The death of one of New Jersey's most significant congressmen has created a power vacuum in the Newark area -- and much like a roadside motel, politics abhors a vacancy.
When U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, D-10th, died on March 6, New Jersey lost its first African-American congressman, a man known for his support of education at home and opposition to human rights abuses abroad. The Newark native served in Congress for 23 years, usually facing little or no opposition in elections.
By contrast, the June 5 Democratic primary has attracted six would-be successors, including four who already hold prominent political offices: two Newark Councilmen, Payne’s son, Donald Jr., and Ron Rice Jr., son of the state senator; Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith; state Sen. Nia Gill, (D-Essex). Dennis Flynn of Glen Ridge, and Cathy Wright of Newark round out the ballot.
Redistricting did little to change the makeup of the 10th other than expanding it.
The current 10th District includes East Orange, Irvington, Orange and parts of Maplewood, Montclair, Newark, South Orange and West Orange in Essex County; parts of Bayonne and Jersey City in Hudson; and Hillside, Rahway, Roselle and parts of Elizabeth, Linden and Union Township in Union County.
The new 10th adds Glen Ridge, parts of Bloomfield and the rest of Maplewood and South Orange in Essex County; and Roselle Park and the rest of Linden in Union. Redistricting re-shaped the lines around Montclair and Elizabeth.
This leads to an unusual election circumstance: simultaneous elections for different terms in the two mostly overlapping configurations of the 10th.
Election law provides for the senior Payne’s vacancy, which is in the district as it is presently drawn, to be filled at the next regular election, in November. The winner of that special election will only serve until the new Congress is sworn in early January. That’s when the winner of the regular election will begin a two-year term representing the newly configured 10th. It is conceivable that one person could win the special election, while another wins the new term.
There is likely to be confusion in the polling booths, as many voters will get to vote in both the special and regular elections but some will vote only to replace Payne Sr. for two months and others only for the new representative in the 113th Congress. The address search feature of NJ Spotlight’s Voter Guide will accurately provide voters with information on those elections in which they are eligible to cast ballots.
Three of the Democrats have filed in the primary for nomination to both terms, while the other three are just seeking the new term.
Those who are doubling down are Payne Jr., who is also an Essex County freeholder; Rice Jr. and Smith. Flynn, Wright and Gill are not.
Although most of the entrants are already well known, they have wasted no time trying to define themselves and their opponents. That can be challenging in a small geographical area where voters often choose representatives with similar public positions, and even more so when the state of the economy is an overriding concern.
“I'm the most progressive candidate in the race," said Rice, saying he was the first local elected official in New Jersey to endorse Barack Obama's 2008 presidential candidacy. As for his sponsorship of the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender commission, Rice noted, “In some places, that may not be much of an issue, so it doesn't require much courage to take a position, but I've got 104 churches in my ward.”
Under the slogan “It's Time,” Rice began planning his run even before the elder Payne announced his cancer in February. Rice, 44, said Congress needs “a new generation of leadership.”
By curtailing pay-to-pay political contracts and ending campaign fund-raising on municipal property, Rice said he has helped improve government ethics and transparency in Newark.
He also pointed to achievements on practical issues, such as his break with Mayor Cory Booker over a proposed sale of the city water system to balance the budget. Rice claimed credit for helping save 400 city jobs through a different plan.
During a decade as Irvington mayor, Smith said he has a track record of success on bread-and-butter matters. A Newark native, he has stressed his connections to that neighboring city, including attending Newark schools, and his similarities to the elder Payne.
“I believe that I represent the hope that Congressman Payne spoke of during his life about instilling hope in the people of Newark,” Smith said in launching his campaign.
In both Washington and New Jersey, the political discussion has failed to focus on cities, the engines of the economy, according to Smith. He called for getting back to "an urban policy, and urban agenda, something that creates jobs." He cited programs such as Harlem's empowerment zone and federal Urban Enterprise Zones, which provide tax incentives and training programs for businesses locating in neighborhoods with high unemployment and poverty.
Portraying himself as a “progressive pragmatic,” Smith said many of the current budget proposals coming from Congress would penalize senior citizens and others by cutting vital programs and harming the economy. But he also stressed his independence from Democratic “machinery,” whose “party bosses” in Essex and Hudson counties have endorsed Payne and Gill respectively.
Of the district's three jurisdictions, only “Union County did it the right way, having an open primary” with all candidates on an equal footing, Smith said.
Gill, of Montclair, caught some by surprise with her entry but instantly became a contender, gaining the organization line in Hudson County.
Astonishingly in the 21st Century, New Jersey does not have a woman in its congressional delegation; a fact Gill makes the most of in her campaign. Putting a slightly different spin on complaints of a Republican “war on women,” Gill told a Linden audience that her gender helps position her to “stand up to the GOP’s continuous assault on the middle class and working families.”
As examples, Gill cited her legislative activity on a range of issues, some of which have bought her into conflict with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, such as fully funding the state education formula, which was “decimated” by the governor.
She also sponsored a bill to provide health insurance coverage for people age 18 to 30, a provision included in President Obama's national health insurance system. Gill also backed legislation to create New Jersey's health insurance exchange, but Christie conditionally vetoed that, citing the pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the national plan.
Gill's actions extend to economic measures, including her sponsorship of a "micro-business credit act" to provide loans and training to small businesses.
On the state level, Gill also has dealt with the kinds of international issues she could face in Congress. She sponsored the laws that made human trafficking a crime in New Jersey, and that banned state pension funds from investing in companies that do business with the genocidal government of Sudan.
But with everyone trying to claim his father's legacy, Payne Jr. is the front-runner. With his name, the backing of the Essex County Democratic organization and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the younger Payne seems to hold the high cards. He has acted accordingly, for instance, avoiding the Linden meeting where all the candidates were on an equal footing.
Rice has racked up endorsements from labor and progressive groups, but Payne Jr. has countered with backing from the locals of the retail workers and locomotive engineers unions. In a press release, Payne said the support “shows my message of working for jobs, jobs, jobs, and my history of getting results is getting through.”
In the face of Gill's appeal to women, Payne cited the backing of four East Orange councilwomen. Speaking for the group, council President Quilla Talmadge called Payne Jr. “the most compassionate and caring candidate in the race.”
“He's running on a jobs platform that's being very well received,” said Payne Jr. spokesman Sam Durso.
Payne Jr., Newark Council president, also is citing his efforts to bring infrastructure jobs to the city, visible in the construction of a new office tower for Panasonic, which is relocating its North American headquarters from Secaucus, a move backed by state tax breaks.
Wright attempted to challenge the elder Payne in 2010, but he succeeded in having her knocked off the ballot. She was preparing to try again when his death left her with a new slate of opponents.
“I wanted Don Payne to explain what he's been doing for the past 22 years,” Wright said, adding the professional politicians now on the ballot should also justify their records.
“I hear from so many people who are disgusted with the status quo and regular politicians,” said Wright, who is campaigning with a network of volunteers. The voters she hopes to turn out are people the organizations “never look at, people they would never consider,” she said. Despite all the talk of jobs, many in the district continue to struggle, Wright said.
The multi-candidate primary may give her more of a chance to make an impression, she said, although Payne Jr.'s presence is “intimidating” because “some people may not know it's the son and just vote for the name Payne.”
She is still trying to gain recognition from the Democratic establishment. Wright said that while she works as a clerk at The Star-Ledger in Newark, “I can't get my name in the paper” as a candidate.
Flynn, an Air Force veteran, also believes that the political establishment in both parties is not doing enough to represent the interests of ordinary Americans. His military experiences during the Iraq War prompted him to become more politically active, he said.
“It's a different perspective over there,” he said. “It was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction, there were no connections to 9/11.”
While he praised the elder Payne, Flynn said he “brings more to the table” than the late Congressman's son. “The message is more important than the name,” Flynn said, “especially as our economic situation gets worse.”
He believes the Democratic Party needs to bring the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement “into the voting booth.” But of all this year's presidential candidates, he cited Republican Ron Paul as the only one standing up for “traditional liberal values” of civil rights and civil liberties.
“I don't think we should have to leave our party to find leaders willing to stand up to the political establishment,” he said.
On the Republican side, there is no contest, with Brian Keleman of Bayonne the only candidate to file and then only for the new term. No Republican is seeking the unexpired term.
This article was updated after it was originally published.