Middlesex County’s legislative seats are reliably Democratic, so the biggest spice in the races there this year comes from one Republican candidate’s tweets.
The Assembly race in the 18th District offered some drama in 2013, when Gov. Chris Christie’s popularity raised the possibility of an upset.
This year, though, it’s unlikely that Assembly members Patrick Diegnan and Nancy Pinkin will have difficulty winning reelection. So much of the interest in the race comes from the tweets of Republican Synnove Bakke, a legislative aide to Assemblyman Robert Clifton, R-12th District, and the running mate of Teresa Hutchison.
Bakke contributes to a popular conservative blog, and her Twitter account, with a handle touting the Second Amendment, has more than 14,000 followers. Her tweets prompted controversy after the Politico NJ website posted a report last week.
In January, she tweeted, “When Norway decided to start deporting Muslims, crime went down. Sweden, Europe & America should take note.” And Bakke retweeted in 2013, with an affirmative “yup,” someone else’s tweet that the only reason President Obama should not be considered a traitor is that “he must be an American first which he never was!”
After the Politico NJ story appeared, Bakke issued a statement that she was referring only to “criminal and illegal Muslims.” She criticized the reporter for focusing on “three politically incorrect entries” out of her 33,000 tweets.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the controversy is another reflection of New Jersey’s weak election cycle, in which only three legislative races are perceived as battlegrounds.
“It’s something to report on, because there is actually nothing to report on in these districts,” Murray said. “If there were (more) competitive districts in the state, then reporters would not have time to sit around and look at Bakke’s Twitter feed.”
As for the issues, Bakke said the state’s school-funding formula is her top priority, taking the widely held Republican view that the formula is unfair to suburban and rural districts.
Both Bakke and her running mate are first-time candidates.
The 18th District — East Brunswick, Edison, Helmetta, Highland Park, Metuchen, South Plainfield, and South River — is not seen to be in play this year, at least in part because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 3 to 1, with more than 50,000 Democrats and less than 18,000 Republicans.
And neither Republican is raising money at the same pace as the GOP Assembly candidates in 2013. A joint account for Bakke and Hutchison reported $1,980 in receipts through October 2, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, while a separate account for Bakke had $6,618.
The Democrats have substantially more campaign cash. As of October 5, Diegnan had raised $136,000 and spent $54,000, while Pinkin has taken in $106,000 and spent $16,000.
Diegnan, 66, has been a member of the Assembly since 2002 and deputy speaker since 2008. Pinkin is seeking her second term.
As chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Diegnan is among the most influential members of the lower house. He has been at the center of debates on standardized testing, charter schools, and teacher evaluations. Diegnan was lead sponsor of the 2010 law requiring school districts to develop policies pertaining to concussions among student athletes.
In an interview, Diegnan said he is especially proud of his role in the 2012 teacher tenure-reform law, which took two years to develop and ultimately received unanimous support.
“It started out as an adversarial procedure. By the end, everybody was on the same page,” said Diegnan, an attorney from South Plainfield.
Pinkin, 63, of East Brunswick, runs a healthcare and association management consulting firm, Pinkin Associates. She was on the East Brunswick council from 2005 to 2014.
She touted her efforts in getting 10 bills signed into law in her first term. Pinkin and Diegnan were among seven primary sponsors of a bill, recently signed by Christie, banning the sale of certain products containing dextromethorphan — a cough suppressant that can be used as a hallucinogen — to minors under age 18.
Pinkin has also stressed financial issues, such as reducing New Jersey’s notoriously high property taxes.
“People can’t bear it anymore,” she said.
Hutchison, a photographer who is married to the president of the South River Borough Council, said she had been going door-to-door, introducing herself and stressing her message of lowering property taxes.
“Everyone recognizes that taxes are too high. Spending is out of control,” Hutchison said.
As a newcomer, she said she would offer fresh insights in Trenton.
“I am not a career politician. I am a housewife and a mother, hoping to make a change,” Hutchison said. “I am not discouraged by the (voter registration) numbers. I am optimistic. I will do my level best.”
Bakke, 44, moved to Norway as a child with her family. Upon obtaining a nursing degree, she returned to her native New Jersey, about 20 years ago, and settled in East Brunswick.
Bakke indicated that even if she loses, she will continue to be involved in state issues through her work for Clifton, a job she enjoys.
“Even if I lose the election, it’s a win,” Bakke said.
Republicans face even bigger climbs in neighboring Districts 17 and 19.
Democratic Assembly members Joe Danielsen and Joseph Egan are facing Republicans Robert Mettler and Brajesh Singh and Molly O’Brien of the Green Party.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 4 to 1 in the district, which covers Milltown, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, and Piscataway in Middlesex County and Franklin in Somerset County
Egan took office in 2002 and, in 2008, was elevated to deputy majority leader. He chairs the Assembly’s labor committee. He ended his 28-year run on the New Brunswick City Council in 2010. He is a business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union No. 456 and continues to reside in New Brunswick.
Danielsen, of Franklin, is seeking his first full term. He was chosen by Democratic county committee members in October 2014 after Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula resigned to take a seat on the Board of Public Utilities. Danielsen owns Network Blade, LLC, and is a former Franklin Township planning board member and fire commissioner.
Mettler is making his second try for the Assembly. In 2011, he and Carlo DiLalla were the Republican nominees, losing to Egan and Chivukula. According to his campaign website, Mettler is a former Franklin Township mayor who serves as the township’s historian. He works as a real estate agent for Berkshire Hathaway Home Services.
Singh, of Piscataway, is a native of India, where he was trained as a mechanical engineer. He works as a project manager for AT & T. He was a losing Republican candidate for the Piscataway council in 2012.
O’Brien, the Green Party candidate, graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 and is working as a paralegal.
Democrats have more than a 4 to 1 edge in the 19th District, where Democratic Assembly members John Wisniewski and Craig Coughlin are facing Republicans Thomas Maras and Jesus Valera.
The 19th covers the Middlesex County municipalities of Carteret, Perth Amboy, Sayreville, South Amboy, and Woodbridge.
Wisniewski is among the state’s most prominent legislators, stemming from his lead role in the “Bridgegate” investigation, and is considered a possible candidate for governor in 2017.
In office since 1996, Wisniewski is an attorney, former state Democratic party chairman, and longtime chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.
Coughlin, also an attorney, took office in 2010 and chairs the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee. He is a former Edison municipal court judge, South Amboy councilman and school board member.
Maras, of Fords, is a retired business executive. He is on the board of directors of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which pushes for defending and expanding public access to government records and meetings.
Varela is a former professional kick boxer who owns a business specializing in home inspections. He lives in Perth Amboy. According to his campaign website, Varela received the “Key to the City” for his participation in a Union City martial arts tournament.
Is Christie dragging down GOP hopefuls?
In contrast to 2013, Christie’s low approval ratings are adding another obstacle to Republican candidates in Democratic-dominated districts.
Asked about Republican prospects in districts 17, 18, and 19, Seton Hall University political science professor Matthew Hale said, “I don’t see a pathway there.”