Legislative District 20

Matthew Kassel | October 17, 2011
The 20th pits a Republican newcomer against the second longest-serving lawmaker in New Jersey

District 20 has long been Democratic, and it is expected to remain so in the wake of the November legislative elections.

Elizabeth, Union, Roselle, and Hillside make up the towns in this Union County district, which was not drastically altered by redistricting that took place in the spring. The only change brought in Hillside to replace Kenilworth, which moved to District 21.

Democratic Senator Raymond Lesniak, first elected to the legislature as an Assemblyman in 1977, faces a Republican challenger, Helen Rosales, who is hoping to break Lesniak’s long winning streak in the Senate.

Rosales works as an accounting manager and has chaired the Elizabeth Republican Committee since 2008. She will have a tough time matching Lesniak’s experience — he is the second longest-serving lawmaker in New Jersey and has served in the Senate since 1983.

It will also be tough to overcome the sheer voter registration numbers. The 20th is one of a handful of districts in New Jersey where one of the major parties has an absolute majority. As of the June primary, 50,184 voters had registered as Democrats, compared with 7,525 Republicans and 42,086 unaffiliated.

Not only does Lesniak keep winning, but he does so decisively. Four years ago, the last time he was on the ballot, Lesniak outpolled his GOP challenger by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

Because of the numbers, this race was really decided back in the June. Lesniak and his fellow incumbent Democrats in the Assembly Joseph Cryan and Annette Quijano, held off a tough challenge from a slate backed by the Elizabeth Board of Education. The primary was nasty, the result of a political feud within Union County, where Lesniak and Cryan are the political powerhouses.

Even so, Lesniak is not taking any chances: “I never take anything for granted, even though I’ve been reelected for 34 years in this district…. We’re campaigning every day and asking voters to come out and vote for us.”

In the Assembly, only one Republican, John F. Donoso, filed to oppose the Democrats.

Cryan, the majority leader of the Assembly and an undersheriff with the Union County Sheriff’s Office, has been in office for the past decade. Quijano, who is chair of the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee, served in the lower house in 2008. Donoso, a financial advisor vice president at JP Morgan Chase, sits on the Elizabeth Board of Education.

Although he is the sole challenger, Donoso’s being on the ballot is a step up for the GOP in Union. The Democratic Assembly ticket has not faced any Republican opposition in the last two elections.

Phil Morin, chairman of the Union County Republican Committee, said he thinks the Republican candidates this year have a good chance of winning.

“Our candidates are longtime residents in the community and have been working hard to secure support, particularly in Elizabeth,” Morin said, adding that he believes the residents of the 20th District are looking for change.

“Helen and John are two people that can bring that type of change that’s consistent with Gov. Christie’s initiatives, in particular health and pension benefit reform,” Morin said.

Lesniak, though, had a different viewpoint: “The overriding issue in the 20th is the same as in the state—and it’s jobs,” he said.

“We’re trying to do something about it by passing legislation that will give incentives to businesses and to attract workers from out of state,” Lesniak continued. “I’ve sponsored this legislation. Sometimes the Republicans have agreed with us, but my legislation has been signed by the governor and gotten bipartisan support.”

Morin is well aware that the 20th District is a Democratic stronghold, but he sees a way for the Republicans to move in.

“In a year like this, where turnout is expected to be low, people who spend the most time going door to door have the best chance of winning,” Morin said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

Lesniak disagreed: “I haven’t seen any semblance of a Republican campaign in this district.”