holly Schepisi and Robert Auth are relative newcomers to the state Assembly, though they follow in a long line of Republican lawmakers who have represented the Bergen County and Passaic County district.
Schepisi, 43, is an attorney who was elected in 2011, while Auth, who owns a travel agency, won his seat in 2013, though Republicans have held the two legislative seats since 1980.
The 39th, which borders both the 26th and 40th districts, matches both demographically – 1.6 percent African American, 7 percent Hispanic, and heavily Republican by registration and voting history.
Schepisi and Auth are being challenged by Woodcliff Lake Mayor Jeffrey Goldsmith, a vice president at Morgan Stanley, and former Haworth Mayor John DeRienzo. None of the candidates responded to questions, but Auth did forward a newsletter that outlines his chief priorities. Those include “eliminating redundant County government” and ending the estate tax. He also opposes an increase in the gas tax.
“New Jersey on a yearly basis has the lowest or second lowest gas tax in the nation,” he wrote. “I say let the public keep one of the few bright spots in their household budget. My alternative is to increase the capacity of our refineries, with the resulting revenue increase being dedicated to the transportation fund.”
Goldsmith and DeRienzo’s website is critical of Schepisi and Auth, saying the “39th sends more tax dollars to Trenton than any other district and yet gets the fewest back in return.” Goldsmith is calling for “transportation upgrades, environmental protection and flood control projects, and infrastructure investment” and sees the sharing of services among towns as “one of the best ways to bring down spiraling property tax rates.”