Two Democratic candidates in the 8th district are facing challenges to their nominating petitions brought by Hudson County Democratic chair Amy DeGise, a sign that the Hudson Democratic organization is willing to wage a significant fight to protect its chosen candidate, Port Authority Commissioner Robert J. Menendez.
Entrepreneur Brian Varela submitted 589 signatures when he filed his candidacy last week and Seton Hall election law professor Eugene Mazo submitted 221, both above the 200-signature threshold for ballot access.
But Steven Kleinman, the election lawyer representing DeGise, is arguing that both candidates submitted a sufficient number of invalid signatures to knock them off the ballot.
Neither challenge has yet been resolved; due to the sheer volume of signatures, the Varela challenge is still ongoing after beginning at 9:30 a.m., while the challenge to Mazo’s candidacy was rescheduled for tomorrow. By 6:30 p.m., over 225 of Varela’s signatures had been invalidated. Varela is represented by Flavio Komuves, a leading election lawyer on the progressive side.
While the challenges were technically brought by the Hudson Democratic Organization and not the Menendez campaign, the links are not hard to draw.
Menendez was endorsed by the Hudson Democratic Party just days after news broke of Rep. Albio Sires (D-West New York)’s retirement, and his father, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), is one of the most powerful politicians to ever come out of Hudson County. The younger Menendez, who has never held elected office himself, has faced criticism for the apparent ease of his path to Congress.
The Menendez campaign declined to comment for this article.
The choice to challenge Varela and Mazo is also an interesting one from a strategic perspective.
If both are successfully booted from the ballot, Menendez will still face two challengers, healthcare startup director David Ocampo Grajales and Amistad Commission member Ane Roseborough-Eberhard – and in most cases, it’s easier to win as an upstart challenger if there are fewer other challengers to contend with.
With Varela and Mazo potentially eliminated, Ocampo Grajales and Roseborough-Eberhard would have an easier time convincing voters and donors that they’re the best anti-Menendez candidate in the race.
The elder Menendez used a similar tactic four years ago when he sought re-election to the U.S. Senate. Democrats worked to push some primary opponents like Michael Starr-Hopkins and Mitchell Horn out of the race, leaving just a single shadowy fringe candidate, Lisa McCormick, as the beneficiary of all anti-incumbent votes.