Gordon Johnson has secured enough committed votes to win the Democratic organization line for State Senate in Bergen County, according to a New Jersey Globe tally of party leaders in the 37th legislative district.
While the tally shows that Valerie Vainieri Huttle has no real path to win the March 15 convention that will award the line, it does not necessarily mean that she can’t win a June Democratic Senate primary off the line.
Vainieri Huttle has less than two weeks — until February 23 — to decide if she wants to continue her Senate bid or seek re-election to a ninth term in the State Assembly. That’s the deadline to file a letter of intent to compete at the convention. Party rules don’t allow her to seek both offices.
If Vainieri Huttle files for Senate, the convention will pick candidates to run on the organization line for two open Assembly seats.
So far, Palisades Park Mayor Christopher Chung and Teaneck Democratic Municipal Chair Alexandra Soriano-Taveras are seeking one Assembly seat that they anticipate will be vacated by either Johnson or Vainieri Huttle.
Bergen Democrats say that a second open Assembly seat could – and likely will – increase the number of candidates. Some aspirants have been holding back to avoid being seen as stepping over one of the Assembly incumbents running for the Senate.
The process of entering the race in advance of the February 23 filing deadline is not simple.
To get on the convention ballot, candidates must secure 30 signatures, with at least one in each of 5 of the 13 municipalities in the district. That takes some time and skill.
Convention voters include all county committee, elected officials, and party executive committee members from the 37th district. To be clear, no one individual receives more than one vote.
The last time the safe-Democratic eastern Bergen County legislative district had two open Assembly seats was in 1971.
The NJ Globe has conducted more than 60 interviews with Bergen County Democratic leaders and municipal elected officials over the last four weeks.
Johnson and Huttle, both longtime State Assembly members, are seeking the chance to replace Loretta Weinberg in the Senate. Weinberg, the Senate Majority Leader, announced last month that she would not seek re-election after 28 years in the legislature.
Johnson has beaten Vainieri Huttle in the local endorsement game. He’s picked up support from Demcoratic mayors in Englewood, Fort Lee, Hackensack, Leonia, Tenafly, and Palisades Park. He’s also secured support from key Democrats like District 37 Democratic Chairman John Bang and longtime Hackensack Democratic powerhouse Lynne Hurwitz.
Vainieri Huttle has secured endorsements from the Communications Workers of America union, New Jersey Working Families, and Garden State Equality. That support likely more helpful in a primary than at an insider party convention.
She has also won the backing of some local Democrats, including Englewood Democratic Municipal Chairman Phil Meissner.
Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, believes Vainieri Huttle will take her chances with Democratic primary voters.
“By all indications, this is shaping up to be that rarest of things in New Jersey: a primary contest in which two well regarded, popular candidates go up against each other,” Rasmussen. “There’s no sign Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle is back down or dissuaded by the line— it appears she is prepared to run against it.”
Rasmussen acknowledged that line is hard to overcome, but not impossible.
“Although she surely knows there are precious few examples of candidates losing who are on the line, she seems to be ready to take the contest directly to the registered Democrats of the 37th district,” he said.
Weinberg won her Senate seat in a 2005 special election convention that was ultimately decided by just one vote.
Her predecessor, Byron Baer, spent 22 years as an assemblyman before six-term State Sen. Matthew Feldman retired in 1993. Baer won the organization line, but still faced a primary challenge. He defeated Englewood Mayor Donald Aronson by 2,131 votes, 60%-40%.
Vainieri Huttle has the backing of Baer’s widow, former Bergen County Freeholder Linda Pollit Baer.