New Jersey’s 17th legislative district has been occupied by just Democrats since the state first adopted a 40-district map in 1973. It’s one of eight districts that Republicans have never won.
The New Brunswick-based district has 61,309 Democrats, 15,526 Republicans and 58,633 unaffiliated voters. It backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by a 37-point margin.
New Brunswick and Piscataway, the anchors of the current 17th, haven’t sent Republicans to the New Jersey Legislature since 1971. The GOP won Assembly seats in 1967 and 1969, and by 1971 only Peter Garibadli (R-Monroe) remained. He was gone in 1973.
When the 17th was drawn in 1973, it included New Brunswick, Piscataway, Dunellen, Highland Park, Middlesex Borough, South Plainfield in Middlesex County and Franklin and Manville in Somerset.
The Senator was John A. Lynch (D-New Brunswick), who had first been elected in 1955 after serving as mayor of New Brunswick and Middlesex County Prosecutor. The Assemblyman was William Hamilton (D-New Brunswick), who had unseated two-term Republican Bob Haelig (R-Middlesex) by just 532 votes in in 1971.
For the second Assembly seat, Democrats picked Joseph Patero, who was serving his second term as mayor of Manville.
Haelig had won the Republican primary to challenge Lynch, but he dropped out after spending most of the summer feuding with the Middlesex Republicans. Lynch beat the replacement candidate, former Piscataway school board member Dominic Ciardi, with 71% of the vote.
Hamilton and Patero won by a 2-1 margin. One of the Republican was former Franklin mayor Bruce Williams, who later won acclaim as a New York radio personality.
Hamilton became Assembly Speaker in 1977.
Lynch, who had been battling cancer, stepped down in 1977 and Hamilton moved up to the Senate. The open Assembly seat went to David Schwartz, a Highland Park councilman and Rutgers political science professor.
In the general election, Schwartz defeated attorney Jeffrey Brindle, now the executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, by 5,758 votes.
Middlesex County Democrats dumped Schwartz from their organization line in 1979 and replaced him with Piscataway mayor Ted Light. Schwartz ran off the line and beat Light by 1,904 votes. Patero led Light by just 196 votes.
Running fourth in that primary was Steve DeMicco, the executive director of the New Jersey Public Interest Group (PIRG). DeMicco finished 1,066 votes behind Patero. Later that year, Hamilton hired him as his staff director; he later went on to work as a Democratic political consultant.
Hamilton left the Senate to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 1981. He finished eighth in a field of thirteen candidates with 3% of the statewide vote. He won Middlesex County.
The new Senator from the 17th was John Lynch, the mayor of New Brunswick and the son of the former Senate President. He defeated Republican Donald Douglas with 61% of the vote.
The map was redrawn for the 1981 elections and the Somerset County portion of the district was replaced by Plainfield in Passaic County. Patero was now in the Mercer/Middlesex-based 14th district and Democrats picked Plainfield city councilwoman Angela Perun to fill the second Assembly seat.
Perun defeated Light in the Democratic primary by 1,899 votes.
In 1985, Middlesex County Democrats declined to support Perun for re-election to a third term and put Piscataway mayor Bob Smith on the organization line.
Perun switched parties and sought re-election as a Republican. With popular Gov. Tom Kean heading the ticket, Perun can within 452 votes of defeating Smith.
Lynch became Senate President in 1990 and presided over the Senate during Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase.
Sensing voter outrage over the tax increases – U.S. Senator Bill Bradley nearly lost in 1990 and Republicans won a special election for a State Assembly seat in Paterson – Lynch pushed legislation that would change the Quality Education Act that forced school districts to use extra funding to cut property taxes instead of expanding their programs.
That caused the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) to support – and finance — Republican Ed Tiller for Senate against Lynch in 1991. Lynch won by narrow 1,335 votes (52%-48%) – the closest race of his career.
Schwartz retired from the Assembly in 1991 and Democrats replaced him with Union County freeholder Jerry Green, the Plainfield Democratic municipal chairman.
Lynch held his seat in a 1993 rematch with Tillerby 9,825 votes (57%-23%), and won his sixth term in 1997 13,061 votes (68%).