For politicians who cannot decide whether it is better to be a legislator or a judge, New Jersey offers the 18th and 29th legislative districts, where the roles can be exchanged or even reversed.
Covering a significant chunk of Middlesex County, including Edison and East Brunswick, the 18th District hosts two of the state’s three legislative contests this year, one for state Senate and one Assembly seat.
The district has a delegation in a state of flux, with an election lineup populated by baby boomers.
Veteran Democratic legislator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., 67, of South Plainfield, attempts to hold the remaining one year of a state Senate term. He was plucked from the Assembly to fill a vacancy caused by a judicial appointment.
Middlesex County Republicans counter with one of their most prominent figures, Roger Daley, 71, of East Brunswick. Daley was a county freeholder and more recently a judge, but retired from the bench and returned to elective politics. Camille Ferraro Clark, 67, a well-established East Brunswick councilwoman, is the Republican candidate for an Assembly seat.
On the Democratic side, Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak, a former Edison councilman and planning board member, was appointed to replace Diegnan when the latter moved up to the Senate.
The 18th’s other legislator, Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Middlesex), was not affected by the moves. Her term is not up until next year, with the rest of the Assembly.
The chain reaction began in June, when former state Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex) was sworn in as a Superior Court judge. Actually, the origin could be said to be November 2013, when Barnes was re-elected, defeating David Stahl, then the mayor of East Brunswick.
But Stahl, who had switched parties to challenge Barnes, made the outcome close enough to be sticky for all concerned. His reward? Like Barnes, he got a judicial appointment, being named as judge of Woodbridge’s busy municipal court in January, just in time not to run again for the Senate when Barnes’ seat became available.
In the overwhelmingly Democratic 29th District, covering Belleville and part of Newark, newly minted Assemblywoman Blonnie R. Watson faces token opposition from Republican Ronda Morrison.
A retired postal worker from Newark’s Central Ward, Watson was elected to six three-year terms as an Essex County freeholder. She stepped down in 2015 at the end of her last term, but did not have long to wait before her fellow Democrat, Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, also was chosen as a Superior Court judge. Watson replaced her in July.
In a district where Republicans make up 4 percent of registered voters, Morrison does not appear to be running an active campaign. Essex County Republican Chairman Al Barlas did not respond to requests for comment on the race.
One of the longest serving Essex freeholders, Watson had a conference room in the county Hall of Records dedicated to her upon her retirement last year. She named putting the county government on a sounder fiscal footing as one of her major accomplishments.
The landscape is somewhat better for Republicans in the 18th District, though it has not been especially fertile ground. So, for a short-notice election, the GOP turned to two reliable voter-getters who have been trailblazers for the party.
Coming up on eight years in municipal office, Clark is the longest serving Republican officeholder in East Brunswick. She worked for 35 years at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. In a campaign statement, Clark said she has “sought to strike a balance between maintaining strong partisan ties and fostering cooperation among the various political segments in East Brunswick.”
She and Daley present themselves as watchdogs who have provided scrutiny to proposals that county Democrats might push through without notice.
Daley did that when he was elected to two terms as a Middlesex County freeholder in the 1990s. In the process, he became the first Republican since 1929 to win re-election to the board. The Vietnam veteran eventually lost, but Democrats were happy to see this formidable opponent out of the way with a judgeship. But Daley quickly became active on court policies. He helped push through changes in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system.
Daley also helped launch the Legal Center for the Defense of Life, and currently serves as chairman of the board of the nonprofit civic organization New Brunswick Tomorrow. But since retiring as a judge in 2012, Daley has made two unsuccessful runs for Middlesex freeholder.
In Diegnan, he faces an opponent who has been a pillar of the county’s Democratic establishment. Diegnan, a lawyer, has held numerous government roles over the course of his career, including leadership posts in the Assembly.
The Democrats promote various legislative efforts that they say will protect the environment, particularly vulnerable areas like the district’s Dismal Swap, and preserve open space and water quality. Securing long-term funding to preserve open space, particularly in flood-prone areas of the county “is the key to achieving a safer, cleaner and greener future for generations to come,” said Karabinchak, president of a Metuchen construction company.
Diegnan takes credit for legislation curbing the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products, saying the New Jersey law ultimately led to similar action in Congress.
At a time of concern about heavy college debt, the Democrats have pounced on problems with the state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, whose sometimes onerous terms and over-zealous collections have generated negative publicity. Diegnan and Karabinchak back a package of bills to provide guidance for borrowers and also rein in the authority.
“A particular outrage is the attempts by HESAA to collect payment from the families of deceased or disabled students,” Diegnan said.
On another current controversy, though, the two Democrats have stuck with their party leadership and Gov. Chris Christie. They voted for a 23-cents per gallon increase in the state gas tax. The measure is intended to support the Transportation Trust Fund while funding other tax breaks, notably a prompt phaseout of the estate tax and a slight trim of the sales tax.