Home>Campaigns>Somerset, Hunterdon and Mercer jockey for open 16th district Assembly seat

Somerset, Hunterdon and Mercer jockey for open 16th district Assembly seat

With one Democratic assemblyman running for State Senate, an Assembly seat in opens up

By David Wildstein, December 04 2020 11:18 am

Possible Democratic State Assembly candidates in the 16th district for 2021 include: top, left to right – Karen Becker, Leticia Fraga, Caitlin Giles-McCormick, Carol Golden and Heather Howard. Bottom, left to right: Andrew Koontz, Laurie Poppe, Marianne Rampulla, Sadaf Jaffer, and Andrew Wied.

Democrats in three counties have begun eyeing a State Assembly seat in the politically competitive 16th district, where at least one Democratic assemblyman will give up his seat to run for the State Senate.

The process of replacing Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) or Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough) sets up a potential fight between Democratic organizations in Somerset, Hunterdon and Mercer counties over the Assembly seat.

Zwicker has told party leaders that he intends to challenge four-term Republican State Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Branchburg) next year.    His running mate, Freiman, is also considering a Senate bid.

It’s unlikely that this fight will result in a primary fight, but it is clear that the 16th district Democrats will need an Assembly candidate to run with the incumbents.

Multiple sources familiar with Democratic politics in this district all give the same story: that Somerset County Democratic Chair Peg Schaffer wants Freiman to run for Senate as a way of giving Somerset senatorial courtesy on gubernatorial appointments.

And either way, Schaffer thinks Somerset should get the open Assembly seat.

That puts her on a possible collision course with Democratic chairs in Hunterdon and Mercer.  Middlesex, which only has South Brunswick in the district, appears content with Zwicker on the ticket and is unlikely to try and grab a second seat.

There’s also some strong sentiment that Democrats ought to run a woman for the Assembly and avoid a three-man slate.

A list of potential candidates compiled by the New Jersey Glove is beginning to take shape.

Among the leading Somerset candidates is Laurie Poppe, a lawyer from Hillsborough who came within 574 votes (50.45% to 49.55%) of ousting Bateman in 2017.

But despite her near Goliath-slating Senate race, Poppe was not among the six Democrats picked to run for freeholder or surrogate in 2018, 2019 or 2020 — perhaps because her interest is serving in the legislature.

Outgoing Montgomery Mayor Sadaf Jaffer is also likely to get some consideration as an Assembly candidate.

Jaffer is the first South Asian woman to serve as a mayor in New Jersey and the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor in the United States.  The 37-year-old rising star got her PhD at Harvard and is now a researcher at the Princeton University.

Other possible Somerset Assembly contenders include: Somerset GOP Vice Chairman Zenon Christodoulou, who has expressed interest in running for office before but has not yet pulled the trigger; and Fred Wied, a Somerville  councilman and Democratic municipal chair.

Three names – all women – have surfaced in Hunterdon: Democratic State Committeewoman Karen Becker; a former Verizon executive and political chair of the New Jersey Sierra Club’s South Highlands group; Marianne Rampulla, a member of the Hunterdon County Board of Elections; and Flemington Councilwoman Caitlin Giles-McCormick.

Princeton, the lone Mercer municipality in the 16th, has a deep bench of potential candidates.

“We are interested in the seat,” Mercer County Democratic Chair Janice Mironov said.  “We have not had extensive discussions regarding sixteen.  We’ll have more to say.”

Mayor Liz Lempert told the New Jersey Globe that she was not interested in running for the legislature next year.

“I’m flattered, but am not running,”

Other potential Mercer candidates include: Freeholder Chair Andrew Koontz, a former Princeton Council President; Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga, the only Latina whose name has been mentioned for the Assembly; Heather Howard, a former state Commissioner of Health and ex-Princeton councilwoman; and Carol Golden, a Princeton community leader who chairs the Mercer County Community College Board of Trustees and serves Housing Initiatives of Princeton.

Golden was in the mix for the 16th district Assembly seat in 2017 before Democrats picked Freiman.

Former state Ratepayer Advocate Seema Singh, who ran for State Senate in 2007 when South Brunswick was in the 14th, had expressed interest in running against Bateman.  There is no indication that she has any support for either Senate or Assembly.

In the 2017 Senate race, 45% of the 16th district votes came out of Somerset, while 26% came from Hunterdon, 16% from Middlesex and 13% from Mercer.

Poppe’s near-victory against Bateman four years ago was fueled by a 79% win in Princeton and 64% in South Brunswick; she came out of the two municipalities ahead by 7,675 votes.  Bateman won Somerset by 3,750 and Hunterdon by 4,499.

When Zwicker pulled off his 78-vote upset win against Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Readington) in 2015, he took Princeton and South Brunswick by 4,142 votes.  Simon took Hunterdon by 2,674 and Somerset by 1,390.

Maureen Vella, who came with 534 votes unseating then-Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Hillsborough) in 2015, is now a municipal court judge and no longer running for office.

Zwicker and Freiman both carried Somerset in 2019 over former Somerset Freeholder Mark Caliguire and former Montgomery Mayor Christine Madrid.

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