The Hottest Seats in the House: Guide to NJ’s Most-Contested Primaries

Chase Brush | May 26, 2017 | Elections 2017
From gas-tax ghosts in the 26th to the progressive uprising in the 17th, here’s a look at the legislative heat just in time for the election

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This story is part of a regular series exploring where the candidates stand on major issues and assessing key considerations in this year’s elections. Follow these links for an overview of the legislative landscape; the candidates’ plans to ease New Jersey’s fiscal crisis; why the Democrats favor single-payer healthcare; and the reasons the Republicans are cool on the ACA replacement bill.

With one of the largest fields in recent history — 278 candidates for 120 seats — New Jersey’s Senate and Assembly primary races this year are turning more heads than usual.

Nineteen out of the state’s 40 legislative districts are playing host to contested primaries, with a handful featuring real dogfights. Some of them are being waged over seats left open by retiring or upwardly mobile incumbents; others, however, are taking place between established lawmakers and outsiders hoping to change how business gets done in Trenton.

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And though they may not see the same level of voter turnout as November’s elections, these races are just as important, given the way the legislative map shakes out in New Jersey. Voter demographics and powerful county organizations tend to give one or the other party serious advantages in the general, so that whoever is declared the winner in two weeks in many of these races will more than likely take the seat in six months.

Open Seat in District 40

Announcing his retirement in January of last year — and tapped by Christie to serve a six-year term on the board of commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey this February — Kevin O’Toole’s departure from the Senate has set up a heated contest in north Jersey’s 40th district. Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado is squaring off against Bergen County Republican Chairman Paul DiGaetano for the seat, and each is joined by a team of Assembly candidates on the June 6 ballot.

Also in the race for the Senate is Republican Edward Buttimore of Cedar Grove, a retired investigator with the state attorney general’s office, running independently.

A Seton Hall graduate and attorney from Totowa, Corrado won her first seat as clerk in 2009. She was re-elected in 2014, and has helped the office implement programs benefiting passport holders and veterans, according to her campaign website. This would be her first foray into policymaking in Trenton, where her top priorities would include property tax relief for the district’s 216,232 residents, as well as addressing the state’s opioid epidemic, an issue Christie has sought to champion in his final term as governor.

Corrado is running on a ticket with former Wyckoff Mayor Christopher DePhillips and incumbent Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, who stepped into a seat vacated by Scott Rumana after the former district representative left to take a judgeship last year. O’Toole endorsed the team earlier this year.

A win for DiGaetano, meanwhile, would complete something of a political comeback for the Bergen County Republican Organization chair. He served in the Assembly from 1986 to 1987, and again from 1992 to 2006, at which point he opted against re-election in the newly redistricted 36th and instead ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Last year, he defeated former BCRO chairman Bob Yudin in the county’s chairman race, citing recent Republican losses there — including Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan’s in 2014 — as grounds for a change of leadership.

As an assemblyman, DiGaetano was the prime sponsor of legislation establishing environmental protection laws like the Brownfields Redevelopment Act and the Meadowlands Conservation Trust. His slate includes former state Sen. Norman Robertson and Joe Bubba Jr, the son of the former senator of the same name.

Tensions between the two candidates arise not so much from policy differences as politics, however. While it also encompasses parts of Morris and Essex Counties, the 40th district — one quarter Democrat and nearly one third Republican, according to voter registration — is composed mostly of Passaic and Bergen counties. Corrado, backed by Totowa GOP powerbroker Peter Murphy, won the support of the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization in March, while DiGaetano was awarded the line in his own county.

The feuding between the two camps has so far included accusations that DiGaetano had improperly leveraged his influence as county chair to sway the nomination process there, as well as similar charges levied against Corrado, whose ruling against her opponent’s team in a ballot dispute last month was upheld by a Superior Court judge.

In terms of funding, Corrado seems to have a distinct advantage. She reported having raised $172,520 and spent $99,279 as of her last filing, while DiGaetano had accrued just $24,942 and spent $1,829 over the same period.

Ghost of the Gas Tax in District 24

With no money to pay for road and bridge repairs, lawmakers last year had a difficult decision to make: incur the costs of statewide infrastructure project shutdown, or compromise on a series of tax cuts and increases that would replenish the $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund. They ultimately chose the latter, eliminating the estate tax and reducing the sales tax by a fraction of a penny in exchange for a 23-cent hike at the pumps.

But the choice was particularly difficult for Republicans in the state’s most conservative districts, where backlash from residents over the issue was palpable. Public outrage was seen as motivating, at least in part, Guadagno’s move to denounce the legislation shortly before her gubernatorial campaign launch, arguing voters couldn’t afford another tax increase in a state already overburdened by them.

That same sentiment has seeped into this year’s upcoming elections, fueling primary challenges against establishment Republicans who lent the legislation their stamp of approval. In 24th district, state Sen. Steve Oroho is vying for re-election against Skylands Tea Party Vice President William Hayden, whose campaign slogan, “Remember The Gas Tax,” is meant to draw attention the incumbent’s involvement with the issue.

A moderate Republican who’s served in the Legislature’s upper house since 2008, Oroho played a key role in getting the gas tax legislation passed last year, arguing a 20-cent increase was necessary in order to prevent taxpayers from being forced to subsidize the many out-of-state motorists who currently use New Jersey’s roadways. He put forward his own plan to keep the TTF solvent, parts of which ended up in the final bill.

The move drew the ire of many constituents in the state’s northernmost district, a deeply Republican swath of land that includes parts of Morris, Sussex, and Warren counties. It also helped convince Hayden to enter the race, saying “nothing will ever change if we don’t stop people like him.”

“Businesses are not going to want to come here if they see that the legislature’s only way to fix things is to tax, rather than address the actual problems,” Hayden said, ranking bail reform reversal as another one of his top priorities.

Oroho is running on a ticket with incumbent Assemblyman Parker Space and former State Labor Commissioner Harold Wirths. Their challengers are Nathan Orr, of Branchville, and David Atwood, of Sparta, who are running on a joint Assembly ticket separate from Hayden’s.

Countering his challenger’s criticisms, Oroho touted his team’s record on strengthening business in the district yesterday, noting an endorsement by the New Jersey Organization for a Better State, the political arm of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

“Since 2011, I’ve been a primary architect of individual and business tax cuts worth $4.5 billion, which has stimulated job creation and grown state revenues,” Oroho said. “I am gratified that small business owners and their advocates have come to trust my insights on budgetary and economic development issues in my continuing fight to make our state more economically competitive and affordable.”

The incumbent has a massive fundraising edge in the race, reporting $490,775 as of May 8. Hayden, for his part, did not file a financial-disclosure report.

Another Gas-Tax Ghost in District 26

The 24th Legislative District isn’t the only place where “aye” votes on the gas tax are coming back to haunt middle-of-the-road Republicans. They’re also shaping the race in north Jersey’s 26th district, where incumbent Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce is defending her seat against challenges by two outsiders: Morris County Freeholders Hank Lyon and John Cesaro.

DeCroce was selected by the Morris County Republican Committee to replace her late husband, former Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, in 2012. Since then she’s enjoyed solid support among voters in the 217,839-person district, but particularly in Morris County, a generally conservative base that makes up a large portion of the 26th.

But DeCroce was among those GOP lawmakers who voted for the gas tax last year, drawing scrutiny from the district’s more conservative watchdogs. They included Lyon and Cesaro, both of whom are targeting DeCroce’s seat and have criticized her for not offering strong enough leadership in Trenton. (The county committee in Morris doesn’t award a line in elections, making it easier for rogue candidates to gain a foothold).

Positioning himself as a fiscal conservative, Lyon’s campaign website, for example, lists reversing the 23-cent tax as one of his major goals, and has said that voters “deserve leaders who will fight for lower taxes, less debt, and more freedom.”

DeCroce also isn’t aided this year by her district and frequent running mate, Assemblyman Jay Webber, who she broke with over the gas tax issue. One of the Legislature’s more staunchly conservative members, Webber was one of a handful of Republicans who wouldn’t support the measure, and is now running on an independent ticket.

Incumbent Sen. Joe Pennacchio, meanwhile, is running unopposed in the primary.

Progressive Uprising in District 17

Republicans, of course, weren’t the only party affected by last year’s hard-fought presidential election. Trump’s surprise win over Hillary Clinton — as well as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ high-energy primary campaign — helped galvanize parts of the Democratic base, too, particularly its more progressive wing.

Nowhere is that more obvious this year than in the 17th district, where a roster of off-the-line candidates — all running under the banner of Central Jersey Progressive Democrats — are seeking open seats or challenging establishment incumbents. Over 60 members of the group have filed as candidates in races across the district, including for seats on the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and on the county committee in places like New Brunswick and Piscataway.

In the Senate race, Piscataway Board of Education President William Irwin is hoping to unseat longtime incumbent Bob Smith. Elected to replace former New Brunswick Mayor John Lynch in the district in 2002, Smith chairs the upper house’s Environment and Energy Committee and has built a strong record in that area, helping write legislation that increased penalties for violations of environmental laws and reformed the state’s oil-spill prevention efforts.

But Irwin, who helped form the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats as a way to continue advancing Sanders’ agenda after the November election, said Smith hasn’t always stuck by progressive principles. His own platform includes calls for a $15 minimum wage, as well as full funding of the state’s pension and benefits system and school funding formula.

The 17th district is considered a Democratic stronghold in New Jersey, with 42 percent of voters registered as Democrat, 11 percent as the Republicans, and the rest unaffiliated.

“People are tired of transactional politics. They’re tired of career politicians,” Irwin said. “People want to see real people in politics, not those who are the products of campaign contributions.”

Smith — whose ties to controversial political action committees in the district has raised eyebrows in the past — has amassed one of the largest warchests of any candidate in a contested primary in the state this year, reporting $1.2 million since the beginning of the campaign. That includes money raised by his running mates, incumbent Assemblymen Joe Danielsen and Joseph Egan.

Irwin, on a slate with Assembly candidates Heather Fenyk, a nonprofit director from New Brunswick, and Ralph E. Johnson, a law enforcement official from Piscataway, has pledged to spend less than $14,000 by comparison. The entire slate — including the group’s candidates for the Middlesex County freeholder board — was endorsed this week by Our Revolution, a national political organization inspired by Sanders’ campaign.

“We want leaders who will help lead the anti-Trump resistance, that will be against the harmful and frankly unconstitutional agenda of Donald Trump,” Irwin said of his group’s goals. “And we want a better and stronger Democratic Party, and we believe that happens when it embraces its progressive agenda.”

Ground Zero in District 2

The retirement of state Sen. Jim Whelan has created another opening in South Jersey’s 2nd District, where Democrats, led by Atlantic County Freeholder Colin Bell, are trying to keep the seat from Republicans, led by Assemblyman Chris Brown. Brown, who is leaving his seat in the lower house to run for Whelan’s, was initially supposed to face incumbent Assemblyman and district mate Vince Mazzeo in that contest, but Democrats decided to go with Bell instead after finding the Republican outperforming Mazzeo in early polls.

A political anomaly, the 2nd District — ground zero of an embattled Atlantic City, whose economic problems figure largely in any political discussions in the area — is one of the only districts in the state that is split between Republicans and Democrats, with each sending a representative to Trenton. In voting, Democrats outnumber Republicans there only slightly, 34 to 24 percent, with the remainder unaffiliated.

Still, Brown’s campaigning for the Senate has left his own Assembly seat open, and a host of Democrats are jockeying to fill it. The organization ticket is led by Mazzeo, who is paired with John Amato an Atlantic County commiteeman from Buena, but others, including James Carney of Northfield, Rizwan Malik of Atlantic City, Theresa D. Watts of Absecon, and Atlantic City Freeholder Ernest D. Coursey, had also filed to run earlier this year.

Old Rivalries in District 12

For Republicans, another competitive race this year is in central Jersey’s 12th District, which includes parts of Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean counties. Middlesex County fixture Sen. Sam Thompson, on a ticket with incumbent Assemblymen Ronald Dancer and Robert Clifton, is being pursued by Old Bridge Republican Chairman Art Haney, who’s joined by Chesterfield native Alex Robotin and Old Bridge Councilwoman Eleanor Debbie Walker.

There is a history of party infighting in the 12th, with Republicans in Old Bridge, one of the district’s political centers, having bucked Thompson leadership as chair of the Middlesex County Republican Organization for years. Tensions came to a head in 2015, when Thompson vexed Haney and other local Republicans after using his authority as chair to shake up that year’s Old Bridge town council ticket.

NJEA in District 31

The solidly blue 31st District, encompassing parts of Bayonne and Jersey City, is playing host to a Democratic primary between incumbent Assembly members Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight and newcomers Kristen Zadroga Hart, a Jersey City teacher, and Christopher Munoz, a Bayonne school board member.

Despite being on different tickets, Chiaravalloti and Zadroga Hart both earlier this month received the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association, which is expected to play a major role in helping to finance the candidates’ campaign efforts.

“We have been very clear about our commitment to changing the leadership in the New Jersey State Senate, and it is critical that we help to deliver victories for candidates who share our members’ values so that we can create opportunities to get better policy outcomes in the next legislative session,” said NJEA Government Relations Director Ginger Gold Schnitzer in a statement earlier this month.

Other Contested Districts

  • The 1st District, where Republicans Brian McDowell, of North Wildwood, James Sauro, of Vineland, and Robert Campbell, of Newport, are chasing two Assembly seats, both of which are currently occupied by Democrats. Mary Gruccio, of Vineland, had filed for the Senate seat, also currently occupied by a Democrat.
  • South Jersey’s 3rd, home of Senate President Steve Sweeney, where Democratic Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro are being challenged by Gibbstown resident John Kalnas, who ran unsuccessfully two year ago as an independent.
  • Central Jersey’s 6th, where Democrat Frederick Dande, of Cherry Hill, Is gunning for an Assembly seat against Majority Leader Lou Greenwald and district mate Pamela Lampitt.
  • The 7th, where the retirement of Republican Sen. Dianne Allen has created an opportunity for Democrats. Incumbent Assemblyman Troy Singleton is leaving his seat to run for Allen’s, but is being challenged by Cory Cottingham, of Willingsboro. Singleton’s district mate, Assemblyman Herb Conaway, is paired with Carol Murphy, of Mount Laurel, and is being challenged by Democrat Jennifer Hiniu Chuang, of Moorestown.
  • In the 11th, freshmen Democratic Assembly members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey are seeking re-election. But the real contest to watch in this Monmouth County district will come later, when Republican state Sen. Jenn Beck faces off against Democratic county chair Vin Gopal, of Long Branch, in the general.
  • The 13th, where incumbent Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon is running unopposed to fill outgoing Sen. Joe Kyrillos’ seat. Democrats have a battle for the Senate nod, however, between Atlantic Highlands resident Joshua Leinsdorf, who ran unsuccessfully two years ago for the Assembly as an independent, and Sean F. Byrnes, of Middletown.
  • The Democratic 14th, where Hamilton Republicans Ileana Schirmer and Bruce MacDonald are duking it out for the Senate slot.
  • The 15th, where a three-way Democratic primary for the Assembly slots features incumbents Reed Gusciora and Elizabeth Maher Muoio against challenger Gail Boyle, of Boyland.
  • The deeply blue 20th, where longtime Democratic Sen. Raymond Lesniak, seeking the governor’s office, has opened his post to former Assemblyman and Essex County Sheriff Joseph P. Cryan. Incumbent Democratic Assembly members Annette Quijano, a municipal prosecutor from Elizabeth, and Jamel Holley, who is the director of public works in Irvington, are both seeking re-election and facing a challenge from Ieesha Turnage, of Roselle.
  • The 22nd, where Paul M. Alirangues is jockeying for one of two Democratic Assembly slots currently occupied by incumbents Jerry Green and James Kennedy, the former mayor of Rahway.
  • The 35th, where Democratic Sen. Nellie Pou faces a challenge from Haytham Younes, of Paterson.
  • North Jersey’s 37th, where Modesto Romero, of Hackensack, is taking on Eric P. Fisher, of Fort Lee, in the Republican primary for Senate. The Assembly contest features two teams: Gino P. Tessaro, making a second bid, and Angela Henricks, both of Hackensack, make up one ticket, while Margaret S. Ahn of Fort Lee and Paul A. Duggan of Bogota make up the other.
  • The winners of the June 6 primaries in both parties will face off, along with any independent candidates, in November’s election.