The death earlier this month of Assemblyman Peter Biondi of the 16th District sets in motion what has become a common way to for politicians to gain a seat in the Statehouse without standing for election: The party convention.
It’s a process in which the county committee members of the party that had controlled the seat gather at a convention and pick a successor. That person will hold the seat until the term is up.
Once in Trenton and backed by the power of incumbency, the odds are any legislator, whether elected by voters or chosen by the party elite, will stay there for as long as he or she wants. That could be decades.
“Incumbency is definitely an advantage,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “That power of being an official in office and having all the trappings of the office, the ability to do all those ‘nonpolitical events,’ certainly have an added impact on voters, to get them to know who you are and like you.”
Only two lawmakers have lost elections over the past two cycles — Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco (R-Gloucester), due in part to being redistricted, and Sen. Marcia Karrow (R-Hunterdon).
Karrow’s loss was the exception to the rule: In January 2009, she bested fellow Republican Assembly member Michael Doherty to replace Leonard Lance in the Senate, after Lance was elected to Congress. Five months later, Doherty beat Karrow in the primary for the Senate seat she held. He went on to win that November.
It used to be that legislative vacancies occurring due to death or a resignation while a state Senator or Assemblyman was in office were filled through the process of a special election, held shortly after the vacancy.
Such elections were rare until the 1980s, where there were a flurry of special ballots — there were a dozen between 1985 and 1987 alone. Fewer than 10 percent of those registered voted, the lowest turnout percentage of any New Jersey balloting. The cost of these elections, including the printing of ballots, the polling locations and staff, ran as high as $100,000.
“Putting together an election is a significant undertaking and it’s not a cheap one,” Dworkin said.
In 1987, the 23rd District in western New Jersey which included parts of five counties, had four elections in a span of eight months. On March 24, then-Assemblyman Dick Zimmer, a Republican, won the Senate seat held by Walter Foran until his death three months earlier. About 6,900 votes were cast. In June, now incumbent Zimmer won his party’s nomination for the Senate seat and six Republicans battled it out for the Assembly nods. One of those six, William Schluter, went on to run in and win the July 28 special election to fill Zimmer’s Assembly slot. Only 3,400 people voted. Finally, Zimmer, Schluter and incumbent Assemblyman Dick Kamin went on to win the general election in November.
Lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment replacing the system of special elections with party conventions, taking the power to choose their state representatives away from the electorate and putting it in the hands of a few hundred of the faithful of the party already in power.
Voters eagerly gave up that right, passing the amendment by a more than 2-to-1 margin in 1988.
Nationally, the process used by states are evenly split, with half continuing to fill legislative vacancies through special elections and the other half using some process of appointment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Still, the NCSL’s research shows that only four other states — Colorado, Illinois, Indiana and North Dakota — use a process like New Jersey’s.
Today, the use of the convention process to fill legislative vacancies has become so prevalent that almost one third of all those currently sitting in the Legislature first got there not by election but by convention.
Two new Assembly members chosen by party conventions were sworn in on Nov. 21: Democrat Troy Singleton in the 7th District and Republican Gerri Nardello in the 8th.
Nardello was not on the general election ballot and is in Trenton only until Christopher Brown, who did win, takes the seat January 10. Singleton, however, also won the general election ballot and will continue in the Assembly in the new session.
Singleton actually ran as an incumbent, having been chosen in mid-September by Democrats in Burlington and Camden counties to fill the seat vacated by Jack Conners, who retired to become director of veteran affairs for Camden County. That prompted the Republicans opposing Singleton and Assemblyman Herb Conaway in the November election to complain that appointing Singleton was “machine-style politics” to give Singleton “the appearance of incumbency and trappings of office.”
Said Jim Keenan, one of his GOP opponents: “Appointing Mr. Singleton to the Assembly seat just two months before the election is a naked campaign ploy.”
Pundits say that while being an incumbent may have given Singleton a miniscule advantage, his victory had more to do with the demographics of the district — Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 registration margin over Republicans in the revised 7th, which covers only Burlington communities — as well as the money spent and the get out the vote effort.
While Singleton is in one of the few competitive districts in the state, where either party has a chance at winning, most legislators serve in districts where their party has a lock on the seats and as long as they stay in voters’ good graces they can stay in office.
More than a quarter of the state’s lawmakers have been in office for a decade or longer. The longest serving legislator is Sen. Richard Codey (D-27th), who at one time was both the president of the Senate and the governor. Codey was elected to the Assembly in 1974 and won his first term in the upper house thirty years ago. Earlier this month, he amassed a comfortable margin in winning re-election in a somewhat more Republican district.
In the 16th, three Democrats with little or no name recognition came close to unseating Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman and Biondi in the newly drawn and somewhat more Democratic district. The Democratic Assembly candidates came within 2,000 votes of Biondi’s running mate, Jack Ciattarelli and ran 2,600 votes behind Biondi, an assemblyman since 1998 and a Somerset County freeholder before that.
The timing of Biondi’s death on Nov. 10, just two months before new legislative district boundaries take effect, makes filling his seat somewhat complicated.
The state constitution requires that legislative vacancies be filled by a convention within 35 days. That means choosing a new Assembly member for the current 16th District by Dec. 15.
But there also needs to be a separate convention to choose an assemblyman to represent the new 16th, which is dramatically different in composition. The current district encompasses 16 Somerset County municipalities and Mendham in Morris County. The new district keeps only seven of the Somerset towns and adds five in Hunterdon, two in Mercer and South Brunswick in Middlesex.
If the same person lives in both districts, he could conceivably win both conventions, or the GOP could choose someone to briefly fill the spot immediately and someone else for the next year who would likely be running as an incumbent for the seat next November, when it will be on the ballot again.
Democrats in the district are looking forward to getting another shot at the seat because the dynamics of the race will be very different — the president, followed by congressional seats, will top the ticket.
“We came so close and we ran a great race,” said Marie Corfield, a Flemington teacher who was half of the ticket that lost the Assembly race earlier this month. “With the president and congress and a lot of local races, it could be the perfect storm.”