With Paterson at the heart of the 35th District, the candidates who aspire for a seat in the state Assembly carry the interests of this working-class city close to their hearts.
All four candidates were born and bred in Paterson. Two are next-door neighbors. And the “outsider” – a suburban Republican councilwoman – lived until the age of 13 in the city, where her parents’ deli was a local stop for factory workers.
Peterson’s failing schools and high unemployment rate top the concerns of the contenders. It’s an unusual race because redistricting has left the 35th without an incumbent. All the candidates have considerable experience at the municipal level in trying to find solutions to bringing back jobs and improving education. But they also have large ideological differences.
The school district of New Jersey’s third largest city is among the state’s Abbott districts, and the schools have been under state control for the past 10 years. Low test scores and high dropout rates continue to plague the schools.
The Democratic candidates believe the failings in education contribute directly to the city’s other social ills, including crime.
“It’s all tied into one and I don’t think any of it has a political tag to it,” said Councilman Benjie Wimberly. “Forget who’s a Democrat, forget who’s a Republican. We’ve got to look at what’s best for these kids.”
Republican Donna Puglisi, a 12-year councilwoman in North Haledon, disagrees: “I don’t believe in Abbott districts and I don’t believe that throwing money at a child will educate them.”
With three Assembly candidates living in Paterson, Puglisi is concerned the city will overshadow the issues of the suburbs. “I don’t believe that’s the way to represent a district,” she said. “I think that’s very one-sided.” She supports a school funding plan pitched by Republicans that would distribute money equally among schools.
The Passaic River runs through the 35th, a seemingly dissimilar cross-section of an ailing factory town and diverse suburbs. The candidates, however, are finding the communities hold more in common beyond the need for higher ground after the devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Irene.
“I’m meeting people from different towns with basically the same concerns,” said Wimberly, who was elected councilman-at-large in Paterson in May 2010. He’s also the city’s recreation director and worked as a special education teacher at Eastside High School.
“I go to Elmwood Park and I still see unemployment, concern over property taxes,” added his running mate Shavonda Sumter, who was Paterson Mayor Jeffrey Jones' campaign manager.
While she is running for her first elected office, Sumter says she knows her away around Trenton politics after spending five years as a lobbyist. She’s also been active in the field of jobs training, particularly vocational opportunities, which could lead to employment in the working class neighborhoods where she grew up.
Paterson’s once famous silk mills are shuttered, but Sumter believes other industries can be attracted to the North Jersey communities of the 35th district. What’s needed is an assessment of “today’s market and what types of companies can we recruit to open?” she said.
Wimberly, who coached the Paterson Catholic High School football team to seven state championships, said that while people most talk about the city’s failings, there is a lot of good in Paterson.
“We have some great stories in Paterson,” he said. “I’m proud of being from Paterson and the impact I’ve had on lives. We have a great tradition here.”
Puglisi recalls growing up in a “vibrant Paterson,” with her parents’ deli supported by factory workers, and a city filled with restaurants and retail stores.
“We need to bring the businesses back to New Jersey,” Puglisi said, reflecting on the industries that have moved to other states and overseas. “We can’t have a vibrant economy in New Jersey without the businesses.”
Puglisi, who works as the recreation director for Elmwood Park, said she “felt the time was right” to run for state office. She’s raised $3,584 for the contest, according to campaign records, slightly less than the $5,120 raised by Wimberly and Sumter combined.
The other Republican challenger, William Connolly, has lived all his life in the Silk City. He’s a retired Chief Bridge Operator for Passaic County who serves as the leader of the Republican Party of Paterson. He could not be reached for this article, but in media reports, he said he sees the potential for improvement in the district by strengthening the quality of community colleges and preparing vocational workers, including plumbers, pipefitters, and hairstylists.
Connolly has been critical of the paychecks Sumter’s husband and Wimberly receive as both city and public school employees.
He lives next door to Sumter, who is the director of behavior health services at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, demonstrating the maxim that all politics are local or, as Sumter observed, “the Democratic process at its finest.”
The 35th district leans heavily Democratic, but the new voting map has left it without an incumbent. Sen. John Girgenti, a Democrat, opted to retire rather than move back to his native Paterson, a decision that paved the way for Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, a longtime city worker, to seek to step up to the Senate. The other Assemblywoman, Elease Evans, is retiring.