Assembly Races in Hudson County Replete With Candidates, Spirited Debate

Joe Tyrrell | October 7, 2015 | Elections 2015, Politics
Voters have clear choices in lively contests in 31st and 33rd districts, while incumbent speaker tops ballot in 32nd

Nicholas Chiaravalloti
Hudson County and its environs may be almost religiously Democratic, but frequent schisms can mean spirited contests are not always confined to the primary elections, leading to at least one interesting Assembly race in the three Hudson districts this year.

After the party organizations in Bayonne and Jersey City dropped two incumbents in the 31st District, Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight overcame a crowded field to win the Democratic nominations.

But now, even with powerful party organizational support behind them, their task has not gotten easier. The November ballot features a battle royal of six candidates jousting for two Assembly seats.

Matthew Kopko of Bayonne and Herminio Mendoza of Jersey City are running hard on the Republican line. Anthony Zanowic and Alejandro Rodriguez, both of Bayonne, are campaigning as “Your Independent Leadership.”

Democrats also are trying to clean up after the latest dust-up in the 33rd District, which saw Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia lose not only party support but his job running the Hoboken Housing Authority. In his place, the party chose another Hoboken municipal employee, Annette Chaparro, to join Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) as he seeks his second term, challenged by Republicans Garrett P. Simulcik Jr. and Javier Sosa.

Matters are simpler in the 32nd District, where Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D-Hudson) face Republicans Lisamarie Tusa and Frank Miqueli.

The 31st District includes Bayonne and part of Jersey City — traditionally, the two municipal organizations have split the Assembly nominations. The Democratic incumbents, Jason O’Donnell of Bayonne and Charles Mainor of Jersey City, each backed losing candidates in the most recent mayoral elections. They then lost the organization line, and reluctantly dropped out of the Assembly race.

The primary season saw lots of goings and comings among would-be replacement candidates, but Chiaravalotti remained a fixture. A lawyer who directs the Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership at Saint Peter’s University, he has held numerous administrative posts in Bayonne and was state staff director for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

“We had a big victory in the primary and that sort of energy has continued into the fall,” said Chiaravalloti, who serves as the voice of the ticket in dealing with the media.

Angela McKnight
McKnight, of Jersey City, was a late substitution in the primary and is making her first run for elected office. Describing herself as a “carepreneur,” she has an inspirational backstory. After caring for her mortally ill grandmother, McKnight realized that many elderly people lack adequate support. She formed a nonprofit organization, AngelaCares, to provide services to them and mentoring for young people.

Even her opponents praise McKnight’s community service, but they question whether she is ready for public office, pointing to her controlled campaign and limited discussion of issues. Kopko has been a particular thorn, suggesting McKnight is being used by political acquaintances of her relatives.

Matthew Kopko
“I think if Angela reads the ELEC (NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission campaign) finance reports when they’re released, she’s going to be surprised to see she’s getting money from a lot of people and groups with no direct connection to her,” Kopko said.

In a letter to the editor of a local news outlet, McKnight fired back that Kopko “was not present in the community until he decided to run for office.” On one issue, police body cameras and foot patrols, McKnight said community leaders already had pushed through the plans before “he tried to imply that he helped get it done.”

Kopko, a real-estate lawyer from Bayonne, and Mendoza, who owns a print shop in Jersey City, have divvied up campaign roles. While Kopko goes after the Democrats for what he portrays as cronyism and corruption, Mendoza argues on behalf of neighborhoods that he says have been bypassed by development and educational and public safety initiatives.

Herminio Mendoza
“He’s the tough guy, I’m the soft guy,” Mendoza said, arguing that municipal contracts and tax breaks continue to go to politically connected firms while ignoring neighborhood needs and small businesses. Those concerns often overlap, such as shortages of job training for youths and adults, he said.

“The change that I see is only in the downtown,” Mendoza said. “People in other neighborhoods have been neglected for years.”

That shows up in crime statistics, which reflect the deployment of police patrols, but also in youths hanging out in his part of town “because there’s no jobs around here,” he said.

Kopko is skeptical of some of the goodies handed out to big developers by major figures in both parties. In this boom time, he calls for mixed-use development affordable to current residents and small businesses.

“There’s no reason to be handing out (tax) abatements in an area where developers are tripping over themselves to build,” Kopko said.

Instead of a casino near Liberty State Park, Kopko proposed a robotics research facility and tech park, “a nucleus of thought to generate jobs over the next several decades.”

Mendoza and Kopko say they are running to give voice to local needs, such as funding for schools and infrastructure, and not to be cookie-cutter Republicans.

Chiaravalloti doesn’t buy it, saying, “Even in New Jersey, there are important differences between Democrats and Republicans.”

Kopko and Mendoza have chosen “a party whose elected officials throughout New Jersey oppose the best interests of the people of this district as a matter of course, whether it’s the Transportation Trust Fund, education funding, immigration, climate change,” Chiaravalloti said.

All the candidates agree on the importance of education, but differ in their approaches.

McKnight serves on the board of a charter school, and has defended their performance in reshaping education. But Chiaravalloti complains charters have been “commercialized and corporatized,” and wants more emphasis on improving neighborhood public schools.

Kopko praised outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has pushed to direct nonviolent offenders away from prison and to divert the money now spent to incarcerate them into education. Duncan has also been a champion of the heavy testing regimen championed by corporate education interests and the establishment wings of both major parties.

Alejandro Rodriguez
Rodriguez, a local real-estate agent, and Zanowic, the manager of Hudson Lanes, who has run for other offices, share Mendoza’s interest in more vocational education. The two independents also have called for establishment of a specialized school for students with learning disabilities, as well as a parallel program to help adults who have difficulty communicating find jobs. They both oppose the federal Common Core education standards.

Candidates from the major parties have been dismissive of the independents. That attitude proved short-sighted last year, when Zanowic took enough votes as a mayoral candidate in Bayonne to force then-incumbent Mark Smith into a run-off with James Davis. Although Smith led in the first round, he ended up losing, which in turn cost O’Donnell his Assembly seat.

Anthony Zanowic
Answering a candidate questionnaire focused mainly on national issues, Zanowic has taken a number of positions to the right of either the local Democrats or Republicans. Responding to Project Vote Smart, he indicated he favors allowing “concealed carry” of firearms, opposes steps to slow climate change, opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and favors reducing overall immigration.

The 33rd District includes Hoboken, Union City, Weehawken and part of Jersey City. No one can accuse local Democrats of maintaining the status quo, at least when it comes to the ticket. Before Garcia’s departure, the organization dropped former Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (D-Hudson) in 2013. In 2011, former Assemblywoman Caridad Rodriguez left to win a local office in West New York.

Next up on the Democratic hot seat is Chaparro, who currently works in the Hoboken city clerk’s office and serves on the taxi commission after holding other municipal jobs.

This is another race where one candidate is the face of a ticket — in this case, Simulcik for the Republicans. The lawyer explained that his running mate, Sosa, is a teacher seeking a master’s degree who has had limited time to campaign. The two portray themselves as something different from standard Republicans.

“I’m not against everything that the Democratic Party stands for,” Simulcik said. “I support immigration reform. I support gay marriage.”

He called Mukherji “a fine man,” and suggested their major differences are philosophical – particularly about the size of government. Simulcik described himself as a throwback to an earlier era of Republicans, supporting conservation and fair social policies as Teddy Roosevelt did.

But Simulcik is trying to get a debate with Chaparro. He said the decision by state Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to enlist Chaparro as a candidate illustrates what he considers a political problem for Hudson County and New Jersey.

“I look around and can’t understand why some people running for office have two and three jobs on the public payroll,” Simulcik said. “And of course, others are collecting public pensions and paychecks at the same time.”

But Chaparro said her job in the city clerk’s office “is my career,” and she will “continue to work in my day job like most members of the Assembly.” Republican policies have made it harder for middle class and working people to run for office, but the state needs “more diverse candidates who can best represent the people,” she said.

“Gov. Christie has demonized teachers with a broad brush,” Chaparro said, adding she will work to see that “charter school and public school students are both receiving top level academic and extra curriculum support.”

As other top priorities, Chaparro cited “affordable housing that best suits our communities.” Some areas need more low-income housing and/or more middle-income housing, she said.

“I’d like to help identify these needs in my home district and beyond to ensure that more people are able to live without worrying about the roof over their head,” Chaparro said.

Noting the area’s dependence on public transportation, Chaparro said she will propose price caps on fare increases within a period of time, and more transparency in how revenues are earmarked.

Mukherji has brought a varied background to the Assembly, having been a teen entrepreneur and lawyer-lobbyist and having served as deputy mayor of Jersey City, where he chairs the housing authority.

He has had a busy term, including being a principal sponsor of legislation to allow voters in North Jersey to decide on bringing casinos to the area. On other issues, Mukherji has advocated the elimination of the death penalty and promoted gay rights, and is the Humane Society’s “Humane Legislator of the Year.”

The much calmer 32nd District extends into Bergen County, covering East Newark, Edgewater, Fairview, Guttenberg, Harrison, Kearny, North Bergen, Secaucus and West New York.

Prieto is a construction code official in Secaucus, who has served in the Assembly since 2004 and became speaker last year. Jimenez is a MRI, CT and mammography radiographer specialist from West New York, and is running for her second term.

With his high-profile position, Prieto is active in many Democratic legislative issues. Both incumbents have backed education measures, including a law to streamline construction of county vocational schools.

Miqueli, of West New York, works in information technology while Tusa, of Secaucus, is a teacher.

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