AJ Stewart, who ran State Sen. Joseph Cryan’s landslide re-election campaign in the 20th legislative district earlier this year, is headed to the Bergen County-based 39th as campaign manager in a bid to flip a daunting Republican district.
Democrats haven’t won the 39th since 1977 and spent some money trying to flip legislative seats in 2017 and 2019 but without success.
Still, the district has become potentially more competitive in recent years.
There are 2,104 more Democrats than Republicans in the 39th, and Joe Biden carried it by 6,280 votes, 52%-47%, against Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Gov. Phil Murphy lost the 39th by four points and a 2,341-vote plurality four years ago.
Democrats have picked Ruth Dugan, a former Saddle River school board president, to run for State Senate against incumbent Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale). Schepisi spent nearly a decade in the Assembly and went to the Senate in March following the death of twelve-term State Sen. Gerald Cardinale.
“With a proven record of success in competitive campaigns across the Garden State, AJ is one of the most well-respected operatives in New Jersey politics today,” Dugan said. “Equipped with an intimate understanding of our community’s most pressing issues as a native of Dumont, I am confident in AJ’s ability to oversee our rapidly growing campaign and help us bring a fresh perspective to Trenton,”
Running for the Assembly Demarest Mayor Melinda Iannuzzi and Karlito Almeda, a 25-year-old deputy legislative director to Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.
Iannuzzi became the first woman mayor of Demarest when she unseated GOP incumbent Ray Cywinski in 2018. Almeda worked for Rep. Bill Pascrell and made a strong bid for councilman in Mahwah five years ago while still a student at Ramapo College
Iannuzzi and Almeda will take on incumbents Bob Auth (R-Old Tappan) and DeAnne DeFuccio (R-Upper Saddle River). DeFuccio won Schepisi’s Assembly seat in April.
Cardinale won his final term by 4,121 votes, 53%-47%, in 2017. Schepisi and Auth, targeted by then-Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto in a bid to add votes to hold his leadership post – he was ultimately replaced by Craig Coughlin – won by around 5,000 votes.
Democrats played again in the 39th two years ago, but Schepisi and Auth won massive re-election victories against Westwood Mayor John Birkner, Jr. and Emerson Councilman Gerald Falotico.
Dugan is the wife of James P. Dugan, a legendary 1970s Bayonne politician who spent six years in the State Senate – four of them as chairman of the Judiciary Committee – and was Democratic State Chairman during the first four years of Brendan Byrne’s governorship.
She served as chair of the Bayonne Medical Center at a time when the local hospital was on the brink of bankruptcy, and has been involved in multiple community organizations.
DeFuccio’s grandfather, William F. Kelly, served in the State Senate with James P. Dugan from 1972 to 1974.
Stewart had worked as operations director for the Middlesex County Democrats and for Parano and Associates, a leading New Jersey political consulting firm specializing in field operations and data.
Cryan won the Democratic primary by a 62%-34% margin against Assemblyman Jamel Holley. With no Republican opponent in one of the state’s most Demcoratic districts, Cryan is assured of a second term in the Senate.
“Given each of our candidate’s experiences bringing people together and solving problems, I am certain that our Team 39 slate is the best choice to represent this district,” Stewart said. “I’m excited to be a part of a campaign that will usher in a new day in District 39.”
Democrats won the Senate seat and two Assembly seats in the 39th in the 1973 Watergate landslide, lost an Assembly seat in 1975 and reclaimed it in 1977. Cardinale and John Markert flipped the two Assembly seats in 1979 and Cardinale ousted State Sen. Frank X. Herbert in 1981.