Just over a year after they unexpectedly lost two Assembly seats in the 11th legislative district, Monmouth County Democrats are eager to try and take them back, with five candidates running for the two seats – among them one of the two legislators who lost in 2021.
Former Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Neptune) is aiming for a comeback bid, and he’s joined in the Democratic field by Ocean Township Councilwoman Margie Donlon, former Garden State Equality board chair Luanne Peterpaul, Colts Neck Democratic municipal chair Alison De Noia, and restaurateur Arthur Schlossbach.
Whoever ultimately prevails will join a ticket headed by State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch), who is officially launching his re-election campaign this evening. The 11th district is the only district in the state to send a split delegation to Trenton, and both parties will be heavily invested in winning this year.
Houghtaling was the chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee before he narrowly lost re-election in 2021, six years after he had flipped the district from Republicans alongside former Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Freehold). (Downey has since become a judge on the Workers’ Compensation Court.)
But despite his legislative career, Houghtaling isn’t considered the favorite at the February 4 Democratic county convention. Instead, Donlon and Peterpaul, who are running on a slate together, are more likely to get the county line, which would make them huge favorites to win the Democratic primary.
Donlon has served on the Ocean Township Council since 2019, when she was the top vote-getter in a nonpartisan race for five seats; notably, the slate she ran with was bipartisan. She’s also a physician specializing in pain management, and would be the first female physician to serve in the legislature.
In 2017, Donlon ran for county freeholder, losing in a tight four-way race for two seats. Despite her countywide loss, Donlon and her running mate, now-NJ Transit general counsel Brian Wilton, collectively won the new 11th district 55%-45%.
Peterpaul hasn’t held elected office before, but she’s worked in various levels of government and advocacy for decades. In addition to serving as chair of the Garden State Equality board, she is a former prosecutor and was until recently a municipal judge in Long Branch and Asbury Park.
If elected, Peterpaul would be the first openly gay woman to serve in the legislature – ever. (Former Assemblywoman Hazel Gluck only came out long after she had left the Assembly.) She’d also be the first openly gay Democrat to serve since 2018; the lone LGBT legislator at the moment, Assemblyman Don Guardian (R-Atlantic City), is a Republican.
De Noia and Schlossbach are less prominent than their three opponents, and some Monmouth Democrats are nudging them towards a county commissioner campaign instead.
De Noia leads the local Democratic Party in Colts Neck – a thankless job in the deep-red town – and serves on the Colts Neck school board. She’s also married to Matt Jenkins, the Democratic congressional nominee who lost to Rep. Chris Smith (R-Manchester) last year in a landslide.
Schlossbach, meanwhile, is the CEO of EatUSA and has owned a number of restaurants. He’s been involved in politics before; he ran for Asbury Park City Council in 2020, and assisted Houghtaling and Downey’s Assembly campaign in 2019.
Whoever ultimately wins the primary will be in for a tough fight against Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno (R-Colts Neck) and Kim Eulner (R-Shrewsbury), who unseated Houghtaling and Downey. (Republicans have yet to sort out their slate, so it’s also possible either Piperno or Eulner will run for the Senate instead, leaving one Assembly seat open.)
Gopal won 52%-48% points in 2021 even though Gov. Phil Murphy simultaneously lost the 11th district by three points, making him the only Democratic legislator to win a district carried by Jack Ciattarelli. Since then, legislative redistricting made the district around one percentage point bluer – but it’s still likely to be hugely competitive this year.
With that in mind, Donlon and Peterpaul are already messaging for a general election, even though there’s still a convention and potential primary to get through first.
“As we watch the chaos unfold in Washington DC, we see similarities with the two deeply partisan Assemblymembers currently representing the 11th district,” they said in a joint statement. “The residents of Monmouth County deserve representatives who believe in fairness for all and will put our future and families above politics.”
This story was updated at 11:57 a.m. on January 14 with a correction: Schlossbach ran for Asbury Park City Council in 2020, and ran for New York City Council more than a decade ago.