Tuesday is the primary, and in Morris County, this is usually the most important election for state legislative and county races because of the Republican party’s domination.
This year’s decennial redistricting of legislative district boundaries isn’t likely to change that.
The most recent voter registration figures from the New Jersey Secretary of State’s office show that Democrats made only very slight gains in just the 25th and 26th districts, but both remain solidly GOP-leaning. Meanwhile, the 27th District, which only recently was redrawn to include some Morris communities, gained almost 15,000 Republicans while losing 5,000 Democrats—registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans, though.
Since lopsided legislative makeups tend to make for general elections that are not even close, it’s nice when voters have a choice of candidates in the primary.
Being the first election redistricting, voters in more than a third of the districts covering pieces of Morris already will have to choose from unfamiliar faces because their communities were moved into new districts.
Theoretically, that could help the few challengers.
But in the last quarter century, at least at the state level, Morris incumbents have proven unbeatable.
The incumbents are still running under the banner of the “Regular Republican Organization.” For the most part, only the most faithful of the party faithful bother going to the polls, and these voters are more likely to choose for the best-known and best-connected candidates.
The last two Republicans who left state seats did so willingly: former Assemblyman Rick Merkt of the 25th District ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2009, and former Sen. Robert J. Martin of the 26th District retired two years earlier.
This year, the hottest race is for the 25th District senate seat. Sen. Anthony R. Bucco, who has served the last 16 years in the Legislature, is being challenged by Freeholder Director and Wharton Mayor William Chegwidden.
Bucco’s campaign threw the first punch, complaining that Chegwidden is triple-dipping into the state pension system—his day job is public high school teacher. (Chegwidden says that if elected to the senate he would have to resign his two existing elected positions, and teaching is his career.) Chegwidden then called on Bucco to release the details of a 2004 settlement with a former aide who sued him for alleged sexual harassment, saying taxpayer dollars were used in the case. (Bucco says tax dollars only defended the state Senate, which was named as a defendant, and he used his own money for his defense.)
Bucco’s son, Anthony M. Bucco, and fellow Assembly incumbent Michael Patrick Carroll are facing their own challenge, from John G. Sierchio, a Bloomfield police sergeant who, like the younger Bucco, lives in Boonton Twp. Sierchio is being backed by police and fire unions. Carroll, who was first elected with the elder Bucco in 1995 and is probably the most conservative member of the Assembly, was a nominee for a Superior Court judgeship for about a week earlier this year. Anthony M. won his seat in the three-way primary two years ago when Merkt sought higher office. Freeholder Douglas Cabana finished third in that relatively close race.
The Republican primary for a 27th District senate seat should be interesting, with the only Tea Party candidate in the state, William H. Eames, of Whippany. Eames is facing William Sullivan of Essex Fells. Although six Morris towns—Chatham Township, East Hanover, Florham Park, Hanover, Harding and Madison—were shifted east into the 27th, the population in the Essex County section outnumbers that of the Morris section by more than two-to-one, so Sullivan would appear to have the geographic edge.
Voters in Pequannock and Riverdale, who were shifted north into the 40th District, will choose from two full slates in the Assembly contest. None of the candidates are from Morris County. Louis D’Angelo of Totowa and Ernesto Sesso of Woodland Park are challenging incumbents David Russo and Scott Rumana.
Unlike the state seats, which most Morris Republicans shy from challenging, county freeholder primaries often have been free-for-alls. Gov. Chris Christie successfully defeated sitting freeholders to win his seat in the 1990s. Last year, 11 ran for three freeholder seats and two of the three incumbents were outsted. Ann Grossi and Tom Mastrangelo, as well as incumbent Cabana, won.
This year, only Margaret Nordstrom’s seat is up and she is facing just one challenger, William “Hank” Lyon of Towaco.
Democrats in the six Morris towns in the 27th District have the unusual treat of a primary contest. In the past, Morris County’s Democratic party has had trouble fielding full slates in some districts. None of the three Assembly members are from Morris County but there is a contest: Assembly members John McKeon and Mila Jasey are being challenged by Ellen Steinberg of Short Hills.
Given this may be the best chance to have a say in who your state representatives will be, declared voters should make sure to go to the polls on Tuesday.
Sorry, undeclareds, you have to sit this one out.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.