Redrawn Map Unlikely to Hurt Congressman’s Reelection Chances

Joe Malinconico | October 19, 2012 | More Issues
His 13th District eliminated, Rep. Albio Sires shifts to just-as-heavily Democratic 8th District

For the past decade, most of Hudson County has been in New Jersey’s 13th Congressional District. But the 2010 U.S. Census dictated a reduction in the number of seats the state has in Congress, reducing it to 12.

Something had to change. In the redistricting that followed, most of what was the 13th ended up in the newly-drawn 8th District, a winding sliver of territory along the Hudson River that jumps the Newark Bay to cross into Elizabeth and circles around parts of Jersey City and Bayonne that are in the 10th District.

But the newly drawn 8th District seems to epitomize the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since the district covers much of the territory of the old 13th District, it appears to set up Democratic incumbent Albio Sires for a cakewalk to re-election.

“People expect him to be easily re-elected,’’ said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

The six-year incumbent enjoys a commanding advantage in voter registration in a district that had 171,738 Democrats as of the June primary and 26,718 Republicans.

In most other New Jersey districts with strong Democratic majorities, like the 1st District in the Camden area and the 9th District around Paterson, Republicans at least can draw hope from the fact that the majority of voters are not members of either major party. But that’s not in the case in the new 8th District, where Democrats outnumber the undeclared by almost 30,000.

“In Hudson County, people register as Democrats at birth,’’ said Stephen DeLuca, an attorney who lives in Jersey City and is running against Sires as an independent.

DeLuca is one of four challengers Sires is facing. The others are Republican Maria Pineiro Karczewski of Bayonne, and independents Pablo Olivera of Newark and Herbert Shaw of North Bergen.

Despite its political imbalance, the new 8th District is one of the most important in the state, according to DeLuca.

“It’s a major economic engine,’’ he said. “It encompasses the ports. It encompasses the airport. It’s got the waterfront.’’

But not everyone in the district has benefitted from those economic presences. DeLuca said the district’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average and the median family income is just two-thirds of the New Jersey average.

“We really ought to be doing so much better than we are,’’ said DeLuca, questioning Sires’ effectiveness as a congressmen.

Shaw, an 82-year-old retired mechanic, is a perennial candidate in Hudson County who always runs under the “Politicians are Crooks” slogan. Shaw said his political career started in the 1970s when he ran for Congress in opposition to the Vietnam War with a campaign backed by anti-war activists from Jersey City State College.

Since then, Shaw has been somewhere on the ballot just about every year, running for either township commissioner, school board, sheriff, county executive, state legislature or U.S. Senate.

“I like running for Congress the best because Comcast puts me on TV,’’ he said.

Over the past four decades, Shaw has a perfect political record – he has never won. His best showing, he said, was one year when he picked up 4.9 percent of the vote in the Hudson County executive race. For the most part, Shaw gets his name on the ballot and doesn’t campaign.

“I don’t spend any money,’’ he said. “One time I spent about $800. That’s the most.’’

In contrast, Sires already has spent $455,000 during this election cycle and had more than $106,000 in the bank as of the end of September, according to federal campaign-finance records.

Sires did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

Born in Cuba in 1951, Sires came to America with his family in the early 1960s. Like many other Cuban expatriates, they settled in the densely-populated communities in the northern part of Hudson County.

Sires was a high school sports star in his hometown of West New York. He started getting involved in Democratic politics in the 1970. Sires briefly switched parties in the 1980s and unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican against entrenched Democrat Frank Guarini.

After returning to the Democratic Party, Sires won the West New York mayor’s job and also served in the state Assembly, where he became New Jersey’s first Latino to hold the leadership position of speaker.

When Robert Menendez gave up his congressional seat for the U.S. Senate, Sires was appointed to fill the vacancy and has held the position ever since.

Menendez remains very popular in the congressional district and is running for re-election to the Senate this year, a fact that experts say will make Sires’ winning margin ever greater. But it’s not like he needs any help.

“Albio is well-known and well-liked in this district,’’ said Hudson County Democratic Chairman Mark Smith, who is also mayor of Bayonne. “He’s accessible and he’s produced results for the working class people of Hudson County.’’

During the past two years, Sires’ hometown has been engulfed in political turmoil. First, Sires’ hand-picked successor as West New York mayor, Salvatore Vega, was ousted in the 2011 election by Felix Roque. Then, this summer, Roque and his son were indicted on charges they hacked into their political opponents’ website.

But the situation in West New York doesn’t seem to have tainted Sires. He and Vega already had had a falling out before Vega’s election defeat, so the Roque victory was not seen as a repudiation of Sires. Moreover, Sires and Roque have not been close, political insiders said.

County Democrats consider Sires’ GOP competitor, Karczewski, who is a former Bayonne councilwoman, token opposition at best. Karczewski did not respond to several telephone and email messages seeking an interview for this story.

On her campaign website, Karczewski declares: “As an independent thinker, the concerns of my constituents always take precedence over the interests of political parties and lobbyists. All around us, we see the special interests of an influential few drowning out the needs of the residents of New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District.”

She also touts the fact that she’s the first “Spanish-American” elected to office in Bayonne, an apparent attempt to highlight her Latino heritage in a district that political insiders say was crafted to give Hispanics a strong opportunity to hold one of New Jersey’s congressional seats.

Karczewski actually lives in a part of Bayonne that’s in the 10th District, but federal law allows candidates to run in districts where they don’t live — Karczewski promised to move within the district if elected.

DeLuca, the independent candidate, said the district’s cultural diversity is one of its assets. He asserted that he has been a friend to the immigrant community and cites his volunteer work as evidence of that. According to his resume, he is the co-founder of NYC Lawyers Against Human Trafficking, a group formed to protect women and children from trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation.

Pablo Olivera is the only one of the five 8th District candidates who lives outside of Hudson County — the district stretches into parts of Newark and Belleville in Essex County and Fairview in Bergen, as well as Elizabeth in Union. The Newark resident did not return email messages seeking his input for this story.

On his campaign’s Facebook page, Olivera says he is running “because we need a representative in Washington DC who is a common citizen,” noting that he has five children and citing his personal experience coping with such living expenses as higher-education costs and the price of food.