Few NJ incumbents face serious primary challenges

Carl Lewis

June 6, 2011 7:16:46 PM PDT
Two Democrats at the heart of the party's power base and a Republican senator who's been in office for 13 years are among those facing intraparty challenges in Tuesday's primary election.

Primary contests have taken shape in 10 races associated with 40 Senate seats - three Democratic and seven Republican. On the Assembly side, there are 16 contested primaries, eight for each party.

"In many cases potential challenges to incumbents were settled well before the primary petitions were filed," said Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray. "People who might have wanted to run for office realized they were not going to be able to without the party endorsement."

This is the first election in newly reconfigured legislative districts, which were redrawn to better represent population shifts found in the most recent census. Most of the districts are reliably Democratic or Republican, with the intraparty line-ups predetermined by county political bosses.

In districts with primary contests, many challenges are from candidates at the fringes of their party "who are running annoyance campaigns," said Murray.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voter turnout tends to be low in primaries where legislative races are the top of the ticket. In 2007, 8 percent voted; in 2003, it was 9 percent; and in 1999, 6 percent.

The wildest race Tuesday is in Union County, where Democratic powerbroker Sen. Ray Lesniak and Assembly members Joe Cryan - the Assembly majority leader and former state party chairman - and Annette Quijano are being challenged by a slate of candidates aligned with the Elizabeth Board of Education. The challengers are school administrator Jerome Dunn, who's running for Senate, and Assembly candidates Tony Monteiro, a school board member, and Carlos Cedeno, a former board member.

The challengers' campaign funds were partly frozen by a judge after Lesniak sued, claiming the Democrats for Change didn't meet disclosure requirements. Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner ruled Friday that they could access some funds, mostly raised from Elizabeth school employees.

The incumbents have raised more than $2.5 million, and their campaign has included robocalls from former President Bill Clinton.

"I don't even know why they would be considered Democrats," Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, a Democrat, said of the challengers. "They have worn our clothing in this election but they don't believe in our ideals."

Monteiro endorsed Republican Gov. Chris Christie for governor.

The state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, has endorsed Dunn. Though Lesniak has been a longtime friend of labor and the NJEA has a running feud with Christie, the veteran lawmaker supports school vouchers and the union does not.

The reconfigured district is 38 percent Hispanic and 43 percent black. The district formerly was 43 percent Hispanic and 27 percent black.

GOP Sen. Anthony Bucco faces an increasingly nasty primary challenge from Morris County Freeholder William Chegwidden, the mayor of Wharton, in the 25th District.

The two have traded barbs that included Bucco accusing his rival of triple-dipping as a teacher, mayor and freeholder, and Chegwidden bringing up a sexual harassment suit against Bucco that was settled in 2004.

The splinter group GOP Strong, which positions itself as more conservative than county Republican organizations, is looking for upsets in Republican primaries in Bergen and Passaic counties. The group is backing candidates in a half-dozen districts, all of which are dominated by Democrats.

Two of the most prominent political newcomers in this year's primaries are unopposed.

Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, who lives in Medford, is trying to become a Democratic senator in the Republican-dominated 8th District in New Jersey's Philadelphia suburbs. With Republicans challenging his candidacy on grounds that he has not lived in the state for the required four years, he could be removed from the general election ballot.

Richard Kanka, the Hamilton father of Megan Kanka, the girl whose murder led to creation of Megan's Law all over the nation, is running for the 14th District Senate seat as a Republican.