31st Legislative District Primary: Hudson County Republicans Have a Choice

This article has been updated to reflect a judge’s decision to allow At-Large Council candidate Sean Connelly’s name to appear on the June 11 runoff ballot

The 31st Legislative District may typically go to Democrats, but it’s the Republicans who have an actual fight in the primaries.

With the Democrats only fielding incumbents, State Senator Sandra Cunningham and Assemblymen Charles Mainor and Jason O’Donnell have a clear path to the November ballot, showing none of the internal divisions found in the incumbent-less 33rd District race (more to come on this later this week). Likewise, Republican State Senator candidate Maria Karczewski, on the Hudson County Republican Party organization ticket, is running alone to represent the Republicans.

Meaning the only question registered Republicans in the 31st district have to answer is how conservative their candidates in the Assembly should be.

According to Hudson County Republican Party organization Chair Jose Arango, his group — better-established and with the official blessing of the state party — is plenty conservative for an area known to have more moderate views than elsewhere in the state. “We’re not the crazies in the Tea Party,” says Arango, who adds Governor Chris Christie is similarly “moderate” – though to be sure, there are a number of unions and LGBT groups who would take issue with that.

That internal Republican fight got ugly last fall, when a judge called a mulligan on the Jersey City Republican Party organization’s internal elections, because too many declared Republicans weren’t alerted to the vote.

Still, Arango says the area’s established Republican organization have their priorities right in line with the voters – encourage business-friendly policies while working across the aisle to get things done on social issues. By trying to appeal to the far-right conservatives gaining steam elsewhere in the country, Arango says the newly formed Hudson County Republican Club is doing Republicans in the area a disservice.

Yet the relatively new Hudson County Republican Club maintains that even without the same state support or inroads into municipal services and local politicians’ ears they have more to offer than the longer-running Hudson County Republican Party organization. After all, they argue, the same people — i.e. Democrats — have been in power for a while and many of the same problems persist. It’s time, they say, to put forward a true conservative candidate.

Gerard Pizzillo – Hudson County Republican Party Organization

Gerrard Pizzillo

First time candidate Gerard Pizzillo says he’s running because he can “see what’s going on in the community” — crime is high, the economy needs fixing, and the area’s representatives aren’t getting things done.

An attorney by trade, Pizzillo says the debate between Republicans should focus on who can provide the best constituent services. In fact, service is the reason he says he’s running. With a father and two siblings having served in the Marines, Pizzillo says he hopes to do his part as a politician with his background in law.

“Part of my job is to assist people with issues they face,” he says of his work in civil litigation. And if helping people is what politics is all about, he says that becomes complicated when a candidate has an eye towards higher political offices. “I’m not using this as a career stepping stone, I’m not looking to be a state chairman or head of whatever Republican organization,” he adds.

Pizzillo, who speaks equally highly of Mayor-elect Steve Fulop as does Arango, says it was Fulop’s ability to bridge so many people that he admires when considering the schisms between the Hudson County Republicans. “He did a great job of getting everyone together,” he says.

“Our attitude is we want unity, we want them in the fold,” says Pizzillo of the HCRC. “For whatever reason, they aren’t satisfied with how the party is being run.” While the competing Republican organization argues they adhere better to Republican principles, Pizzillo calls it an issue of “pride,” not of substance.

“It goes back to their egos, they want to run and control things,” he argues. “But it shouldn’t be about that, it shouldn’t be about the individual.”

He adds, “we’re a more moderate party” in Hudson County. “We’re not Tea Party Republicans. I can understand what they stand for and respect it, but I don’t think it’s realistic in the society we live in today,” he says, noting the area is more “moderate.”

“As Republicans we have to evolve and go back to being classic Reagan Republicans,” he says, calling the far right “philosophies [inconsistent] with the world.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both the HCRP and the HCRC both cite Reagan as a politician from where they derive their view on governance.

A St. Peter’s College graduate, Pizzillo has called Jersey City home since 2007 when he finished law school in Michigan.

“The economy has made Jersey City a tale of two cities,” he says, borrowing a familiar line from Fulop’s campaign trail. That is particularly evident, he argues, in Ward A and Ward F, two areas that benefit from the state’s Urban Enterprise Zone funds. Those funds, of course, are drying because Gov. Christie has decided to reallocate them to the general fund.

While Pizzillo says the UEZ funds are important to Jersey City, acknowledging they have helped support budding economic areas, he says “the governor is going to do what he thinks is best for the state” by withdrawing that support.

“The governor knows best,” he adds.

Juanita Lopez – Hudson County Republican Party Organization

Juanita Lopez’s candidacy is part of a higher calling, she says.

“I consider myself a community activist,” says Lopez, whose career of caring began as a parent heavily invested in the Parent Teacher Association member.

From these roots Lopez says she learned how an active parents who cares can make changes. Though she unsuccessfully ran for the Board of Education in 1999, she says her work on the PTA helped lessen the “hostile attitudes” some school officials show to parents.

Like Pizzillo, with whom she is bracketed, Lopez says she is not a politician by background and doesn’t want to be one for a career. “It’s about helping people,” she continues.

Describing herself as “god-fearing,” Lopez says the government needs a “faith-based person” in office considering the selfishness of some politicians. “When no one is watching me, there is still a mighty being way above me watching me 24/7,” she says of her relationship with her faith.

It speaks to her candidacy’s impetus – “We have too much status quo, politicians just come around when they want votes,” she says, echoing a common complaint. Indeed, Lopez says the area needs “holistic help – mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, if one area is not working, we have to fix it.” And with the alleged rampant corruption and “politicians who care about party first and people second,” Lopez says she will be unique in caring more about the people than the politics.

“New people to this area are giving up on politics,” she says.

“We need to find out where money is going,” she says of government expenditures and allocation of revenue streams that are allegedly used wastefully. “We need to find out why there are not enough jobs in the area.” Though she does not say where this waste can be found, she’s certain it’s there — if nowhere else, at the very least it can be found in the underwhelming work done by the area’s representatives.

“I don’t see our Assembly people communicating with the community,” she says. By comparison, she says the “Governor is in everyone’s face showing what he does.” That kind of communication is crucial for residents who are living with high crime and high unemployment.

A Jersey City resident since 1978, Lopez was born in Puerto Rico and has spent time throughout the county.

“Many [Latino] people are Democrats,” she says, but locally Democrats haven’t done enough. “In Jersey City, I saw everything was the same, nothing changes.”

But her party-affiliation is based beyond the job done by the party in power.

“I believe in the sanctity of life,” she says.

Lopez, who doesn’t believe in the death penalty, says social issues matter.

“Everyone in their bedroom can do what they want, the sanctity of privacy is important,” says Lopez. Still, she says her biggest problem with marriage equality is the use of the word marriage.

“Marriage is a totally different thing. Another word should be used,” she argues.

Michael Alonso – Hudson County Republican Club

Michael Alonso said he and his fellow HCRC members “realized we didn’t have to take over a broken party,” which is how he describes the HCRP. Instead, “we realized we could start something new.”

“We’re trying to make a statement that the Governor and chairman [Arango] don’t show enough support,” adds Alonso, a second-time candidate for Assembly. Indeed, he says the HCRP is a farce that puts up “candidates so as not to give Democrats any real competition.”

Alonso, 31 years of age and a lifelong Bayonne resident, works as both a real estate agent and owns his own children’s entertainment company.

For Alonso, the problem is a lack of community. “It’s the fact that teachers and police are not required to live in town after they’re hired, so morals are evaporating,” he says, a problem that can be seen in “how neighbors treat each other.”

Evoking a 1950’s narrative of the idealized suburban home life, Alonso says “once upon a time everyone was friendly and close. Now nobody knows anybody.” That is the fault of a lack of leadership, he continues, saying politicians have failed “to bring people together.”

A big issue for Alonso is what he sees as the curtailing of the 2nd Amendment by 31st District Assemblyman Charles Mainor. According to Alonso, a bill sponsored by Mainor that would require the government to collect information on certain types of firearms, is an overstep by the government.

He’s further frustrated by what he says is Christie’s use of New Jersey “as a stepping stone to become president.” Rather than focus on what the state needs, he says Christie’s photo-ops have ignored the problems in the area, such as the unemployment rate. Indeed, he argues the only way jobs are added in the state is when the government grows “It’s very sad that the rate of employment is controlled by the government,” argues Alonso, who calls the state not friendly enough to businesses.

As a self-described Christian and pro-life advocate, Alonso says there is one area where he agrees with a typically liberal concern: big box stores that he says “destroys towns.”

“I don’t agree with the Walmart plan,” he says. Rather, small businesses are the key to reviving the economy.

But before that can happen, the state’s education system has to look back to the days when they encouraged a broader range of classes in school. “We’ve gotten rid of too many shop classes, we need people who can work with their hands,” he says.

Tony Zanowic – Hudson County Republic Club

tony zanowic

When Tony Zanowic, a bowling alley manager and lifelong Hudson County resident, ran as an independent candidate for Congress in 2010, he did so because there simply wasn’t a Republican party he could get behind.

“The Hudson County Republican Party [organization] is an arm of the Democrats,” he says, a refrain that’s gained traction for the more conservative residents in the area. “We have allies on the Tea Party, but we’re not the Tea Party. We’re conservative Republicans who believe in traditional values along the lines of Ronald Reagan: smaller government, lower taxes, and policies that help grow businesses that employ people.”

Though his bid for Congress was unsuccessful, he caught the eye of other conservatives in the area who were equally fed up with the HCRP, including Sean Connelly, an At-Large Council candidate in the upcoming runoff election in Jersey City. Together they and a few other further-right leaning residents put together the Hudson County Republican Club, which has more in common with the kind of conservatism found “in the midwest,” he says.

It’s a necessary distinction to make because of how closely entangled the HCRP is with the area’s Democrats. Zanowic points out that the head of the HCRP, Jose Arango, works for the city of Jersey City, a Democratic mayor who is finishing up nine years in office – only to be replaced by another Democrat. Similarly, he says the head of the Bayonne Republican Party organization works for the mayor of Bayonne, also a Democrat.

It is unlikely, he argues, that the HCRP can put up real conservative challengers when they’re so closely tied to their opposition. “The HCRP runs candidates who don’t really run a campaign,” he maintains. “You need to get out there and get the message out how you’re different from the party in power.” That isn’t being done, argues Zanowic, because there’s too much overlap between the left and the would-be right.

HCRP head Arango rejects Zanowic’s view of the official County organization, arguing that the conservatives in the area are simply more moderate than the newly-formed HCRC wants to acknowledge.

Not so, says Zanowic, who points out the biggest issues are universal: concern over high property taxes, a lukewarm economic climate, and safety and quality of life needs. Democrats, Republican and Independents agree there, he says, and it reflects the conversation he’s had with residents who previously never would have considered voting GOP.

This problem speaks to a general issue – too much time in office breeds complacency. “Terms limits are a good idea, we should be discussing what those limits would be,” he says, saying politics shouldn’t be a career move.

In fact, some of Zanowic’s values are already reflected in the area, and not just in his call for less waste in government spending and fewer politicians getting arrested for fraud – in fact Jersey City Mayor-elect Steve Fulop used similar language when unseating his fellow Democrat, Jerrmiah Healy, from City Hall.

Zanowic wants to institute an anti-bullying program, which exists, but isn’t doing enough, he says. He also wants to stop the seemingly ever-increasing tax burden, something every administration says they aim to do. He’d also put police officers in schools, he says, an expense he says the area could afford if they cut out the waste he says he’s certain must exist in government.

Like many conservatives, Zanowic says the state’s business climate is unsuitable to draw the big businesses in that will bring jobs.

Zanowic says he hasn’t raised money outside of what he himself is putting into his campaign. First, he says, he wants to win the primary, then he’ll hold fundraisers.

Right now the plan is like any grassroots organization: walking door-to-door and making phone calls to Republican voters, letting them know a “true” Republican is running this time around. Still, he knows the lack of money is holding back his campaign.

“People have been receptive for the most part,” he says of the voters he speaks with. “Part of the problem is we’re not able to get funds to get message out on large scale.”

“People vote Democratic even though they complain about taxes,” he says of voters who go to the polls for politicians who are not in line with their financial interests – ironically, an observation often made about low-income Republicans who are seen as “values” voters.

For Democrats in the area who vote against their interest, Zanowic guesses “it may be a habit or because their families vote that way.”

Photo of Tony Zanowic courtesy Zanowic

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.