The vast majority of legislative districts in New Jersey are considered safe for Assembly incumbents — and the three districts covering most of Essex County are no exception.
Districts 27, 28 and 29, which encompass more than 75 percent of the county, were created in 1973 when the Legislature was forced by the state Supreme Court to abandon county-based districts and to create districts that crossed county lines.
They are overwhelmingly Democratic in registration and voting history, although the 27th has become more competitive since redistricting added six Morris County municipalities in 2011 and the Republican candidates this year have been able to compete financially with the Democratic incumbents.
The 27th District has been in Democratic hands since the 1981 election. Democratic margins of victory have narrowed this decade, but incumbents John McKeon and Mila Jasey still won in 2013 by more than 4 percent, which is a comfortable margin for Assembly races.
They are being challenged by Morris County Republicans Tayfun Selen and Won Kyu “Q” Rim, who are little known but well-funded.
The 27th District comprises 14 towns in Essex and Morris counties — Caldwell, Chatham Township, East Hanover, Essex Fells, Florham Park, Hanover, Harding, Livingston, Madison, Maplewood, Millburn, Roseland, South Orange and West Orange. According to the New Jersey Datebook, published by the Rutgers Center for Government Services, 36.5 percent of registered voters in the districts are Democrats, 21.9 percent are Republicans, and 41.6 are unaffiliated.
McKeon, 57, was first elected in 2001. In a biography provided by his campaign, he cites his sponsorship of and votes backing environmental preservation efforts, including the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act and bills providing incentives for businesses in New Jersey to invest in renewable energy.
Jasey, 64, was first elected to the Assembly in 2007. A former public health nurse, Jasey has sponsored legislation reforming teacher-tenure laws, creating tax credits for neighborhood revitalization, and encouraging clean energy.
Responding to emailed questions, the Democrats said the “state’s infrastructure” and “addressing public pensions and benefits” remain “two of our state’s most pressing concerns, together with education and the environment.” They added that “overarching all of these issues are the mounting concerns that we as elected officials share with the public regarding our seemingly ever-escalating property taxes.”
McKeon and Jasey were sponsors of the current 2 percent property tax cap and said they “are advocating a $1,000 property tax reduction for all families earning less than $200,000,” as well as encouraging regionalization, shared services and cost efficiencies at the local level.
“Fully funding the School Funding Formula (SFRA) for every school district is one of the most effective measures we can implement to reduce the property tax burden,” they added.
In addition, they said the “condition of our state’s infrastructure is dire” and in need of repair and expansion – including more public transit options and the construction of a new train tunnel into New York. To pay for this, they say the state needs a “stable, steady funding stream … that does not rely upon borrowing.”
As for pensions and health benefits for state employees and retirees, the Democrats said it is important “to put our pensions on firm financial footing” while fulfilling promises made to workers.
Selen and Rim did not respond to requests made via social media and email for information or position statements. Their biographical information and position statements come from their websites.
Selen is a former architect who now works in real estate management, according to his campaign website.
He lists among his priorities restoring “responsible spending practices” in Trenton to prevent future tax increases. He opposes an increase in the state gas tax and says the state needs “to accelerate a period of transition to more modest public pensions for new employees and ensure that individuals are not padding their payouts with late-career political employment gifts.” He also opposes the proposed Pilgrim pipeline that is supposed to run from Linden through parts of Essex and Morris counties and into New York state.
According to his website, Rim is the missions director at his church, and a former school board member and football coach.
He said the state needs to “protect all life and make families Trenton’s number one priority.” That means “putting individuals back to work in good jobs,” allowing “people keep more of what they earn,” and refocusing the healthcare debate to ensure “those in our community can care for their families without breaking the bank.”
There are two Libertarian candidates on the ballot: Damien Caillault of Livingston and Jeff Hetrick of Chatham.
Caillault, in his responses to emailed questions, called for “empowering people” by “progressively decreas(ing) taxes while diminishing the welfare state.” This will prevent fiscal disaster, he said, while allowing people “to keep more of their hard earned money, take care of themselves and reinvest” in the economy. He also calls for cutting all regulations that were not created to protect safety.
“Doing business in New Jersey shouldn’t be organized by bureaucrats in Trenton,” he said. “It should be led by people all over the state who wish to not only provide for their family, but to prosper.”
He also supports the decriminalization of marijuana, an audit of the state Department of Transportation, and shifting state pensions for future obligations to a 401(k) defined contribution plan while keeping all promises made in the past to workers.
Hetrick did not respond to emails.
McKeon has raised nearly $140,000 and Jasey $75,000 for the general election, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Rim has raised $133,000 and Selen nearly $43,000.
The 28th District has never sent a Republican to the state Legislature. Since its creation in 1973, Democrats have won every seat, often by large margins.
Democrats make up 45.8 percent of all registered voters, while 7.9 percent are registered as Republicans. The district has lower-than-average voter turnout, with just 31 percent of voters going to the polls in 2013.
Assembly members Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker were elected to the Assembly in 2007, then won re-election in 2013 by a nearly 4-1 margin.
Caputo, 75, served in the Assembly as a Republican from 1968 to 1972, before leaving office. He switched parties before returning to politics, winning a seat on the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 2003.
Tucker, 72, is executive director of The Centre, Inc., a nonprofit that organizes activities and programs for Newark’s youth. Her husband, Donald Kofi Tucker, represented the district from 1997 until his death in 2005.
They are being challenged by Darnel Henry and David Pinckney, both of Irvington.
Like the 28th, the 29th District has never elected a Republican to the Assembly.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 11-to-1. Voter turnout in the district, which represents Belleville and a portion of Newark, is slightly higher than 25 percent.
Democrats L. Grace Spencer and Eliana Pintor Marin, who replaced Alberto Couthino on the ticket, outpolled their opponents by nearly 4-to-1 margins two years ago. Couthino resigned in September 2013 citing health concerns, but then pleaded guilty to theft charges.
They are being challenged by Republicans Nicholas Campione of Belleville and Jeanette Veras of Newark, and by Pablo Olivera, running on the Wake Up New Jersey line.
Campione, a former legislative aide, lists crime and taxes as the major issues facing the district, according to his campaign literature. He said he would seek more federal aid to expand the courts and boost conviction rates, encourage residents to participate and work with law enforcement, and seek state money for school facilities.
Olivera, 57, has run several times as an independent for various state and federal offices. He is a teacher and lab manager, according to Project Vote Smart. He is the director of the United Independent Party of New Jersey.