Michael J. Shurin, one of two Democrats running in the District 8 Congressional primary race this year, considers himself a moderate candidate.
“I can assimilate into either party,” Shurin said. He used to be a Republican and called himself a “RINO,” (“Republican In Name Only”). But in the heavily Democratic 8th District, which was not dramatically changed in the wake of reapportionment last year, Shurin will have a tough time unseating his well-established opponent.
Rep. Albio Sires, the Democratic incumbent, has a strong foothold in the district, which is dominated by Hudson County. He’s not expected to lose his ground.
Nevertheless, Shurin is confident that he has a chance of securing the nomination if he continues to get his message across, through social media and advertising.
The 25-year-old Shurin, a graduate of St. Peter’s College in Jersey City who left his job as a computer programmer to campaign for Congress, is most concerned with drug policy and balancing the budget.
Shurin puts drug policy at the top his list of issues, and said that his reasons for doing so are both personal and political.
“I personally experienced the failings of the drug war,” he explained. “When I was younger, I got caught up with drugs.” It turned out to be a passing fad, having to do with, as Shurin put it, “regular issues that kids have: How do I fit into the world? What am I?”
But some of his friends were not so lucky, and he’s concerned about today’s youth. “A lot of the kids I was hanging with, some of them are dead now, some are in and out of rehab, and it’s really upsetting to me.”
Shurin believes New Jersey’s prison system reflects a high racial disparity, especially in the 8th, a district with a strong Latino population. He said too many non-violent drug offenders are put away and he favors the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana. He is supportive of harm reduction strategies that would make clinical environments accessible to drug users. Essentially, Shurin said, he would like to “take profit out of drugs, to bankrupt drug dealers.”
The incumbent has served in Congress since 2006 and before that was mayor of West New York, where he also lives, for 11 years. From 2000 to 2006, Sires represented District 33 in the New Jersey General Assembly, where he was the first Hispanic to serve as Speaker.
Sires, 61, is a Cuban-American who fled Communist Cuba with his family in 1962. He graduated from St. Peter’s College in 1974. Currently, the congressman serves on two committees, foreign affairs and transportation and infrastructure.
Sires declined requests to discuss his campaign.
His opponent hammered away at Sires' record in Congress. “The failures in this country have started since he entered office: the national debt exploded, he voted to increase troops in Afghanistan,” Shurin said.
Shurin said he is a “big believer in fiscal responsibility,” which he said is necessary to balance the budget, his No. 2 issue.
“I’m concerned about the economy,” Shurin said. “We’re running up these deficits, and over time, it’s going to cheapen the dollar.” He said that the country has “to bring in more revenue” through “lower marginal tax rates” and the closing of “loop holes in tax code.”
Despite Shurin’s confidence, he is going to have trouble securing his name on the ticket for the November election.
Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said that when “a relatively new person on the political scene is challenging an entrenched, party-backed incumbent, primary voters tend to be among the most loyal to their party and therefore vote the party line.”
Sires is endorsed by a passel of groups, from organized labor to teachers, including most of the “traditional Democratic supporters,” Harrison said.
Maria Karczewski, an office administrator in Bayonne, is the only Republican whose name will be on the June ballot this primary.
But Anthony Zanowic, who also lives in Bayonne, is mounting a write-in campaign after he was forced to withdraw his name from the ballot. Although the Republican Zanowic submitted more signatures than required to secure his nomination in the primary, one of his petitions was disqualified when it was discovered that its circulator lived outside the district, according to a statement.
He is critical of Karczewski for running to represent the 8th District when she doesn’t even live there – her home is a couple of blocks outside the district and, legally, a person is allowed to run in a district in which he does not live.
“It’s my desire to represent the district where I was born and raised,” said Karczewski, adding that if elected, she would move into the 8th.
Despite not being able to appear on the ballot, Zanowic is going ahead with his candidacy. “It’s important for voters to have a real choice. I’m not part of anyone’s political machine. And so I’m free to stand on principle.”