Veteran Democrats now opponents in NJ’s high-profile legislative primary

They were partners in the Assembly for years and have nearly identical voting records. Their contest may say something about NJ’s party system
Credit: (YouTube/NJ Assembly Democrats;
Assembly members Gordon Johnson and Valerie Vainieri Huttle

The stakes in the matchup between Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson for the right to succeed retiring Sen. Loretta Weinberg, currently the majority leader, are higher than just who is likely to fill one of 40 Senate seats next January. It’s seen as a battle between the powerful party line and the grassroots, between a loyal Democrat and an uber-progressive, between a woman and a Black man.

Ultimately, the decision in the hotly contested 37th District primary election for Democratic state Senate and Assembly nominations is a choice for just 77,000 people in 13 Bergen County municipalities.

A potential factor in those decisions is an unknown amount of dark money being pumped into the race to support Johnson. Stronger Foundations Inc., a political committee created by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 that endorsed Johnson, reported spending $28,350 on digital ads and mailers.

It is not known how much money is being laid out by a new independent spending organization with links to South Jersey power boss George Norcross, whose home turf is more than 100 miles away from the heart of the 37th District — which includes Englewood, Hackensack and Teaneck. American Democratic Majority filed papers with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission indicating it expected to raise $250,000 this year but received $1.25 million from the state teachers’ union’s super PAC. The new organization has funded at least one ad, criticizing Vainieri Huttle for a vote she made 18 years ago as a Bergen County freeholder (then called commissioners).

How much mud?

“South Jersey party bosses are slinging mud and attacking me with baseless claims,” Vainieri Huttle said. “If we are going to talk about the issue of character in this race, it’s Gordon Johnson who should be answering to these concerns, he’s the one being propped up by South Jersey party bosses trying to buy this election.”

Johnson said these are independent expenditures and, by law, he can have nothing to do with them.

An attack ad going back before Vainierei Huttle’s days in the Legislature is telling: She and Johnson essentially hold the same positions on virtually every issue. Johnson said he has been told their voting records are virtually identical. They have co-sponsored laws, the most recent one being a temporary increase in the Medicaid rate paid to nursing homes to increase the salaries of nurse aides and pay costs related to the coronavirus pandemic, covered by $62.3 million in state funds and $68 million from the federal government.

So, voters may choose one candidate or another based on several other factors, including what they have done in their district and in Trenton, their backgrounds and who else is supporting them. Some could also base their decision on each Senate candidate’s running mates: Vainieri Huttle chose two municipal councilwomen and Johnson is running with two former councilwomen chosen by the Bergen County Democratic Committee to replace a mixed ticket of candidates who both dropped out amid controversy.

Candidates’ résumés

Vainieri Huttle, 64, has served in the Assembly and as a member of the state Council on the Arts since 2006. She chairs the Assembly Aging and Senior Services Committee and sits on the Human Services and Tourism, Gaming and the Arts committees. Prior to her legislative service, she spent six years as a Bergen County commissioner and was the body’s first female chair. She is director of the Vainieri Funeral Home and lives in Englewood.

Johnson, 71, joined the Assembly in 2002 and currently is its speaker pro tempore, as well as chair of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee. He also serves on the Budget and Judiciary committees. He spent 27 years in law enforcement, including four years as an undersheriff and two years as sheriff in Bergen County. Johnson served in the U.S. Army Reserves. He is a principal in Darstellen International Trade Consultants and also lives in Englewood.

Over the last three legislative sessions, Johnson has sponsored 52 laws, a review of state Office of Legislative Services records found. Johnson is most proud, he said, of laws he sponsored that abolished the death penalty in 2007 (Vainieri Huttle was also a prime sponsor) and one that requires the collection of DNA from those who are arrested, which both helps investigators and has been used to exonerate people.

“That actually freed people from prison,” he said of the DNA law. “They were found guilty and they should not have been. I’m very proud of that.”

Vainieri Huttle has been a prime sponsor of 135 laws since 2016 and said she is gratified to work on issues that impact people with disabilities and improve conditions in long-term care facilities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The laws of which she is most proud to have sponsored include the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection, and Treatment Act and a law mandating schools to include an inclusive LGBTQ curriculum in middle and high schools.

“I always say we can’t legislate with respect to morality, but we could change the culture, and most of my bills are changing a culture of this generation to be educated on people with disabilities, and the marginalized people or communities,” she said. “I think because of my profession as a funeral director, I come with a perspective on helping people at a very difficult time in their lives.”

How do they differ?

At least a couple of differences between the two arose during a virtual debate last week sponsored by the Bergen County League of Women Voters featuring all six candidates for Senate and Assembly from the district.

Johnson said he supported legalizing marijuana from the beginning, while Vainieri Huttle did not. She said she had “concerns about the potential public health impacts” but did vote to put the question to voters, who approved it. On the question of qualified immunity for police, Vainieri Huttle said, “We need to have our police be held accountable” and not expand immunity, which Johnson supports. Johnson replied by saying that “any police officer who violates criminal law intentionally should not have qualified immunity.”

If elected to the Senate, Vainieri Huttle said she would like to continue to focus on legislation to help those with disabilities, senior citizens, people with substance abuse addiction and those facing mental health challenges, as well as issues affecting women.

“There’s so many issues … but it all comes down to seniors and people with disabilities and I always try to be a voice for those that don’t have a voice, and that’s why I’m doing this — to give voice to them,” she said.

In his early days in the Assembly, Johnson focused on criminal justice and veterans issues, but said he has developed greater interest in business and economic development, given his work as a committee chairman, and social justice issues.

“Now I’m focusing on green energy, to try to get New Jersey to reduce its fossil fuel footprint, and the project off the coast of Atlantic City, the offshore wind project,” he said. “And hydrogen fuel cell energy; I’m promoting that when it comes to cars and also stationary energy, again, to get us off of using fossil fuels. And also, we want to reduce the emissions around Port Newark, Port Elizabeth, in the Ironbound section where you have these emissions coming out and people, young kids and adults, have asthma and other problems because of the air debris.”

What they definitely disagree on

Vainieri Huttle said she is the more progressive candidate, and more effective legislator, in the race. Johnson disagreed.

“Although that’s her opinion, I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “We’re both Democrats, representing a very Democratic area and we both promote Democratic values.”

He said what differentiates him most from his opponent is his staying in touch with constituents.

“Through my years, I would go out into the community,” he said. “I’d reach out, and walk the streets in the Englewoods and Teaneck and Hackensack talking to people about their issues, their priorities. Also sticking with the county committee, municipal chairs about their issues and staying in touch with them … So, you get two sides going, the political side with county committee and municipal chairs, and you have the government side or the policy side, where you just want to talk to people in the street, where they are and get a sense of what’s important to them, and then bring that information back to Trenton and be their voice in Trenton. So that’s my job.”

Vainieri Huttle said she meets with constituents, as well, and uses what she learns from them to draft legislation. She said she is the candidate who advocates for issues people really care about.

“I’m the one who goes down there and does the work,” she said. “I’m more vocal on the issues that impact our communities.”

Johnson said it was meeting with Democratic committee members in 12 of the 13 municipalities he represents that enabled him to win the endorsement of the county party and the coveted party line, considered the most favorable ballot position. Johnson’s name appears directly under that of Gov. Phil Murphy on the Bergen ballot, followed by his running mates Shama Haider and Ellen Park. Vainieri Huttle and running mates Gervonn Romney-Rice and Lauren Kohn Dayton are listed in a separate column under the banner Real Bergen Democrats.

A disputed process

“I followed the process that the Democratic committee of Bergen County has,” Johnsons said. “Go to the county committee people, go to the municipal chairs, seek their support for the convention. And that’s what I did, went door-to-door in the different towns seeking the support of the county committee. She (Vainieri Huttle) could have done that but she chose not to.”

While she has benefited from the party line in the past, Vainieri Huttle said she has also run “against the machine” in the past and has now joined the chorus of voices calling for an end to this bracketing of candidates on the ballot that occurs in most counties, a practice that is unique to New Jersey.

Vainieri Huttle said the deck was stacked against her this year. When she learned Weinberg would be retiring, she said she contacted Paul Juliano, the Bergen Democratic Party chairman, to say she planned to run for the Senate seat and he told her, “We really want to keep you in the Assembly” and that Johnson had the party’s support for the Senate, even though the process had not officially started. She said she called the municipal chairs and they told her they would be following the organization. So, with “the cards stacked against me,” Vainieri Huttle decided she would not participate in the nominating convention.

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
A sample Bergen County ballot shows the coveted party line for Democrats topped by Gov. Phil Murphy, followed by Asssemblyman Gordon Johnson.

“I’ve always been beholden to the people,” she said. “I’ve always been an independent voice and I think that’s what they were afraid of, and when you look at who’s afraid, it’s the party chairs or the party bosses … They want someone to go there and do their dealings and I’m not that person.”

Juliano disputed Vaineri Huttle’s accusations in a Feb. 25 post on InsiderNJ. He contended she was the one who asked him to endorse her when it became apparent Johnson had more support than she did because Juliano’s support could “change the outcome of the convention” to favor her.

“The hypocrisy of suggesting that I anoint you as the preferred candidate, the exact thing you claim to be fighting against, is staggering,” Juliano wrote. “The truth is, I was unwilling to endorse either of you as the preferred candidate prior to the convention. When it became clear that the outcome would likely not be in your favor, I hoped, in the best interest of the party, we could find a way to avoid a fight and find unity. I reiterated my unconditional support should you choose to run for reelection to the Assembly. I never questioned your legislative accomplishments and hoped that you would not give up your Assembly seat.”

Who’s endorsing whom?

After the Bergen committee endorsement, Johnson also got the nods of Murphy, Weinberg and U.S. Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) and Josh Gottheimer (D-5th), among others. On Tuesday, he received the support of the state League of Conservation Voters. He also has been endorsed by Hispanic-USA of Bergen County, Laborers’ International Union of North America and the longshoremen’s union.

The assemblywoman touts her own endorsements, among them Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), EMILY’s List, the Sierra Club New Jersey Chapter, LUPE PAC (Latinas United for Political Empowerment PAC) and the Communications Workers of America.

Vainieri Huttle’s team is all-female and she said the district needs continued female representation and the state Legislature needs more women. Currently only the 29th District in Essex County is represented by three women and women hold less than a third of legislative seats despite comprising more than half the state’s population. Her running mate Rice is a Teaneck councilwoman and Dayton is on the Tenafly council. Vainieri Huttle said that when the Bergen committee’s first slate of Assembly members dropped out due to individual controversies, the committee asked Rice and Dayton to join Johnson’s ticket. They chose to stick with Vainieri Huttle, who is fond of saying she wants to “shatter the glass ceiling for good” and “kick some glass.”

Johnson’s campaign calls its ticket historic, saying Johnson would be the first Black state senator from Bergen County. Haider, the Democratic Party chair in Tenafly, would be the Legislature’s first Muslim and first Pakistani member and Park, a former Englewood Cliffs councilwoman, would be its first Korean woman.

“I’m proud and humbled to head the most diverse, most inclusive and most exciting ticket in New Jersey,” Johnson said in a statement announcing his running mates. He gave the Bergen County committee credit for choosing the ticket, saying, “They are the people that know our community best and it’s their commitment to the democratic principles of equality, inclusivity, diversity, and justice that have formed this historic legislative ticket.”

Johnson may have the edge, but…

History would seem to give the Johnson ticket the edge in the race, as an analysis found that candidates running on the party line win an overwhelming majority of races.

Vainieri Huttle said that after learning she would not get the party line she considered staying in the Assembly because she loves the work she has been doing there. But she said she was unwilling to let “someone else that has been anointed” move into the Senate. While the primary victor will have to win the general election in November, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three-to-one in the 37th.

“I knew what I was risking and I knew I was going up against the organization,” she said. “I want to go to the Senate to continue my progressive values and my democratic values for the people, the district. But most importantly, right now, what’s giving me the drive is to break up the status quo of the system that exists, the system that does not give an opportunity for a fair process.”

Still, Vainieri Huttle has name recognition and is well-known in the district. She had twice as much cash on hand as Johnson as of their May 7 campaign finance reports filed with ELEC. She also said she has “the grass roots momentum, the people’s momentum” to win.

“I would hope that the people of this district continue to elect a progressive leader and not someone who was put there by a party boss,” she said.

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said Vainieri Huttle could beat the odds.

“She’s a decided underdog who isn’t giving up,” he said. “She’s managed to outraise her former running-mate, Gordon Johnson.  And although the independent expenditure PACs are throwing the book at her, I would not count out the possibility that she’ll have a well-organized ground game.”

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