The looming primary fight for Loretta Weinberg’s State Senate seat in Bergen County won’t affect whether Democrats win the general election – Joe Biden carried the district by 36 points – but the upcoming brawl between two Assembly incumbents puts a multitude of Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, in a tough position.
Valerie Vainieri Huttle, 64, opted for a venue change this week, eschewing a contest with 71-year-old Gordon Johnson at the March 15 Democratic convention and replacing it with an off the line June 8 Democratic primary. Johnson had secured enough votes to block any path for Vainieri Huttle to win the organization line. Instead, she walked away from a safe Assembly seat to take a shot at the Senate.
With that comes a four-way contest for two State Assembly seats – the first time both seats opened up since 1971. Palisades Park Mayor Christopher Chung and Teaneck Democratic Municipal Chair Alexandria Soriano-Taveras are unopposed for the Democratic organization line. Teaneck Councilwoman Gervonn Romney Rice and Tenafly Council President Lauren Kohn Dayton are running with Vainieri Huttle.
Here are the answers to some questions the New Jersey Globe has fielded from readers over the last few days.
How does the race affect Gov. Phil Murphy? Gordon Johnson was the first elected official in the state to endorse Murphy for governor back in 2016, when he was viewed as the number three candidate in the race with Bergen Democrats – including Vainieri Huttle – leaning toward an endorsement of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. Murphy’s refusal to take sides, at least so far, leaves Bergen County Democrats angry that he’s not supporting the line he’s heading. It also leaves some Johnson backers disappointed that the governor isn’t repaying his debt to an early supporter – and that Murphy is breathing life into Vainieri Huttle’s candidacy. Murphy’s political consultants, Brad Lawrence and Steve DeMicco, are working for Vainieri Huttle.
Why did Johnson get the line? It’s important to remember that Johnson is well-liked among Bergen Democrats. He’s paid his dues. Weinberg has been over 80 for the last six years and her retirement wasn’t exactly a shocker. While Vainieri Huttle was focusing on legislation – not that there’ anything wrong with that — Johnson was building close relationships with Democratic officeholders and county committee members. He’s been showing up at party and community events on nights and weekends for 20 years – sometimes the last one to leave. He’s backed winners in some key races – like Michael Wildes in the 2018 Englewood mayoral primary. And while Vainieri Huttle can rightfully claim to be the most progressive candidate in the race, it’s not like Johnson hasn’t compiled a solidly liberal voting record in the legislature.
Who gets more votes? Some people think that’s important – and it’s the only real metric — so here it is: in seven primaries where Johnson and Vainieri Huttle were running mates, both on the organization line, Johnson was the top vote-getter six times. In 2009, Huttle Vainieri outpolled Johnson by 10 votes. Still, the numbers are not lopsided. Johnson received 151 more votes than Vainieri Huttle in 2019, 268 more in 2017, 69 more in 2015, 175 more in 2013, 141 more in 2011, and 177 more in 2007.
Who’s got the bigger warchest? As of January, the most recent filings with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, neither is flush with cash. Huttle had $50,264 in the bank and raised $13,258 last year. Johnson had $17,455 cash-on-hand after raising $37,404 in 2020. Johnson had ten relatively easy primaries and generals, while Huttle had seven, but neither was able to put away money for a rainy day – again, even though they both knew Weinberg was mulling retirement.
What about those glass ceilings Vainieri Huttle is talking about? They’re going to get broken either way. It’s not like Vainieri Huttle is getting tossed aside for another white male. If Johnson wins, he’ll be the first Black senator from Bergen County. Chung would be the first Asian American legislator from Bergen, and Soriano-Taveras would be the second Latina to from Bergen to serve in the Assembly and the first since Marlene Caride left to join Murphy’s cabinet in 2018. Rice would be the first Black woman to represent Bergen in the legislature. Johnson was only the second Black assemblyman from Bergen. The first was Arnold Brown (D-Englewood), who served from 1966 to 1968; Wildes named the 89-year-old Brown to the Englewood Zoning Board this week.
Besides Murphy, who else is a stakeholder? Start with the gripers and complainers – the ones who like to grumble about party bosses and organization lines. It would have been easier for them to simply endorse Vainieri Huttle and then bash a rigged system after she lost the party convention. Now they need to step up. That means actually raising big money and putting boots on the ground. The Communications Workers of America know how to do this, but there isn’t any evidence that others in the Vainieri Huttle coalition can do the same. Garden State Equality is a perfect example. Vainieri Huttle has been an unrivaled champion of LGBTQ issues, but if the group can’t come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost her Senate bid, it will be fair to question their real political clout in the post-Steven Goldstein era.
Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano faces his first split since he took office in 2019. That makes Johnson a must-win for him and the organization line, and Juliano will need to make sure his candidate is well-funded enough to win a contested primary.
To obviate being placed in Ballot Siberia, Vainieri Huttle will need to fill out her slate with a candidate for county clerk, sheriff or freeholder. That means, at the least, that John Hogan, Anthony Cureton, Tracy Zur or Steve Tanelli will draw a primary challenge as well.
What about Steve Sweeney? He hasn’t played in role in the 37th district so far. Weinberg has been one of the Senate President’s staunchest allies in the Senate for the last dozen years and he won’t necessarily have that with either Johnson or Huttle. Sweeney forged enough of a relationship with Juliano to secure endorsements from Bergen Senators for another term as Senate President, but it will be up to him to figure out how to get along with Weinberg’s replacement.
Is Vainieri Huttle the victim of gender discrimination? Not really. While the door has been closed to some women in Bergen County over the years, it never really has for Vainieri Huttle. This is her 12th bid for public office and she had the organization line in every primary she’s run in – starting with a 1997 bid for State Senate in the old 38th district, when she lived in Cliffside Park. Democrats picked Vainieri Huttle to run against GOP freeholder incumbents in 2000, and when she ran for re-election in 2003. She won a special election convention for Assembly in 2005 with 55% of the vote – a solid showing in a boss-driven, insider election. Growing up in a Hudson County political family – her father was a North Bergen commissioner and assemblyman – Vainieri Huttle knew her way around party organizations. Her husband, a partner at a politically influential law firm, had the organization line when he ran for mayor of Englewood in 2009.
Does the Bergen County Democratic line always prevail? Pretty much, yes. The last major off the line win was in 1976, when Assemblyman Byron Baer (D-Englewood) just narrowly carried Bergen County in a congressional primary challenge to Rep. Henry Helstoski (D-East Rutherford).
In the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary, the organization line delivered Murphy a 2,590-vote plurality, 47%, in the thirteen municipalities in the 37th legislative district against Jim Johnson (28%), John Wisniewski (19%), Raymond Lesniak (2%), Mark Zinna (2%) and Bill Brennan (2%). He carried every town but Rockleigh, which Wisniewski won by two votes.
In 2012, the Bergen line held for Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Englewood), who won 73% in his primary against Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson). While New Jersey Democrats largely went for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primaries, Rothman endorsed Barack Obama. But when redistricting forced a Rothman vs. Pascrell primary, Obama never returned the favor. All Rothman got was a photo opportunity of a walk with the President in the Rose Garden; the Clinton’s were all-in for Pascrell, making appearances and raising him money.
Baer ran for the 37th district Senate seat in 1993 following the retirement of State Sen. Matthew Feldman (D-Teaneck) and faced a primary from Englewood Mayor Donald Aronson. Baer had the line, and despite Aronson’s fundraising prowess, he won the Democratic primary by 2,131 votes, 60%-40%.
When Paul Contillo (D-Paramus), a former assemblyman, ran for State Senate in 1983, the line gave him a 49%-35% win over former State Sen. John Skevin (D-Oradell) in a four-candidate race. In 1993, Contillo sought a comeback for the 38th district Senate seat he’d held for eight years before losing in the 1991 anti-Jim Florio Republican landslide. The line went to Garfield Mayor James Krone, who won the primary with 58%.