With neither incumbent Assemblyman running for reelection -– Assemblyman Sean Connors is running for City Council in Jersey City's Ward D instead, while Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr. is challenging Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer – the 33rd Legislative District will see what Democratic challengers to the Hudson County Democratic Organization have described as de facto incumbents.
Traditionally a Democratic seat, the challenge for State Senator Brian Stack's district (the well-established Stack is running unopposed in the primary) is whether the HCDO can continue putting up candidates with near-certain success.
Indeed, the HCDO – and by extension, the JCDO – has been fairly successful when they run a candidate against anyone not named Steve Fulop. And none of the candidates running will get that endorsement, as Jersey City's mayor-elect has opted not to get involved just yet. “Steve is focused on the transition and building his administration. There will be time for politics down the road,” said Fulop campaign spokesman Bruno Tedeschi.
Voters will only get a choice between Democratic representatives in the Assembly this time around. With only two Republican candidates running for the two ballot spots in the Assembly and one Republican candidate running for the single State Senate ballot opening, the other races are not true primary elections.
Raj Mukherji – Hudson County Democratic Organization
All of Raj Mukherji's jobs have either ended or are about to. After all, Mukherji is a deputy mayor to Jerramiah Healy, who will soon be out of office after losing to Fulop in May 14's election. Mukherji also severed his ties to a lobbying firm he helped found, which made him quite a bit of money and that he says "introduced [him] to the legislative process" from the professional advocacy point-of-view.
That's OK, though, he says. He's running with Stack, which gives him even more name recognition than he already has, as well as the infrastructural campaign support that gets out votes and volunteers.
“I've always been interested in the legislative process, from my former job as a legislative consultant in Trenton,” he says. “That passion for public policy was amplified these past few years while working at the Jersey City Housing Authority and the past year as deputy mayor.”
Mukherji was “invited” to join Stack's ticket, he says, and like his ticket's leader, he too looks with kinder eyes on the work done by Christie than many Democrats.
Mukherji says that while he would fight to help restore the popular Urban Enterprise Zone money – which Christie reallocated into a discretionary fund in the budget – he says work done in Trenton to help the state's cities, particularly the effort on the part of lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno, is vastly under-appreciated.
Guadagno, says Mukherji, “has been an advocate for the state's cities through the Business Action Center,” which looks to incentivize business development in areas that need it most. “She's been out ther selling our cities and urban areas in order to bolster economic development.”
The governor, he adds, “has been a phenomenal partner to the cities, including Jersey City, in attracting capital investment.”
While some in Jersey City's Special Improvement Districts, whose cut in funding has left them scrambling to make up the shortfall, may disagree, Mukherji says, “A lot of what the UEZ is designed to do the governor already does."
Yet in most other ways, Mukherji sounds like a more typical Democrat. He wants to encourage development and urban renewal, but “not at the expense of our environment.” He's in favor of preserving open space and creating “smart growth” based on sustainability measures while encouraging “green buildings.”
More specifically, Mukherji wants to utilize the possibilities afforded to the state thanks of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, and work to advocate on behalf of “one of medical marijuana's nonprofits licensed by the state.”
A former reserve in the Marines, Mukherji says although he is close with Healy he's certain he and the rest of the HCDO can “coalesce” behind the new mayor of Jersey City.
Carmelo Garcia – Hudson County Democratic Organization
Like Mukherji, his bracket-mate, Carmelo Garcia, head of the Hoboken Housing Authority, has serious experience on low-income housing, both from his personal and professional experience. So he knows why it's both unjust to leave low-income residents without safe housing, and why it's bad policy.
In fact, back in the 1980s, Garcia recalls jumping out of his apartment window with his family after his building was set afire during a dark period in Hoboken's history. From that, Garcia learned the importance of ensuring safe housing for low-income residents. The arsonists, explained Garcia, were part of a movement by crooked landlords to drive out low-income residents in order to encourage gentrification and more money.
"Some people in this county think of affordable housing as taboo, but it's not, it's live to work," he says. Which is why he encourages mixed-income housing, something Jersey City has been struggling with when developers put money into an affordable housing trust fund, creating what Fulop calls a "tale of two cities."
A housing authority official for 15 years, Garcia takes that one further, calling it a tale of "Kansas and Oz." It's why he says abatements have a place in municipal planning, and it's also why he disagrees with Christie's decision to try to dissolve the Council on Affordable Housing, which encourages requiring affordable housing in high-income areas.
Garcia also rejects the idea that the HCDO is the machine many claim it to be. To him, the machine politics of yesteryear are exactly that -- a thing of the past. In the past, he says, minorities had trouble gaining traction in politics. Now, he says, you have people from all walks of life promoting issues for low-income residents, environmental causes, and other liberal concerns.
"We don't believe in machine politics," he maintains, saying anyone is welcome. Indeed, although Mukherji and Garcia both have municipal jobs, they point out they have expert knowledge that can lend weight to their attempts to make policy in Trenton.
Like Mukherji, Garcia sees the positive side of a Christie administration. "He has the pulse of the state," he said, noting the work he's done during Sandy was exactly what the state needed.
Still, Garcia calls Christie a better administrator than policy-maker, citing both the canceled ARC Tunnel and the proposed handling of the Pulaski Skyway closing as examples of things that could have been done differently.
A personal project for Garcia is to better protect victims of domestic violence. A close friend of his, says Garcia, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend despite a restraining order being in place. He suggests some kind of tracking device might be necessary in certain instances.
Peter Basso – Hudson County Progressive Democrats
Peter Basso, an attorney and president of the Washington Parks Association, says when he first considered running to be one of the two Assembly reps for the 33rd District, he tried going the prescribed route.
In his position as head of the WPA, a nonprofit organization responsible for ensuring the aesthetic, educational and sustainable qualities of Washington Park, Basso has worked closely with State Sen. Brian Stack.
“I presented myself to him as an option for Assembly, knowing he was the inside favorite,” says Basso. But when Stack went in a different direction, Basso decided he wasn't “going to wait around and be anointed. It's important for voters have a meaningful choice at the ballot box.”
Indeed, Basso points to Fulop's successes when he says the party is moving in a different direction, and that qualified candidates can strike out on their own. But first there needs to be some attention given to the under-publicized race.
“This race is getting its long overdue face time,” says Basso, who called it “unfortunate” but “understandable” that the Jersey City mayoral and council races “overshadowed things.”
“It shows how much of an afterthought state elections are, at least in these parts,” he adds.
Unlike his competitors in the HCDO, Basso has fewer kind of things to say about Christie. Sure, he'd like a beer with the guy, he says, but that shouldn't distract from the state's drasic shortcomings.
“The Governor is tremendously popular and he'll be a great presidential nominee in 2016,” says Basso of the often-discussed possibility of Christie being the Republican nomniee in four years. “But at the same time, we have the seventh highest unemployment rate in the nation.”
Basso further says Christie “short changes Jersey City schools by $30 million over the last few years by not fully funding us.” While Basso says the city is getting the full amount of “what we're entitled, that doesn't catch us up” on what the state owes the district.
“Unfortunately it's typical for Democrats to support Christie,” he says, calling this either “political expediency or real cowardice.” Which is why he says likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono has “having a lot of guts” in a race that will force her to give up her seat in the legislature to fight an “uphill” battle.
Describing the area as primarily a “middle-class district with working families,” Basso says the services provided do not match the high taxes. “I'm here to make sure whoever is Governor next year, when we put together the state budget it reflects middle class and working family priorities, including making sure we make sure we go forward making health care exchanges with Obamacare and fully funding public schools.”
“Taxes should not be bala nced on the backs of the working class,” he says.
That means making it a priority to “figure out what assets we have” as a District, including evaluating best uses for unused land and taking advantage of the “historically low borrowing rates.” Christie, he points out, “nixed the ARC tunnel” that would have ran under the Hudson River, creating “a ton more jobs.”
“There were legitimate concerns over that project, but that's no excuse to do nothing,” he says. “I think we can put people back to work.”
Basso's legal work ranges from working for New York City firms defending worker rights to defending rights of the LGBT community as a former legal assistant for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston.
Anthony Mills – Democrats For Change
Anthony Mills is running as a Democrat For Change because in Hudson County, “politicians are anointed.”
“We dropped the word “political,” they're now just known as 'the Machine,'” says Mills, the Chief Information Officer for the Allen Group, a marketing and communications organization.
The politicians associated with the machine, he says, always vote along party lines and are often distant from residents' concerns. And like so many other candidates tired of waiting around for change, Mills said, “If somebody should change things, why shouldn't I do it?”
From these populists concerns came the most populist of approaches – Mills says he is not accepting any money in his bid for office. Rather, anyone interested in supporting him have been directed instead to give to charities, such as those researching multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
Another of the charities, he says, is one aiding “disenfranchised” kids, many of whom live in foster homes or wind up juvenile detention. In fact, Mills says he “grew up on welfare with a single mother, living in Section 8 Housing and on food stamps,” so he's in a better position than most to understand how important it is to ensure the future of the least well-off.
But in his successful stints in the business world, he says he's “occupied the vast majority of economic strata” and he can “understand there are flaws in the system.”
“It's designed to keep people on the [welfare] system rather than you get off the system,” he says. Still, he says he believes in the importance of social safety nets.
What he doesn't believe in is what he describes as the “over-regulation” New Jersey imposes on businesses. This, he says, makes the state less competitive and results in jobs going elsewhere.
Indeed, when Hudson County used tax incentives to lure Goya Foods to Jersey City, it took the warehouse away from Bethpage, Long Island, beating out a competing bid from Pennsylvania in the process. While the number of jobs added to the New Jersey economy is unclear – as is the use of tax incentives to develop in Jersey City – it is indicative of the challenges facing companies in the United States. No longer does the country just compete with other countries, where worker and environmental regulations are lax, but also between states offering the lowest taxes.
But Mills argues that's simply the better business model. A state can look for additional revenue from their businesses, but instead drive that business away. There go jobs, he says, and the “rippling effect” of having employed people spending dollars in New Jersey goes away as well. “People think of a corporation as a nebulous thing, but it's made up of people with jobs,” he says.
If Mills' Democratic credentials are challenged, he's fine with that, saying he's more or less dead center, with views split between the parties. Not one to tow the party line, he argues that makes his challenge “almost insurmountable” when the area's political organization is determining who will appear on their ballot. That being said, “I can't say I ever considered trying to join the machine.”
The point, he says, is not to win but to change the discourse of politics. “Get the money out, impose term limits,” he says of two facets of elections that he argues “ensure people vote the party line.”
In fact, Mills says he'll only begin putting up fliers, making calls and knocking on doors in the near future – and with the primary June 4, that leaves very little time to make a dent.
An avid motorcyclist, Mills will be taking an alternative approach to drumming up attention: a 500 mile motorcycle trek around the 20-square miles that comprise the 33rd District.
As for the governor, Mills says he's “done a very good job,” even if he doesn't agree with every decision he's made. “He's had to make some unpopular decisions, but he's doing so to combat problems that have existed since before he came into office.” One decision he doesn't like was cutting police pensions, but they're decisions he understands, he says. “There's not an unlimited trough of money.”
John Hilt IV – Democrats for change
Like his bracket-mate, John Hilt IV says he's tired of what he describes as the constant voting along political lines.
What is needed instead is someone who will “take a level-headed approach with nothing to gain except an interest in giving back to the community.” That, he says, is why he and Mills joined together to take on the politics that have come to dominate the 33rd District.
“Politics is new to me,” says Hilt, an engineer by trade who works in a New York City firm, where he designs infrastructure for buildings.
Hilt, like Mills, is not taking any money. “I have not received one dollar outside of from myself,” he says.
The two say they met on a Facebook group that was dedicated to changing how candidates run, and were briefly joined by someone looking to challenge likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, but that candidate dropped out.
“We're here as independent options to show people who have enough with the party after what they've put up with year after year,” he says. “We have to make a greater impact, it's been too much of an old boy's club.” That means politics shouldn't be a career but something “done for a few years, and then you get out.”
“Neither Anthony nor I want to go further than Assembly,” he says of their political futures. It means they aren't rising stars in the system with donors flocking to curry favors, he adds. It also means a hurdle in getting out the vote.
That means tapping the people “who wouldn't historically vote,” particularly in Hoboken and Jersey City, he says, arguing the younger working class has been dismayed by politics and turned off to voting.
A supporter of Christie, Hilt says while he considers himself a Democrat, “these lines are more blurry” than in the past. “What it means to be liberal versus conservative is different as compared to 30 years ago.”
Indeed, as a Democrat and firearm advocate, Hilt says he doesn't find as much common ground on the issue as other liberals. Consider Assemblyman Charles Mainor's effort to more closely monitor firearms use, he says, as well legislation that would lessen the number of bullets in a magazine from 15 to 10. These kinds of ideas look good to people who don't anything, but aren't a real deterrent to the problem of firearms falling into the wrong hands.
“I saw the legislation going forward wasn't getting to the root of what was getting behind people committing horrible acts with firearms,” he says.
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