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Former State Sen. Raymond Lesniak. (Photo: Rutgers-Newark.)

Lesniak won’t rule out congressional race vs. Kean

Ex-state senator and N.J. Democratic state chairman keeps door open, especially if Kean doesn’t stand up to ‘Republican wackos’ on Ukraine

By David Wildstein, February 21 2023 10:54 am

Former State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) is giving some thought to challenging freshman Rep. Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) in New Jersey’s 7th district next year.

“What keeps me going are causes that I strive for,” Lesniak told the New Jersey Globe.  “I have not ruled it out.”

A former Democratic State Chairman, the 76-year-old Lesniak served in the state legislature for 40 years before giving up his seat to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2017.

Today, Lesniak issued a statement calling on Kean to stand up to House Republicans who are opposing aid to Ukraine.

“Separate yourself from Republican wackos and call out these fringe politicians and make a mark for yourself as the reasonable and responsible person I know,” he said.  “Your dad would be proud.”

Lesniak took issue with a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) that seeks to end U.S. financial and military aid to the war-torn nation.

“How about Putin fatigue?” asked Lesniak, who said his grandparents were born in Poland, near the Ukraine border.   “Without help for Ukraine from the United States, Communism would soon again rule over Poland.

As the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Kean has a responsibility to speak out against Gaetz’s proposal, Lesniak said.

“Silence by his fellow Republicans is unacceptable,” said Lesniak.  “I know Congressman Tom Kean, Jr. is better than that.”

But if Kean does nothing when it comes to standing up to Congress’ far-right, Lesniak said he might have to “run myself.”

When Kean was named subcommittee chairman earlier this month, he promised to “prioritize continuing to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom against Russia, as we work with our NATO allies to ensure the security of the transatlantic community.”

“America and our European allies and partners can achieve great economic and diplomatic successes when we work together,” Kean said.

Lesniak does not live in the 7th district, but carpetbagger issues have not resonated with New Jersey voters in recent elections.  He had represented parts of the district during his time in the legislature.

Since leaving the Senate more than five years ago, Lesniak has served as president of The Lesniak Institute for American Leadership at Kean University.   A U.S. Army veteran, Lesniak was elected to the State Assembly in 1977 and moved to the Senate in a 1983 special election.   He was New Jersey campaign chairman for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Kean and Lesniak served in the Senate together for more than 14 years, representing different parts of Union County.

In 2022, Kean defeated two-term Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) by 8,691 votes, 51%-47%.

In a district that Joe Biden carried by four points in 2020, national Democrats quickly listed the 7th as one of their top targets, and the non-partisan Cook Political Report has already put Kean in the toss-up column.

Three months after the certification of the last election, Democrats have not yet identified an opponent to Kean.  It’s still early – Malinowski, an Assistant U.S. Secretary of State in the Obama administration – did not make his decision to challenge five-term Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township) until the summer of 2017.

Malinowski has not announced his future plans, which could include another run for Congress next year.   Sue Altman, the director of New Jersey Working Families, has also not said if she will enter the race.

Former Deputy U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson, and Matt Klapper, the chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Cory Booker, were included on a New Jersey Globe list of potential candidates posted the day after the 2022 election but will not seek to take on Kean.

Septuagenarian candidates seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time are rare, but there have been exceptions.   Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala was 78 when she won a Florida congressional seat.   The newly-elected U.S. Senator from Vermont, Peter Welch, is 75; he replaced Patrick Leahy, who retired at age 82 after 48 years in the Senate.

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