Spotlight On New Jersey's Gubernatorial And Legislative Races

Summer may be coming to an end, but the fall campaign season is just starting to heat up. Here’s look at key candidates and ballot questions

The money is on Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, in this year’s most important race, for the governor’s seat. Polls have Murphy leading Republican Kim Guadagno, the current lieutenant governor, by 20 points or more. He spent some $27 million toward his primary victory and has raised $1.7 million so far toward the general election, compared to the $3.5 million Guadagno spent to win her primary and $564,000 she has raised thus far for the November contest. Guadagno is not helped by her link to the very unpopular incumbent Gov. Chris Christie.

But a poll issued last week should give Guadagno some hope. The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll found the candidates are almost equally unknown by about four in 10 voters. Of those with an opinion, a slightly larger proportion had a favorable view of Murphy than Guadagno, 23 percent vs. 17 percent.

Introducing the other candidates

Voters will have a number of other choices, although they are not likely to learn much about the independent candidates as only one has spent any money.

The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, the Green Party candidate, has been active both as a candidate – Jill Stein, the Greens’ 2016 presidential candidate, boosted his candidacy at the party’s national convention held in Newark last July – and as an activist for immigrant and refugee rights. He is the only independent candidate to have reported any fundraising activity to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission, having spent almost $50,000 so far.

Gina Genovese, a former mayor of Long Hill who worked to promote shared municipal services in founding Courage to Connect NJ, is running as an independent. She has some name recognition, but so far no money. Her slogan is Reduce Property Taxes, something Guadagno has made the lynchpin of her campaign.

Matthew Riccardi of Neptune is the standard-bearer of the Constitution Party. According to his campaign website, Riccardi is a former Marine, a Christian, and married father of three. He has signed a six-point “contract” with voters that includes his promise not to sign any bill or approve any program that increases the state budget or debt.

The Libertarian candidate is Peter Rohrman, another former Marine who is operations director for an Internet service provider and single father of two boys. His platform mimics that of the national Libertarian party and includes legalizing marijuana and loosening gun laws.

Vincent Ross of Edison is the final independent, running under the banner We The People. He does not appear to have any presence online.

If history is any indication, though, all the independents combined will get just a small fraction of the vote. Even in 2009, when the relatively well-known Chris Daggett, a former state environmental protection commissioner who now heads the Dodge Foundation, spent a respectable $1.9 million running as an independent, he got just 6 percent of the vote.

Sparring contenders

After a mostly quiet summer of town halls and public appearances, the two major party candidates have spent the past few weeks sparring. Last Wednesday, Murphy posted a message on his Facebook page criticizing Guadagno for not condemning Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Sussex) for posting a picture in front of a confederate flag and for her choice of a running mate, who is being sued by a local Jewish group.

“(Guadagno) refused to criticize a sitting Assemblyman for posing with the Confederate flag, a symbol of bigotry and divisiveness,” the post reads. “Today, we’ve learned that her choice for Lieutenant Governor, Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo, has been accused of systematic harassment and discrimination by the Chabad community in Woodcliff Lake. Yet, both times Lieutenant Governor Guadagno refused to criticize racist and anti-semitic speech despite the clear evidence.”

Guadagno, who has spent much time touting her proposal to cap the school portion of property taxes at 5 percent, denied the charge and used the opportunity to criticize Murphy for proposing a reported $1.3 billion tax increase.

“It's a shame that Phil Murphy would stoop so low to hide his support for raising taxes by over $1.3 billion by getting involved in divisive and horrendous identity politics,” Guadagno said in a statement. “Carlos and I have condemned racism and bigotry in all forms, and Phil Murphy knows it. His desperate race-baiting attacks to stir up fake outrage are beneath all of us as New Jerseyans, who value diversity, equality and love for each other.”

The legislative contests

In addition to the governor, all 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot. Fourteen of those will definitely turn over, as four senators and nine Assembly members either have chosen not to seek re-election or already left their seats open.

For the Senate seats, Republicans fielded no candidates in two districts: the 4th in parts of Camden and Gloucester counties and the 28th in Essex. Independents are running in a half-dozen districts.

For the Assembly, only one Democrat is running for two seats in the 21st district, based in Union County, while the GOP filled only one of two slots in the adjacent 20th district and in the 38th, which includes parts of Bergen and Passaic counties and had been one of the most hotly contested districts in recent years. Seventeen of the 40 districts have independent candidates, as well.

It will be difficult for Republicans to take control of both houses, as Democrats hold significant majorities – 24 of 40 seats in the Senate and 52 of 80 in the Assembly. But there are a few districts to watch:

  • In the 2nd District, currently split and a perennial battleground, Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown is seeking the now open Senate seat. Incumbent Democrat Jim Whelan had announced his retirement and Whelan died suddenly two weeks ago. Colin Bell, the Democratic candidate to replace him, could be chosen to fill out Whelan’s term today by the Atlantic County Democratic Committee. Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, a Democrat, is defending his seat along with Buena Vista Committeeman John Armato of Buena. They face Republicans Vince Sera, a Brigantine councilman, and Brenda Taube, a former Margate commissioner, as well as Green Party candidate Mico Lucide of Mays Landing and independent Heather Gordon of Ventor,

  • In Burlington County’s 7th District, another one with split representation, Republican Sen. Diane Allen is retiring. Assemblyman Troy Singleton, a Democrat, is facing lawyer Rob Prisco of Riverside, a Republican nominated by Christie last June to be a workers’ compensation court judge. Democratic Assemblyman Herb Conaway is running for re-election with Carol Murphy, a staffer for Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera in the nearby 5th District. They are facing Republicans Octavia Scott of Roebling and Mike Piper of Delran. While Allen was popular, so are Singleton and Conaway so this district could turn all blue.

  • Both Assembly seats in Monmouth County’s 11th District flipped for the Democrats two years ago and the party is pushing hard to unseat Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck this year, running businessman and former county chairman Vin Gopal. At the same time, Democratic incumbent Assembly members Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling are trying to hold onto the seats they won two years ago by slim margins. Beck’s GOP running mates are Ocean Township Deputy Mayor Rob Acerra and Red Bank Councilman Mike Whelan. Four years ago, Beck won handily, as did her Assemblyman running mates, but in 2015, Assemblywomen Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande lost their seats, with just 253 votes separating the second-place (Downey) and third-place (Angelini) finishers.

  • The 16th District in west-central Jersey also became split two years ago when Democrat Andrew Zwicker unseated Republican Donna Simon to win an Assembly seat by 78 votes. The freshman is defending his seat and hoping to bring with him to Trenton Roy Freiman, a former financial executive from Hillsborough. Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli gave up his seat to run for governor so there is a vacancy. Simon is trying to win her seat back, running with Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire. Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, a Republican, had no trouble winning in the past, but the Democrats’ win two years ago has left them emboldened. This year he faces Laurie Poppe, a Hillsborough attorney.

Inspired by opposition to the new administration in Washington, Democrats are trying to mount serious challenges in solidly red districts in places like the northwest. It’s doubtful they will have much success in places where Republicans typically win by two-to-one margins or more, however.

Ballot questions

Voters also will be asked to decide on two statewide ballot questions.

One is a $125 million bond issue to fund library projects across the state. Municipalities and counties would have to match the state funding, which could be used for construction and equipment.

The other question would constitutionally dedicate all money collected from natural-resources damages or contamination settlements to restoring or preserving natural resources in an area as close as possible to where the damage occurred and to the legal costs incurred in pursing the claims. Now, such legal settlement funds can be used by the state for the general budget.

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