Assembly Race: District 16

Mark J. Bonamo | May 24, 2012
Art teacher with YouTube hit, Princeton’s deputy mayor square off in a special primary election for Democrats after death of Assemblyman Peter Biondi

The special June 5 primary election to select a Democratic Assembly candidate in the 16th Legislative District presents voters with a clear choice: a teacher who became a YouTube sensation for publicly sparring with Gov. Christie or the deputy mayor from a municipality recently added to the district.

Marie Corfield, an arts teacher from Flemington, will face off against Sue Nemeth, a Princeton Township committeewoman, for a spot on the November ballot. The winner will take on Republican incumbent Donna Simon in the fall.

The special election was borne out of tragedy: Assemblyman Peter Biondi, (R-Somerset} and a 14-year veteran of the Legislature, died of cancer two days after last year’s November election. Republican county committee members from the district’s towns picked Simon, a Readington Township committeewoman, to take Biondi’s place. The candidates are competing to serve out the remaining year of the late legislator’s term.

The political landscape of the 16th district began to change before last year’s sudden Assembly vacancy. As a result of the 2011 legislative redistricting, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township of Mercer County and South Brunswick Township of Middlesex County were shifted into the reconfigured 16th district. The injection of these usually Democratic-voting municipalities gave local party enthusiasts hope that they could break the longtime Republican hold on the constituency.

The district also includes the Somerset County municipalities of Branchburg, Hillsborough, Manville, Millstone, Montgomery, Rocky Hill and Somerville and the Hunterdon County municipalities of Delaware Township, Flemington, Raritan Township, Readington and Stockton.

Judging from the results of the 2011 general election, both sides in the 16th have cause for hope. The Republican candidates swept all three state legislative seats.

The Democrats, however, ran much tighter races than expected. All three Democratic candidates lost by relatively small margins in the 2011 election. Corfield, a first-time office-seeker, finished only 3.4 percentage points behind Biondi and 2.6 percent behind Ciattarelli.

Corfield’s moment in the political spotlight began unexpectedly when she attended one of Gov. Chris Christie’s town hall meetings in Raritan Township in September 2010. Corfield, an art teacher in the Flemington-Raritan school district, strongly criticized Christie for his education budget cuts, including the changes to teachers’ benefits and pension plans. She also claimed the governor does “nothing but lambaste” teachers and schools.

Christie’s scolding response included a defense of the cuts as being relatively modest, as well as a detailed discourse about his belief that New Jersey schools are becoming unaffordable. Christie added that his problem is with teachers’ union leaders, not teachers themselves.

When the video of the confrontation went viral, so did Corfield’s political career. For some, she became a living symbol of beleaguered public workers. Her strong showing in last year’s general election helped Corfield get the Democratic Party line in Somerset, Hunterdon and Middlesex counties for this year’s primary.

She also received the endorsements of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and state Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, (D-Bergen), earlier this month.

Nemeth has the Democratic line in her native Mercer, and was also endorsed by her own Princeton Community Democratic Organization. The former Princeton Township deputy mayor was a strong proponent for the consolidation of the Princetons, the merger of the two similar communities approved by voters last November and set for completion in 2013 that many see as a boost for a statewide shift toward shared services.

Nemeth is a public relations specialist for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, working to promote women’s participation in politics and government. She is also a teachers’ union member.

Both Corfield and Nemeth hope that the infusion of Democratic voters into the district, combined with the frustration of many voters regarding the overhaul of public employee benefits, will lead to a victory against Simon in November. And the appearance of Democratic President Obama at the top of the ticket could help.