Morris County Assembly race heats up as historically red district becomes more blue

Off-year elections for state Assembly races don’t typically generate a lot of buzz, but in one Morris County district, the heat of the competition is palpable.

“We’ve been out knocking on doors. We’ve been talking to constituents. On a Saturday, I start at 8 o’clock in the morning and go right through to 7 o’clock at night,” said Republican Assemblyman Anthony Bucco.

He’s fighting to protect his Assembly seat in the state Legislature. Bucco’s had a number of curve balls thrown across the plate this election cycle. To start, his longtime running mate, conservative Michael Patrick Carroll, announced he’d retire at the end of the year. He’s adding fresh face Brian Bergen to the ticket instead.

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“I was born and raised here, then I went to West Point and I was in the Army for quite awhile, about eight years. When I got out of the Army, I moved back to New Jersey. So when you leave the military there’s a void, typically, for service members looking for a way to continue to serve their country, and that happened to me, too,” Bergen said.

Bergen spent the last two years serving as a councilman in Denville. He’s a small business owner, and he plans to focus attention on veterans’ needs and policies to help other mom and pop shops. He’ll have to help Bucco fend off two formidable candidates: Democrats Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger.

“I think that the demographics in Morris County are changing,” Bhimani said. “2016 activated our Democrats, our moderates, and our moderate Republicans in this area and made them pay attention to all of the candidates that were running, pay attention to the issues they were running on and pay attention to good government.”

Bhimani and Draeger worked closely with fellow Morris County Democrats to flip both of the long-held Republican Congressional seats in the district during the 2018 Midterm elections. The team says they’ve been aggressively building on that momentum ever since.

“We know after watching Mikie Sherrill’s campaign and Tom Malinowski’s campaign that our voters don’t want the hyper partisanship,” said Bhimani.

“Our campaign has knocked on about 17,000 doors so far. If not the most, then I think the top tier of any amount of doors that have been knocked by any Assembly race in the state this year. Lisa and I, I think, together have knocked on about 8,000 doors together,” running mate Draeger said.

Two years ago, Bhimani gave Republicans one of the tightest races they’ve seen in the district — gaining 48% of the vote against the late Sen. Anthony Bucco as a first-time candidate.

“This district is ready for change, that’s what I saw. The day after that election is when the Cook Political Report changed the rating for Congressional District 11, so I think that that was just the first chink in the armor, it was the first step toward the change that I see coming to this district,” said Bhimani.

Bhimani is a retired OB/GYN. Draeger is a former Wall Street regulatory analyst. Each has helped revive what was considered a dormant Democratic party in the traditionally red district with the weight of Bucco’s father-son legacy.

The elder, state Sen. Bucco, considered a linchpin to the party, recently died of a heart attack, adding yet another layer of complexity to the race.

“My family, obviously, has indicated that they’d like me to take my father’s seat, and I think that’s something my father would have wanted as well, but it’s too late to take me off the ballot,” said Bucco.

Which means if he gets the GOP county committee nomination mid-October, he’ll have to resign from his Assembly after the election. Then the party will select someone to temporarily fill his seat until a special election can be held.

“I do think that this is a chance that the Democrats could pick this up. They are running a couple of strong women candidates, and I think that that’s important,” said Seton Hall political professor Matthew Hale. “You see your state Assembly person at the grocery store, you see them at all the local meetings, so I do that that the Bucco name in that area really is seen as a plus for a lot of people.”

All four candidates say taxes, affordability, health care and gun violence are priorities. Bucco was recently named Legislator of the Year by the state Chamber of Commerce. He says this race is a midterm on Gov. Phil Murphy, who lost the district by nearly 6.5% in 2017.

“We spent now, half of his term and not one bill has been put up to address property taxes, not one,” Bucco said.

“There was a dramatic cut to a lot of the spending for our schools, so a lot of the budgets in the 25th District were cut. So one of the things that I have to work on is to make sure that we get this funding back and be an advocate for them. Also, we just has a major issue over the summer with Lake Hopatcong,” said Bergen.

Candidates will be pounding the pavement until Election Day. As political observers point out, local races may be driven by issues, but they’re decided by handshakes at the door.