All Quiet on Primary Front — with State Assembly Races Topping 2019 Ballot

Even with Democratic or Republican contests in more than 40 percent of Assembly districts, mostly party loyalists will turn out, and nominations likely to go those who have the party line

Credit: NJTV News
State House, Trenton
This year’s state legislative primaries should be quieter than 2017’s, even though there will be Democratic or Republican contests in more than 40 percent of Assembly districts — and in one case both nominations for the lower house will be up for grabs.

The deadline to file for the June 4 primary was Monday at 4 p.m. State Assembly races top the ballot this year in all but one district, where an unexpired Senate term will be contested. Off years such as this — without the governor on the ballot — tend to draw fewer candidates. As of 7:15 p.m., the state Division of Elections reported that 181 candidates from both major parties had filed for the Assembly slots. That’s nine fewer than two years ago.

This is a relatively stable year for lawmakers, with only four of 80 Assembly members deciding not to seek reelection. Two years ago, seven Assembly members gave up their seats to seek higher office or retire, which helped draw the larger field. This year, there are 17 districts where more candidates from one party or the other filed petitions to run for their party’s two nominations. All but three of the contests are among Democrats.

Campaigning for open seats

Two of this year’s contested primaries are for an open seat.

In the 5th District, where Democratic Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones is retiring after 22 years, there is a three-way Democratic primary. Assemblyman William W. Spearman of Camden is running with William F. Moen Jr., a Camden County freeholder. Theodore William Johnson Jr., a Woodbury councilman, also filed to run.

There also is a battle in the 25th District in Morris County, where Republican Michael Patrick Carroll chose not to run for a 13th two-year term. The Republican primary field has four candidates vying for two open slots. In addition to incumbent Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, the GOP candidates are Aura Kenny Dunn, an unsuccessful Morris County freeholder candidate in 2018 and former staffer of now retired U.S. Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen from Mendham; Brian Bergen, a Denville councilman; and John M. Barbarula, a lawyer from Randolph.

These primary elections are important since their outcomes usually determine who will win in November in all but a handful of districts, because one party or the other dominates in most of the 40 districts. Each district has one Senator and two Assembly members. But even primaries with large fields of candidates often wind up being relatively undramatic because the candidates who get the backing of the county political parties typically win in a walk. That’s because very few people vote in these primaries — about 15 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans — and they tend to be the parties’ most faithful who follow the party line.

“In general, primary seasons in off-year elections are about as exciting as watching hair grow,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “The candidates with the county/party lines have a significant advantage over those off the line.”

Typically, though not always, it’s the incumbents who get party backing.

The races in the 8th

In the 8th District based in Burlington County, for instance, Assemblyman Joe Howarth lost the backing of the Republican Party after county GOP leaders thought he was planning to jump ship after that district’s Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego left the Republican Party to become a Democrat last January. Howarth denied he would do the same but still lost the party’s endorsement and so is running under the slogan of “MAGA Republicans,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. The GOP instead is backing Howarth’s fellow Assemblyman Ryan Peters and Jean Stanfield, the current Burlington County sheriff who plans to retire next month.

The Democratic ballot in the 8th District also features a contest, with the party-endorsed team of Gina LaPlaca of Lumberton and Mark Natale of Marlton facing John “Johnny” Bravo of Evesham. LaPlaca was unsuccessful in a bid to win an unexpired freeholder term last January.

Hale said this year’s primaries could be interesting if the national political winds blow into New Jersey districts.

“What might make this year interesting is if these main street, middle-of-the-road candidates get challenged by fringes on either side,” he said. “Traditional Republicans might get challenged by a Trump loyalist. Traditional Democrats might get challenged by so-called democratic socialists. Primary voters are historically more liberal and more conservative than the general population, so while unlikely, it is possible one of these insurgent campaigns on either side could catch fire.”

Other contested races

These are the other contested primary races:

  • In the 3rd District, which includes parts of Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties, incumbent Democratic Assemblymen John Burzichelli of Paulsboro and Adam Taliaferro of Swedesboro face a challenge from John Kalnas, a Gibbstown man who ran unsuccessfully in the past two Assembly elections.
  • In the 6th District, which covers parts of Burlington and Camden counties, Democrats Danie Moss-Velasco of Collingswood and E. Julian Jordan III, who lists his address as Voorhees, are challenging incumbent Assembly members Louis Greenwald, the current majority leader from Voorhees, and Pamela Lampitt of Cherry Hill.
  • The 15th District, which spans Mercer and Hunterdon counties, has a three-way race for two Democratic nominations. Former Trenton Councilman Alex Bethea is challenging incumbent Assembly members Verlina Reynolds-Jackson of Trenton and Anthony S. Verrelli of Pennington. Bethea lost a county convention to Verrelli last October to fill an unexpired Assembly term.
  • The neighboring 16th District, which includes parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties, has a contested Republican primary. Former Somerset Freeholder Mark Caliguire, who lost an Assembly bid two years ago, is running with Christine Madrid, former mayor of Montgomery. Roger Forest Locandro, who owns a Stockton tree farm and is a member of the Raritan Valley Community College Board of Trustees, is the third GOP candidate.
  • The 17th District, which spans Middlesex and Somerset counties, has a Democratic contest. Assembly members Joe Danielsen of Franklin Township and Joseph V. Egan of New Brunswick are facing a challenge from Ron Rivers of North Brunswick, who describes himself as a progressive reform Democrat.
  • In the 20th District in Union County, Democrat Kenneth Jones of Roselle is challenging incumbent Assembly members Annette Quijano of Elizabeth and Jamel C. Holley of Roselle.
  • Three Democrats, all women, are vying for two nominations in the 21st District, which includes parts of Morris, Somerset, and Union counties. Lisa Mandelblatt, a Westfield woman who pulled out of last year’s 7th Congressional District primary battle, and Stacey Gunderman, the party’s New Providence municipal chair, have received party backing. Jill Lazare, a Summit woman who has run unsuccessfully in the past, also filed to run.
  • There’s a four-way contest in the Democratic primary in the 22nd District, which covers parts of Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties. Incumbent Assembly members James Kennedy of Rahway and Linda Carter of Plainfield are facing Carlos A. Rivas and Mark A. Lighten, both of Linden.
  • In Essex County’s 28th District, the three candidates are incumbent Democrats Ralph Caputo of Nutley and Cleopatra Tucker of Newark and Stephen Burd of Nutley.
  • Four Democrats are running in the 29th District in Essex County. Incumbent Assemblywomen Eliana Pinto Marin and Shanique Davis-Speight, both of Newark, are facing Awais Qazi of Newark and Steve Jose Poveda of Belleville.
  • In the 32nd District based in Hudson County, where a party faction always seems to be trying to unseat incumbents, Assembly members Angelica Jimenez and Pedro Mejia are facing Roger Quesada of North Bergen and Mahmoud Mahmoud, an unsuccessful 2018 independent candidate for Congress who lives in Edgewater.
  • In the 34th District, which spans Essex and Passaic counties, Democrats Thomas Giblin of Montclair and Britnee Timberlake of East Orange are vying with Simone J. Jelks-Bandison of East Orange.
  • Three Republicans are vying in the 35th District, which includes parts of Bergen and Passaic counties. Tamer Mamkej of Haledon is running with Robert Cartalemi of Elmwood Park. The third candidate is Elizabeth Pla, who listed a Garfield PO box as her address.
  • In the 36th District, covering parts of Bergen and Passaic counties, incumbent Assemblymen Gary Schaer of Passaic and Clinton Calabrese of Cliffside Park are in a three-way battle with Edward Tolga Gonca of Lyndhurst.
  • Surveying the field

    The Democratic Party fielded 98 candidates, at least two in every district. The Republican Party, which has fewer registered voters, is running 83 candidates. In three districts, the 7th in Burlington County, the 15th, and the 22nd, just one Republican filed, according to the Division of Elections’ report.

    The sole open Senate slot is in the southernmost 1st District for the seat held by Jeff Van Drew before his election to Congress last fall. Just one Democrat, Bob Andrzejcak, who was appointed to fill the seat, and one Republican, Mike Testa of Vineland, filed petitions.

    The primary winners in each party will face off with any independent candidates who file in June to run in the November election.

    It should be a little easier for voters to contact candidates this year since, for the first time, they all had to include an email address when filing their petitions. The result of a law enacted last year, the email requirement is intended to make candidates more accessible. The Division of Elections published those email addresses separately.