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Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, right, with Assemblyman Gordon Johnson. (Photo: Assembly Majority Office.)

In competitive Senate races, shots become quite dramatic

Rasmussen says ‘early hit’ unlikely to define contests in 2nd and 37th districts

By David Wildstein, March 29 2021 12:05 am

Candidates in two closely-watched races for the New Jersey State Senate are taking shots against opponents that are technically accurate but might be a little sensationalized.

“On their own, neither of these early hits are likely to define any race, but they do sound like attempts to weave a narrative— Atlantic County saw police reform as one of the themes of the Van Drew campaign last year, for example— or in LD37, raising a question as to who is ideologically closer to Loretta Weinberg,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

In the 2nd district, former Assemblyman Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor Township) slammed Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) for voting to limit the presence of law enforcement from being stationed within 100 feet of a polling locations or ballot drop box.

“It’s offensive to hear members of the General Assembly using rhetoric that suggests our police officers are a threat to free and fair elections,” said Polistina, a Republican who is seeking to hold the Atlantic County seat being vacated by retiring State Sen. Christopher Brown (R-Ventnor).  “For Assemblyman Mazzeo to agree with this rhetoric and reinforce it with his vote is a disgrace. “

The legislation was designed to prevent a revival of a situation like the National Ballot Security Task Force, a group of off-duty police and sheriff’s officers who intimidated voters, largely non-white ones, away from the polls in 1981 at the behest of the Republican National Committee.   As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice entered into a consent order with the state that lasted 36 years.

The Assembly State Government Committee, which Mazzeo chairs, approved the measure in a vote along party lines.  The Senate version of the bill passed 21-0, with Brown not taking a position in the issue.

One of the sponsors, Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Trenton) said that “misusing the state’s law enforcement agencies to send messages of intimidation is a partisan ploy to suppress participation in the voting process.

“Residents must always feel safe when going to a polling place and free to cast their ballot.” She stated.

The legislation is unlikely to become a factor in the campaign and could be more of a tactic by Polistina to win the endorsement of the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) in the general election.  In 2019, the state PBA endorsed Assemblyman John Armato (D-Buena Vista) for re-election but not Mazzeo.

In the 37th district Senate race, Valerie Vainieri Huttle has accused Democratic primary rival Gordon Johnson of pandering to gun rights advocates eight years ago when he told the New Jersey Second Amendment Society that Weinberg was “more liberal than I am” on gun control issues.

“Johnson’s hypocrisy and pandering are only made worse by recent tragic events as we witnessed horrific shootings in Atlanta and Boulder,” Vainieri Huttle said.  “The gun lobby relies on elected officials like Johnson who pay lip service to gun safety but also wink to the gun lobby that they don’t really care.”

The Vainieri Huttle campaign questioned why Johnson participated in the even at all.

Still, Johnson has a 0% rating from the National Rifle Association as an assemblyman – the same as Vainieri Huttle – and received an F grade from the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs.  Leap Forward, a gun safety advocacy group, gave Johnson a 100% rating.

“This is especially early for LD2, where voting is more than a half year away, and likely an indication of how much of the cycle’s oxygen this race will take up,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a bit of a different story in the June race for LD37, where the two former running mates are trying to draw any contrast they can.”

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