New Jersey’s 25th Legislative District has long been a solidly Republican stronghold, and with the retirement of 12-term conservative Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, there is a tough GOP primary race to fill the seat. All three challengers are leaning on their past experience — as a veteran, attorney, and former congressional aide — and are committed to lowering taxes and opposing “sanctuary cities.”
At the same time, Democrats are likely to put up a fight in the general election as the district flipped for Mikie Sherrill in the most recent congressional race.
GOP Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, a lawyer and former Boonton Board of Education member, is seeking re-election and is largely expected to maintain his spot. The other three candidates — John Barbarula, an attorney from Randolph, Brian Bergen, a councilman and Army veteran from Denville, and Aura Kenny Dunn, former aide to U.S. representative Rodney Frelinghuysen from Mendham — are looking to serve alongside him.
In terms of party affiliation, more than a third of voters are registered with the GOP, 29 percent are Democrats, and the rest are unaffiliated.
The 25th District includes 21 communities in Morris and Somerset counties: Bernardsville, Boonton Borough and Boonton Township, Chester Borough and Chester Township, Denville, Dover, Mendham Borough and Mendham Township, Mine Hill, Morris Township, Morristown, Mount Arlington, Mountain Lakes, Netcong, Randolph, Rockaway, Roxbury, Victory Gardens, Washington, and Wharton.
The demographics of the district are interesting; It’s largely white and high-income except for three communities: Dover, Mine Hill, and Victory Gardens, which are well below the state average in terms of income. The district is over 82 percent white, 4 percent black, 6 percent Asian, and 17.4 percent Latino. Most Latino residents are concentrated in Dover, where they account for nearly 70 percent of residents. Dover has a flourishing community of Latino businesses and restaurants. Activists from the town have been central players in issues involving undocumented immigrants, including expanding driver’s licenses to these folks.
No GOP ‘sanctuary cities’
Accordingly, Republican voters in the region have noted one of their top issues is blocking or all-out ending Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent rules offering protection for undocumented immigrants. All three challengers oppose any so-called sanctuary city or sanctuary state proposals or regulations. Murphy has declared New Jersey a “fair and welcoming” state but has noted that his administration cannot prevent immigration enforcement agents from operating within the state.
“One of the most asked questions I get is ‘where do you stand on sanctuary states?’” Dunn said. “I am opposed to that … I think so much could be reformed in our federal immigration policies, but for a state to come out and say we’re not going to cooperate with federal laws, I can’t support that.”
Babarula and Bergen said they too are opposed to the Murphy administration’s immigration policies, and Barbarula said his concern is “how far left the state is going to go.”
Meet the incumbent
Bucco, 57, is running for re-election with a priority list to tackle making the state an affordable place to live, ensuring school safety, and fighting the changes to the school-funding formula that have meant less money for the district. During his time in the Legislature, he has been critical of Murphy and the Democrats noting “governor Murphy has passed over 20 new taxes since taking office less than two years ago — and too often, Trenton Democrats are happy to rubber-stamp all of these policies.”
Bucco pointed to his state and local-tax workaround strategy to save small-business owners from being hit with federal tax changes, and his legislative tax cut for metal manufacturers, as evidence that he’s “not only talked the talk — I have delivered.”
He also noted his efforts to improve school safety through recently passed bipartisan legislation that would allow school districts to hire armed Class III law enforcement officers when classes are in session. He is also the prime sponsor of a bill to train teachers, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals, and students on how to recognize the behavioral traits of someone who poses a threat to school safety.
In terms of school funding, Bucco noted his district will get hit by over $10 million in cuts that he said would “lower the quality of education” and in turn impact the district’s property values. Many people choose places to live by the quality of their schools.
“I’m not taking this lying down. I’ve assembled a coalition of local school districts and have been actively involved with the Support our Students group in making sure the Murphy administration knows we’re going to fight for our students,” he said.
As far as exercising power as a Republican in a Democratically controlled Legislature is concerned, Bucco noted “even operating in the minority my entire time down there, I’ve been effective in getting results for my district and having a hand in over 110 bills passed into law.”
Bergen, 39, of Denville, emphasized he intends to be a leader in Trenton. The army veteran and former attack-helicopter pilot is now a small-business owner who is running “to go out there and stop some of the craziness that Murphy is trying to do.”
Bergen said after coming back from the Army, where he served as a leader, he was looking for a way to continue to lead in his community. He became a councilman and said campaigning is a natural lane for him as it’s closely related to military strategizing.
“It’s kind of like a military operation, you have the mission to get the votes, you have to have a strategy and tactics, make signs and put out mailers, make robocalls, all those things to be effective have to be orchestrated in a certain way to drive the voter to vote for you.”
His priorities if elected fall into two groups, he said, “What can I do for the community at a local level and what can I do for the state.”
He promotes policies and programs to support veterans, including easy access to medical care and more incentives and support to help them start and grow businesses. As he put it, he wants to “fight for lower taxes and against welfare state policies.”
He singled out affordable-housing obligations as something he wants to take on, noting “it’s a monumental task but that is a high-priority item for me, I may not be able to move the needle quickly, but I can scream and yell.”
Affordable housing has been an issue in Morris County for decades. Republicans are especially concerned that the courts are approving municipal housing plans after settling cases with nonprofits like the Fair Share Housing Center and housing advocates, while developers argue towns can’t support that much new construction. Such plans, however, do not require a municipality to build any houses. Instead, they serve as blueprints to allow for affordable housing construction.
Barbarula, 65, is an attorney from Randoph with 41 years’ experience who is running on a platform focused on lowering taxes. He said he’s always hoped he could retire in the district to be close to his grandchildren and at the current cost, he’s not sure he’ll be able to afford it.
He said his first priority if elected would be to audit government spending, combine some departments, get rid of budget items that are duplicative, and cut back the size of government.
Barbarula said as a land-use attorney, he has dealt with the “atrocious” amount of red tape and bureaucracy in the state and would like to streamline land-use regulations to aid businesses.
“I have dealt with the department of transportation, Department of energy, DEP, motor vehicles, weights and measures, and all sorts of other government bodies,” he said. “In 41 years, I’ve had such a vast experience dealing with 15 or more various departments and branches of state government. I know how it works.”
When asked how he differs from his primary opponents, Barbarula said he is the only one who knows how to handle Trenton politics.
“We don’t need someone who’s always going to be conciliatory. We need people to fight for us,” he said. “Trenton is like a bunch of crazy college kids. They’re living off of dad’s credit card and you know what? It’s time to tell them dad’s credit card is done. It’s time to send an adult down to Trenton to make some sober adult decisions.”
The congressional aide
Aura Kenny Dunn, 47, of Mendham was a former district director for U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen and said with 25 years of experience in public policy and constituent services, she has the best mix of legislative and policy experience to serve the 25th.
“I feel I’m the candidate who on Day One can arrive in Trenton and doesn’t need training,” she said. “I can build consensus and build alliances.”
Dunn said her priorities include switching public employees from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension plans — such as 401(k)s — to combat the state’s fiscal crisis and skyrocketing healthcare costs. Such a move, touted as going from “platinum” coverage to “gold” has also been proposed by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
Dunn said she is aware that the healthcare debate is “the third rail” in New Jersey politics, but “it can’t be ignored, it’s the largest driver of our deficit, it has to be addressed.”
Another of her priorities is school safety. She said she strongly favors giving individual schools the option of enhancing security in whatever way best fits their needs, with financial assistance from the state. That may mean adding additional officers, camera equipment, threat-monitoring teams, and metal detectors or scanners.
Finally, she said she intends to tackle the opioid crisis through a public education campaign directed at physicians who overprescribe; adults who may have medication in the house with kids and teenagers; and individuals with substance-abuse struggles. She said she hopes to end the stigma about addiction and ensure that those suffering receive treatment rather than prison sentences. Dunn also noted that Morris County has been applauded for its efforts to battle the crisis and that its tactics could be a useful model for the rest of the state and possibly the nation. Morris County had the first sheriff’s department in the state to join PAARI, the police-assisted addiction and recovery initiative, which allows those with substance-use disorders to walk into police headquarters to ask for help.
“It’s a tragedy that’s ripping all of us apart and more needs to be done,” she said. “I believe I’m that candidate that can bring both sides together to effect real change. Change and leadership that the public is counting on us for.”