When Gov. Phil Murphy visited Westfield in June to talk gun safety days after a man was arrested in the parking lot of a local school holding a .45-caliber handgun with an arsenal of hollow-point bullets, Democratic Assembly candidate Stacey Gunderman was a no-show.
The missed opportunity to stand with the governor in contrast to Republican incumbents with strong ratings from the National Rifle Association is one example cited by some Democrats worried that Gunderman is not yet ready for prime-time as she seeks to oust Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) and Nancy Munoz (R-Summit) in the politically competitive 21st district.
Gunderman appears to be struggling as a first-time candidate.
Sources say that she has blown off door-to-door canvassing and scheduled call time for fundraising. Gunderman is having trouble raising money on her own — – she raised just $13,165 in her individual account — yet has had blowups over fundraisers being scheduled for just her running mate, Lisa Mandelblatt.
It seems that Gunderman doesn’t like it when campaign events happen without her, yet her candidacy appears to be hampered by her lack of daytime availability.
She works as a sales associate at Lantern Hill, a senior independent housing community in New Providence. Her employer, Maryland-based Erickson Living, has asked that she keep her political activities out of the workplace, limiting her ability to take or make calls or attend events until after 5 PM or on weekends.
What seems to be concerning some Democrats is that Gunderman is not using the time available to her for campaigning effectively. She recently used social media to post a photo of her family attending a minor league baseball game taken while her running mate was going door-to-door.
In a state where friction between Assembly running mates is the norm, Gunderman risks becoming estranged with Mandelblatt, who is campaigning at a frenetic pace and is essentially funding Gunderman’s campaign as well as her own.
This weekend, Gunderman is headed to Colorado for a ten-day vacation. Her absence has caused some to openly wonder why she’s not using her fixed vacation time to campaign — and why she’s not taking her vacation days in October to become a full-time candidate.
Gunderman pushed back on her time constraints, saying she was “proud to set an example to other working women who want to get involved in making a difference in their communities.”
“I am fully committed. My family is fully committed. The results will come,” Gunderman told the New Jersey Globe.
Gunderman’s critics say it’s not entirely clear how clearly she understands the demands of a political campaign.
A party screening committee awarded Gunderman the organization line in Union County by one vote, 6 to 5, against Jill LaZare.
After that, Gunderman was unable to secure the organization lines in Somerset and Morris counties.
Somerset County Democratic Chairman Peg Schaffer called an open primary in Somerset, and LaZare defeated Gunderman at the Morris County Democratic convention by a vote of 9 to 4.
Six days after Gunderman won the Democratic primary, she was unable to get re-elected to her post as New Providence Democratic Municipal Chair. She showed up to her own reorganization meeting expecting to win another term, only to find that Rupa Kale had the votes to oust her.
Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, says that Gunderman’s vacation time could cost her, especially since she already has constraints on her daily calendar.
“The most finite campaign resource is a candidate’s time. You can always raise more money, but you can’t add those two more weeks you needed to finish ahead,” Rasmussen said. “With 117 days between today and Election Day, every day is several dozen more voters a candidate can meet or contributions you can ask for.”
Close races in New Jersey legislative races are not unusual.
In the neighboring 16th district, Democrat Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) unseated Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Readington) by 78 votes in 2015. Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) won by 40 votes in his 2013 campaign against incumbent John Amodeo (R-Margate)
In 2017, Republicans Joe Howarth (R-Evesham) and Ryan Peters (R-Hainesport) won by just a few hundred votes.
“You’d hate to be left wondering what might have been if you’d taken this year’s vacation over Thanksgiving or winter break,” Rasmussen said. “This is especially so when you’re a challenger who is trying to close a years-long gap in name recognition and familiarity over an incumbent.”
Candidates typically want to run strong right out of the gate, so that their numbers look good when party organizations or political actions committees do polling in the fall to decide where to allocate their resources.
“Early momentum is also critically important to adding support later in the campaign,” Rasmussen explained. “So missing out on early contributions or doors knocked could mean a different race gets more targeting.”
Gunderman is not the only candidate to face criticism for their time commitments in the 21st district.
Bramnick, the Assembly Minority Leader, finds himself battling to keep his own seat instead of raising money for other Republican incumbents facing tough challenges – and to the detriment of GOP challengers seeking to topple Democratic legislators in Murphy’s mid-term election.
Like Gunderman, Bramnick has a day job as a partner in his own law firm. Additionally, he spends time moonlighting as a stand-up comedian and his hawking his new book.
Democrats think that could be an issue.
“While one of our opponents is spending his time on a book tour, we are actually connecting with the voters Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz have neglected,” Gunderman said.