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A primer on party switchers in the New Jersey Legislature

Last eight lawmakers to switch parties lost re-election

By David Wildstein, February 12 2023 8:24 pm

Party switches in the New Jersey Legislature are rare, and when it does happen, the incumbent historically finds themselves on the losing end of a re-election campaign.

But that doesn’t appear to deter the political ambitions of 87-year-old State Sen. Samuel Thompson, a pro-life, pro-gun former Middlesex County GOP chairman who was a Donald Trump delegate in 2016 and 2020, who is expected to announce tomorrow that he will skip a Republican primary against Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry and seek a fifth term as a Democrat.

Thompson will be the first New Jersey legislator to switch parties since Dawn Addiego switched parties in early 2019 and lost her seat by a 52%-48% margin as Democrat.

Raymond Zane switched from Democrat to Republican in 2001 after losing party support for re-election to the seat he had held with little electoral trouble since 1973.  He lost his bid for re-election to a 9th term by 1,735 votes, 51.5%-47.5%, against Gloucester County Freeholder Steve Sweeney.

Other party switchers:

* Angela Perun was a two-term assemblywoman from Plainfield who switched parties after Middlesex County Democrats dropped her from their organization line and replaced her with Piscataway Mayor (now State Senator) Bob Smith.  Boosted by Gov. Tom Kean’s landslide re-election, Perun came within 442 votes of beating Smith in 1985.

* Jorge Rod, a two-term Republican from Ocean County, lost the backing of the county GOP organization in 1985.  He switched parties and sought re-election as a Democrat but lost to Jeff Moran by 15,561 votes.

* Matthew Ahearn ousted longtime Republican Assemblyman Nicholas Felice (R-Fair Lawn) by 667 votes in 2001 but lost the backing of Bergen County Democratic chairman Joseph Ferriero for a second term.  He switched to the Green Party and won just 5% of the vote in 2003.  Ahearn remains the last independent to serve in the New Jersey Legislature.

* Rafael Fraguela, then a Union City commissioner, won a State Assembly seat on a ticket with Albio Sires (D-West New York) in 2001.   The incumbent, Rudy Garcia, had been taken out as Union City mayor the year before and was stripped of party support in his bid to keep his Assembly seat; Fraguela had sided with Bob Menendez, Brian Stack and Donald Scarinci in the Union City battle.  After a falling out with the Union City Democratic leadership, Stack replaced Fraguela as Speaker Sires’ running mate.

Fraguela switched parties and ran for State Senate against incumbent Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken).  He won just 19% of the vote.

* Arline Friscia was elected to the Assembly as a Democrat in 1995; she and John Wisniewski ousted two-term Republican incumbents Stephen Mikulak (R-Woodbridge) and Ernest Oros (R-Woodbridge) by more than 5,000 votes.  Middlesex County Democrats dumped Friscia from their line in 2003 to make room for Perth Amboy mayor Joe Vas.  Vas beat Friscia in the Democratic primary by 735 votes.

Friscia switched parties in August.   Democrats went to court and challenged her right to run as a Republican after losing the Democratic primary, but a Superior Court judge ruled that she could.  That led to the eventual passage of a sore-loser law. Republican Assembly candidate Robert Mauro withdrew from the race, and Friscia became the GOP nominee.

In the general, Vas defeated Friscia by 3,197 votes.

* Francis Bodine, a 71-year-old seven-term assemblyman, lost the support of the Burlington County Republican organization for re-election in 2007.  He switched parties and became the Democratic candidate for State Senate, winning 39% against Republican Phil Haines.

Other legislators switched parties after an interruption in their legislative careers.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Nutley) was a Republican assemblyman from Newark from 1968 to 1972.  He later became a Democrat and won a seat on the Essex County Board of Freeholders in 2002.  He returned to the Assembly as a Democrat in 2007.

Assemblyman Anthony Imperiale was elected to the Assembly as an independent in 1971 and to the State Senate as an independent in 1973.  He lost re-election in 1977 and returned to the Legislature as a Republican assemblyman in 1979.  Imperiale is the only independent to win races for the New Jersey Legislature since before the Civil War.

But Jeff Van Drew easily won re-election to Congress in New Jersey’s 2nd district after switching parties in 2019.  He spent more than 20 years as a Democratic legislator, Cape May freeholder and Dennis mayor and township committeeman.

Last week, all five Democrats on the East Hanover governing body, including Mayor Joseph Pannullo and four council members, switched parties.

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