While most Assembly seats are unlikely to change hands this year, the 16th District in Central Jersey offers a rarity: two challengers who have at least a chance of winning.
While the 16th has never elected non-GOP legislators, it’s become more Democratic in recent years, and the incumbents are facing well-funded “blue” opponents.
In the 23rd District, on the other hand, two Democratic newcomers have waged a quiet campaign as they seek support from an electorate that has historically favored the GOP by wide margins.
The district, which includes portions of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties, became much more Democratic with a 2011 reapportionment that brought in Princeton and South Brunswick.
More than 27 percent of voters are Democrats, 24 percent are Republicans, and 48 percent are unaffiliated. District voters gave President Obama a 53 percent majority in 2012 compared to 45 percent for Mitt Romney.
But the registration shift wasn’t enough to change the legislative delegation two years ago: GOP incumbents Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) and Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Hunterdon) still received about 28 percent of the vote, compared with 22 percent for Democrat Marie Corfield, who had famously tangled with Gov. Chris Christie over education funding at a town hall meeting.
Zwicker, 51, a scientist and educator at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, made a bid to succeed fellow physicist Rush Holt in Congress last year and received enough support to inspire an Assembly run. Vella, 56, an attorney and municipal judge, ran for state Senate unsuccessfully in 2011.
Zwicker and Vella have attacked the incumbents as lockstep followers of Gov. Chris Christie, blaming them for the state’s poor economic performance, the impasses over pension reform and transportation funding, and the blocking of gun-control efforts.
The Republican incumbents say their rivals would strengthen a Democratic majority that has failed to reach badly needed compromises with the governor and repeatedly tried to raise taxes.
One flashpoint is Christie’s veto of a unanimously passed law dealing with the mental-health records for would-be gun purchasers. While their colleague, Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset), provided a crucial vote to override Christie’s veto last week, Ciattarelli and Simon have not said whether they will do the same in the Assembly, even though they supported the original bill.
“Ms. Simon has an A-plus rating with the NRA. They fund her campaign,” Vella said at an October 6 debate. “And it looks like they’re asking her to do things because she does them, even on sensible gun-safety measures that the vast majority of people and the vast majority of gun owners support.”
Simon suggested she was given little time to review the mental-health bill before she voted for it and would consider whether new information should change her position. She argued that she and Ciattarelli “absolutely don’t toe the line” when it comes to supporting legislation and said she had sponsored a bill to toughen sentences for violent offenders. She blasted Vella for suggesting she did not care enough about deadly shootings.
“I’m a mom of son who was in Virginia Tech,” Simon said, referring to the school where a shooter killed 32 people in 2007. “How dare you insinuate as you’ve done.”
Simon, 55, of Readington is a former cardiovascular technologist and administrator for a child development center. She was appointed to the Assembly in 2012. Ciattarelli, 53, a medical publisher owner and former CPA who lives in Hillsborough, was appointed in 2011.
At the debate, the candidates also sparred over school funding and the state’s unfunded pension liability.
Ciattarelli has a plan that would likely require poor cities to hike property taxes rather than depend primarily on state funding, ban school-tax abatements on new developments, trim Medicare benefits for many retired teachers, switch younger educators to 401(k) plans, and end teachers’ so-called “Cadillac” health plans.
“I want to solve the teachers’ pension crisis. I want to solve the state workers’ pension crisis. The way to do that is with a very, very bold plan that we can honor and afford,” he said at the debate. “There are now four plans: three offered by Democrats, and mine. Of the three offered by the Democrats, one is a refinancing, one is ‘borrow from the federal government,’ and one is a millionaires tax. And the Democrats have admitted that none of the three really solve the long-term issue.”
Ciattarelli said his plan is “taxpayer neutral” for property taxes, but the Democrats said it would unfairly transfer the cost burden.
“Mr. Ciattarelli wants to take a problem that has been a problem for multiple decades, a problem created by the states, and put it on the municipalities — put it on each of you,” Zwicker told the debate audience. “It makes no sense whatsoever to take something like that and put it on the towns.”
The potential for an upset in the election has made for a tough campaign. The Republicans recently sent out a mailing that put youthful pictures of Zwicker and Vella next to images of Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and read, “New Jersey can’t afford any more left-wing extremists in Trenton.”
The Democrats responded that they are proud to be associated with Obama and Clinton.
Like Holt, Zwicker emphasizes economic growth through technical education and innovation. His platform includes reductions in small-business regulations, worker training, tax fairness, investments in community college and public preschools, clean energy, and environmental protection. Vella’s priorities include restoring funding for women’s health programs that Christie cut, fully funding the property tax freeze for seniors, and ensuring seniors’ access to affordable prescription drugs.
Ciattarelli’s platform focuses largely on his pension plan, but he has also touted a package of bills to reorganize the management of towns’ affordable-housing obligations and his unsuccessful fight against a new off-track betting facility in Hillsborough. Simon’s Assembly work has ranged across education, taxes, criminal justice and other issues. She has sponsored laws requiring more transparency in utility billing and expanding safe havens for abandoned babies, and she has called for more alternatives to prison for drug addicts and nonviolent offenders.
According to the most recent campaign reports filed with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission, Zwicker reported relatively high contributions for a first-time candidate, raking in $105,592 as of the beginning of October, while Vella had $45,183. Simon had received at least $62,868 and Ciattarelli had taken in $170,604.
The ballot in the 23rd features incumbent Assemblymen John DiMaio (R-Warren) and Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), and Democrat opponents Mary Beth Maciag and Maria Rodriguez. Just 20 percent of district voters are Democrats and 33 percent are Republicans. In 2013 the incumbents received more than twice as many votes as the challengers.
Maciag, 58, is a nurse practitioner and Planned Parenthood staffer who is on the school board in Hackettstown. Rodriguez, 37, of Bridgewater, is a professional counselor and college lecturer whose campaign centers on mental health, family advocacy, business development and maintenance, and controlling property taxes.
Peterson, 49, is a Flemington attorney and DiMaio, 59, is a contractor from Hackettstown. They have both lately condemned Democratic calls for tax increases and demanded action on pension reform, with Peterson calling for a special legislative session to resolve the state’s pension crisis.
According to their ELEC filings, DiMaio had accumulated $19,421 in campaign contributions and Peterson had $38,365 at the beginning of the month. Rodriguez had $5,033, while Maciag has not met the filing thresholds.