Democrats Look to Have Easy Paths to Victory in Union County Contests

Joe Tyrrell | October 13, 2015 | Elections 2015, Politics
Despite vocal GOP challengers in 20th district race, Republicans appear to have little chance to win Assembly seats in 20th and 22nd district contests

district 20 composite
In two heavily Democratic districts centered in Union County, much of the shouting occurred before the general election campaigns began for Assembly seats.

In the 20th District, the two Democratic incumbents, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano and recently appointed Assemblyman Jamel Holley (both D-Union) triumphed over two competing slates in a hotly contested primary.

In the 22nd District, veteran Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Union) dropped her re-election bid after her husband was accused of misusing a nonprofit group to build a luxury home to replace one damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Whether any further changes occur depends on the energy and ingenuity of Republican challengers in an area where the leadership of each party appears to expect a continuation of the status quo.

22nd District

The 22nd District includes Clark, Dunellen, Fanwood, Linden, Plainfield, Rahway, Scotch Plains and Winfield, plus Green Brook and North Plainfield in Somerset County and Middlesex in Middlesex County.

Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union)
Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union) of Plainfield, the Union County Democratic chairman, and other party powerbrokers chose a prominent but slightly surprising partner as Stender’s replacement, tapping former Rahway Mayor James Kennedy over Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, the county party’s vice chairwoman.

Former Rahway mayor James Kennedy
After 20 years as mayor, Kennedy left elective office five years ago, choosing not to run again in 2010. But he did not vanish from the scene, serving as a lobbyist, as an official of the city arts district that he established, and as secretary of the Union County Utilities Authority.

William Michelson
Republican challengers William Michelson of Plainfield and William “Bo” Vastine of Scotch Plains, who are running energetic but shoestring campaigns, have a ready explanation for the choice. They said Green, the longest-serving member of the Assembly, turned to the old guard to paper over fissures in the Democratic organization for a last hurrah.

“I happen to respect Jerry, I’ve known him for a number of years,” said Michelson, who previously has run for Plainfield City Council.

But he added that in trying to keep power, Green has grown “very autocratic” and has been “in over his head.”

Michelson noted that the assemblyman lost his role as party chairman in Plainfield after unsuccessfully running a slate of council candidates against those backed by Mayor Adrian Mapp.

William "Bo" Vastine
With such intra-party spats consuming the assemblyman’s time, Vastine said, “I have not come across many things that Jerry Green has done to deal with the issues facing the people of the district.”

Instead, the Democrats seem more concerned about sharing spoils, said Vastine, a former Scotch Plains councilman who made an Assembly run in 2009.

Earlier this year, “Linda Stender engineered the selection of Al Mirabella, a sitting Union County freeholder, as the manager of Scotch Plains although he had no experience, greatly increasing his salary and pension,” Vastine said.

“Then a few weeks later, she got a highly paid job with Union County,” as deputy director of the county improvement authority, he added.

With a new majority on the council, local Democrats said Mirabella would bring stability and decorum to what has been a revolving-door position — four predecessors within six years — in a community with often fractious politics. As a resident of neighboring Fanwood, they said, he brings familiarity with the area and its needs.

Meanwhile, according to Vastine, Rahway’s arts district “has been a fiasco,” and Kennedy’s continued involvement seems like orchestrated patronage.

If elected, “I wouldn’t use my political office to enrich myself,” he said.

Green and Kennedy have both chosen not to engage the Republicans. Neither man replied to numerous requests for comment.

That did not deter Michelson and Vastine, who contend backroom decisions and silence on major issues are par for the course in the Democratic hierarchy.

The two point to the 2008 closure of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, “which was not only our hospital, it was Plainfield’s largest employer,” Michelson said. “One might have thought that Jerry would lead the fight to save it, or re-open it under new management.”

Instead, the two Republicans said they are on the alert against a proposal floated by Green and other Democrats to redevelop part of the site for housing instead of reserving it for medical use. Michelson, a lawyer who for a time represented hospitals and their insurance companies, said many of the hospital’s former doctors would return if it were reopened on a secure financial footing.

But all is not entirely copacetic on the Republican side. Michelson and Vastine each noted they are “not coordinating” their efforts and not getting many resources from the party.

Michelson worked for Gov. Chris Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign.

But both the governor and the state Republican apparatus seemed to have lost interest in local Republicans, he said, adding, “I’m not very loyal to Chris Christie.”

Michelson does admire Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his antagonism toward public employee unions, which is even more pronounced than Christie’s.

It was “a terrible mistake” to allow public employees to unionize, Michelson said. Like the Civil Service system, their unions are “monstrosities left over from a bygone era” and should not be allowed to negotiate salaries and benefits, he said.

“To the non-union public, guaranteeing a good income to public employees sounds reasonable, until you notice that they are living with their hand in your pocket,” Michelson said.

As a gay Republican, Michelson also does not appreciate being “tarred with the same brush” as the attitudes of the national party toward gay marriage and related issues. The party is more diverse in the Northeast, he said.

“I’m not a right-wing wingnut,” said Vastine, finance manager at the Plainfield Area YMCA.

In calling for reform in the pension system, Vastine said is “not talking about the policemen and the firemen and the chemistry teachers.” But for any new hire, the system must change to a “defined contribution” plan. Either way, though, the system only works if governors are prevented from diverting money, he said.

“You shouldn’t be able to take money from the pension account to make up deficits in the budget,” as a parade of governors have done, Vastine said.

Like Michelson, Vastine said New Jersey needs to change its tax and regulatory climate to attract more business. The state’s recovery from the Great Recession is lagging because “we’ve made it difficult on ourselves,” he said.

While unwilling to debate over the Republican criticisms, Green does have his, “Plain Truths, Real Solutions,” primarily a compilation of press releases and endorsements from labor organizations.

After winning another term as the Union Democratic chairman, Green described the organization as “more unified than ever” because of its base of support and elected officials.

A former Union County freeholder, Green has served since 1992 in the Assembly, where he is speaker pro tempore, chairs the housing and community development committee, and is a member of the health and senior services committee.

He was the primary sponsor of recently passed legislation to reduce the waiting periods for expungement of criminal records following completion of sentences, parole or payment of fines. The change would help reduce criminal recidivism, he said at the time.

“It gives people who currently have little chance of finding legal employment the opportunity to leave past mistakes behind them, find a job and be productive,” Green said.

The legislation, A-206, which awaits action by Gov. Chris Christie, passed as the state Supreme Court curtailed the circumstances under which those with criminal convictions could seek expungements.

On economic issues, Green often has found himself at odds with Christie. In the Assembly, he has promoted the establishment of more urban enterprise zones to boost business and jobs in struggling communities.

As a surge of foreclosures continues in New Jersey, Green has pushed the administration to help municipalities cope with the resulting vacant housing and to help residents still in their homes to keep them.

He also sponsored legislation, A-469, to make the actions and finances of homeowner associations more transparent to people who buy homes or condominiums in such communities.

With a family jewelry store in Rahway, Kennedy initially got involved in civic affairs in response to the decline of the downtown, eventually becoming president of the local chamber of commerce. He made downtown revitalization the centerpiece of his political efforts.

As mayor, Kennedy oversaw extensive redevelopment, including a new library and a recreation center as well as the replacement of the train station by NJ Transit and the city’s construction of a plaza in front of it.

Partnering with the transportation agency, Rahway became one of the state’s first “transit villages,” providing a mix of affordable and upscale housing downtown. That, in turn, helped provide customers and staff for businesses in the area, especially the arts and entertainment district.

Kennedy was instrumental in securing funding to upgrade and modernize the Union County Performing Arts Center, which began life as a vaudeville venue. That attracted other arts investment, including another theater.

But not every venture went smoothly. Toward the end of Kennedy’s mayoral tenure, the Great Recession put a crimp in redevelopment plans. One keystone project — a prominently placed hotel — closed, although much of the building was rented as apartments.

20th District

“Whew, I’m breathing a sigh of relief to have put the primary behind us,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union).

In the 20th District, Quijano and her running mate, recently appointed Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union), have made it through a stormy primary season into the apparently safe harbor of a quiet general election.

The district consists of Elizabeth, Hillside, Roselle and Union. In that overwhelmingly Democratic area, Quijano and Holley faced a hectic spring, but won a solid victory in the primary, taking more votes than two challenging slates combined.

Now, they face pro forma Republican opposition from two former candidates. Steve Kozlovich of Union ran for freeholder in 2012, while Roger Stryeski tried for a seat on the Roselle Borough Council. But Stryeski declined to discuss this year’s campaign issues while Kozlovich did not respond to requests for comment.

In an off-year election, Quijano said she is hopeful that turbulent school board races will attract voters who also will pay attention to state and county candidates on the ballot.

“When I’m talking to the voters, I need to remind people that there is an election, and that’s the biggest problem right now,” she said. “The projections are for a record low turnout, and you can never tell what might happen.”

Quijano highlights her bill, A-1310, which would automatically require counseling for domestic-violence offenders whenever a sentence limits their contacts with victims, families, co-workers or friends.

“A lot of times these situations first show up in municipal courts, where I don’t think they always receive much consideration,” Quijano said. “Counseling would provide offenders with a framework on what to do in the future, how to avoid violent episodes.”

In an area with a large immigrant population, Quijano also is proud of her bill, A-2135, calling for issuing “driving privilege cards” for undocumented aliens. The measure has nothing to do with a path to citizenship, but is intended to promote public safety, Quijano said.

“We need to know who is driving on our roads and ensure that they have insurance,” and maintain and operate their vehicles properly, she said. It is up to the states to take such steps “because the federal government hasn’t done its job to resolve the immigration issue,” she said.

As chair of the Assembly’s homeland security and state preparedness committee, Quijano said she is immersed in issues ranging from upgrading disaster planning to finding a balance in the use of drones.

The latter issue is complicated, she said, because for all the interest by law enforcement and some commercial entities in using drones, some companies as well as the general public want protection against erosion of personal and business rights.

Holley stepped down as Roselle mayor when appointed in February to fill the Assembly vacancy created when Joe Cyran resigned after being elected county sheriff.

The public works director in Irvington, Holley has campaigned for gun safety. In Trenton, he has promoted background checks for private gun sales and legislation to disqualify people with three drunken-driving convictions, or refusals to be tested, from buying firearms.

Holley has been skeptical of the increased focus on standardized testing in the schools. He called for a moratorium on New Jersey’s use of the widely criticized PAARC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests.