Crowded Democratic Primary in NJ’s 34th Boasts Three Contenders for Senate Seat

Colleen O'Dea | April 24, 2013 | More Issues, Politics
In Nia Gill's home district, she's being challenged by determined, well-financed Mark Alexander, as well as Vernon Pullins, Jr.

The most contested legislative primary hands down is the race in North Jersey’s 34th District, a Democratic bastion that covers part of Essex County and Clifton.

In the June 4 primary, incumbents Sen. Nia Gill and Assembly members Sheila Oliver, the speaker of the house, and Thomas Giblin, will face two full slates of candidates plus one unmatched Assembly candidate. The politics there are complicated, with at least some of the challenges attributable to the battle for mayor of East Orange, which is the largest of the three Essex municipalities in the district.

But the challenger making the biggest name so far is Mark Alexander, who served as a senior advisor and New Jersey State Director during the primaries for the first Obama campaign. A Seton Hall University law professor and resident of Montclair, Alexander announced his run early and had an initial fundraising advantage over Gill, who is also from Montclair and has served in the Legislature since 1994.

Gill’s campaign funds have since surpassed Alexander’s, but he remains vocal and determined.

The third candidate, Vernon Pullins, Jr., has admitted he will not be able to compete monetarily with the other two but said he has a lot of ideas and an interest to serve. He is a Newark school counselor and former East Orange Board of Education president.

“The 34th District Senate race is ‘the’ big primary this year,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “What’s going on behind the scenes is almost as important as the campaigning.”

Some say Gill could be vulnerable, pointing to her third-place showing in last year’s Democratic primary to replace the late Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-10th). Payne’s son Donald M. Payne Jr. won overwhelmingly and beat Gill in Orange and East Orange, which she has represented for years.

But while not always getting along well with the Essex County Democratic machine, Gill did get the party line this year, which is expected to give her a big boost. And her running mates Oliver and Giblin are heavy hitters.

Still, Democratic leaders in the district say Gill has not been a very accessible representative and doesn’t spend a lot of time courting local officials, which could hurt her in a primary. And the outcome of the East Orange mayoral race could be a factor if voters decide to choose an entire ticket, rather than pick and choose from among those running.

Three Democrats – Lester Taylor, Kevin Taylor (no relation to Lester), and Carol Clark — are challenging three-term Mayor Robert Bowser. Both Taylors and Bowser are running with full slates from Senate down. Bowser’s slate, with which Alexander is allied, reaches even higher, since his aide, Troy Webster, is on the gubernatorial ballot. Gill, Oliver, Giblin and Lester Taylor’s team are running with Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex., who is considered the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

But some Essex Democrats do not think Bowser will be able to win without the backing of the county organization. Instead, the party is backing Lester Taylor, partner in a law firm founded by former Gov. Jim Florio, who will be on the same line as Gill, Oliver and Giblin on the ballot.

“Primary voters are habitual voters who play very close attention to what’s going on, and usually have a deep connection to the district,” said Brendan Gill, an Essex County freeholder from Montclair who is not related to Nia Gill. “The primary vote in East Orange becomes very critical. It has the largest vote share” in Essex County

But party insiders are not counting Alexander out completely because he has raised enough money to be competitive — $214,000, compared with Gill’s $227,000. And he has taken his case to regular voters, spending a lot of time shaking hands at train stations and supermarkets and campaigning door-to-door in the district, as well as registering new voters.

“I’m trying to bring new people, new energy, new resources into New Jersey,” he said.

After working behind the scenes on others’ campaigns, Alexander said he decided it is time to step up and run himself.

All in the Family

“I grew up in a family deeply involved in politics,” said Alexander, whose father was the first black secretary of the Army and a special counsel to President Johnson. “Day to day at the dinner table the talk was about taking care of people, equality and inequality.”

Alexander said now is the time to run because the party “needs energy” to stand up to Gov. Chris Christie.

“The governor has pushed us to the right,” he said. “I am concerned because I don’t see the Democratic party pushing back the way it should be.”

He said it is “disgraceful” that New Jersey’s minimum wage is still the same as the federal $7.25 and called “shameful” Christie’s veto of a $1 hike to $8.25. That hike will be on the November ballot because Democrats passed the bill two years in a row. Obama has called for a $9 minimum wage.

“That’s a fundamental issue we should be fighting on every day,” Alexander said.

Democratic challenger Mark Alexander

He said he is also concerned about creating jobs at good wages.

“Every year, we face so many of the same problems,” Alexander said. “We can’t change them if we keep sending the same people back to Trenton . . . It requires a new kind of leadership to get things done.”

Gill, a partner in the politically connected Weiner Lesniak law firm, who joined the Senate in 2002, said she is the kind of leader who gets things done.

“I always put people above politics,” Gill said. “Public service is not supposed to be about politics.”

Gill said she supports raising the minimum wage and has been working to override Christie’s veto of state funding for women’s health centers. Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Gill cosponsored legislation – vetoed by Christie – that would have created a state health insurance exchange to carry out the federal Affordable Care Act. She also is seeking a more equitable school-funding formula.

She also prides herself for taking stands on issues she considers important. For instance, Gill cosponsored the state’s first needle exchange program in 2006. A state Department of Health report last fall recommended that the program continue, saying it has been successful at helping reduce the spread of HIV and other diseases through the use of unsterile needles. The report also indicated that a large percentage of participants have entered drug treatment programs.

“At the time, we had the highest child HIV rate in the nation,” Gill said. “It has saved lives.”

She began her career in politics as an aide to Wynona Lipman, who became the state’s first black female state senator. Those were the days in Trenton, “when you used to have to get the guard to watch the door when you had to go to the ladies room” because so few women were serving in the Legislature, she said.

“Voters sent me to Trenton to fight for them; I don’t fold over based on political whims,” Gill said.

Playing the Sandy Card

But Alexander said he has heard from residents and local officials that Gill was not accessible after Superstorm Sandy, when so many were without power.

“People do not know who she is,” Alexander said. “She’s been in Trenton for 20 years. She does not have the energy or leadership we need.”

Gill disputed that.

“My staff and I were on every single telephone call with the governor and every elected official and we helped with every issue our constituents had with power.” She also said she collected more than 300 coats from the community to donate to Sandy victims.

Spurred by news that some insurance claims have been denied, she cosponsored a bill that has passed both houses to require insurers provide home owners a one-page summary of coverage and exclusions, including flood insurance information and any hurricane deductibles. The bill is now on the governor’s desk. She also sponsored a bill capping the amount public adjusters are allowed to charge at 12.5 percent of the claim.

“I was there in the aftermath of Sandy, not to be critical, not to just try and get headlines, but to work to address the needs of the community,” Gill said. “I’m not a lot of talk. I’m a lot of action.”

Alexander also criticized Gill’s use of senatorial courtesy, the unwritten rule that allows a senator to block the nomination of someone from his home county without having to specify a reason. Last year, Gill used courtesy to block the appointment of Paula Dow, a former state attorney general, to a Superior Court judgeship in Essex County. Dow eventually moved to Burlington County and became a judge there instead. Gill also had blocked for a time the appointment of Stuart Rabner to be chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

“I significantly disagree with how she used that power,” Alexander said.

But Gill said all senators use senatorial courtesy. “To fight for the people in my district, that’s how it is used by me,” she said.

Contestant No. 3

The third candidate, Pullins, said he has “a great deal of respect for Sen. Gill,” but thought this would be a good year for him to offer his service to the district where he has enjoyed living for the last 38 years. He has allied with Kevin Taylor, who is trying for a fourth time to win the East Orange mayor’s spot. In a recent interview, he mostly stayed out of the fray between Gill and Alexander.

Vernon Pullins, Jr., another contender in NJ's crowded 34th.

“We are trying to elevate the discussion,” he said. Pullins said incumbents should not consider themselves the owner of a public office and that election challenges are a healthy part of democracy.
“Politics in Essex County always tends to be about running for ‘my seat’ or ‘my job.’ Every four years there is an election. I felt I should be part of the franchise. The residents of the 34th will have to determine whether the record Sen. Gill has put forth is enough reason she should be sent back to the Statehouse.”

He was critical of the way Gill has represented the district in the area of education.

“I would like to focus on education; the conversation within our community as a whole is distorted as it relates to education,” said Pullins, who graduated law school but got a master’s degree in education and has worked in the Newark public schools for more than a decade. “We have not had a voice in Trenton.”

Pullins said he supports a pilot school voucher program as long as it uses only private funds. Public funds should only be used for public education, including charter schools, he said.

In addition to education, the economy and taxes are key issues in the district, he said. Pullins said he would back legislation to create green jobs, develop the state’s infrastructure and improve disaster preparedness in the face of Sandy. Stabilizing the state’s high property taxes is also critical, he said.

“We have to have towns share services, have counties share services,” he said. “We have to think outside the box.”

He said he is fundraising but won’t be able to raise even $50,000, which will make it difficult to compete with Gill and Alexander, so he is going to be meeting people the old fashioned way, going door to door, and using new methods, including Facebook and other social media, as well, to get his message out.

“I see my record, my vision, my team’s approach as bringing our district together,” he said.

Some Essex Democrats claim Pullins is on the ballot to help Kevin Taylor fill out a full slate of candidates.
Pullins denies this. As of yesterday, neither his financial disclosure form, nor any campaign finance reports were available on the New Jersey Election Law Commission website.

But beating both the money advantage and party line that Gill has will be difficult.

While Alexander has been running aggressively and is not too far behind Gill when it comes to money, Essex Democrats say some of the party faithful may resent him because he has not had much involvement in local politics to date, yet chose to run for the first time for a state Senate seat, rather than a lower office.

In running his campaign, Alexander is trying to take a page from the Obama playbook. He said he learned from the campaign that the way to win is to “empower people at the grassroots” and that is what he has been doing, visiting communities “not once, but twice.” He sought the party line but was not deterred when he didn’t get it.

“If they want to make backroom deals, so be it,” he said. “If I can take my case straight to the people like this, it is the most effective way to win, with or without the party line.”

Drawing in new voters is a laudable goal, said one Democrat, “but when push comes to shove, primaries are largely driven by the party faithful” and they are more apt to support whoever the county party is backing.

Still, winning off the line is possible: Gill did it herself in 2003, when, although she was the incumbent; the party supported former Assemblyman LeRoy Jones for her Senate seat.