Denise Ridley, a two-term Jersey city councilwoman, has emerged as a serious candidate to succeed Sandra Cunningham in the New Jersey State Senate, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
Cunningham has been dealing with cognitive health issues and absent from the Senate since June 2022. While she has not announced her retirement, there is virtually no chance she will seek re-election to the 31st district seat she first won in 2007.
Multiple Hudson County Democratic sources have confirmed that the 39-year-old Ridley is under active consideration for the Senate seat but noted that the final choice would rest with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.
At one point, longtime Hudson County Commissioner Bill O’Dea was viewed as the front-runner but is no longer in contention. Fulop, a likely candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2025, does not want to be viewed as replacing a Black woman with a white man.
There had been speculation that Jersey City Council President Joyce Watterman might someday replace Cunningham in the Senate; a 2024 special election for an at-large council seat could be an expensive distraction – Ridley represents Ward A – and Watterman also appears more interested in running for mayor in two years than going to Trenton.
In the 31st district Assembly race, two incumbents are expected to receive party backing for re-election: Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City) and William B. Sampson IV (D-Bayonne). Sampson has been slightly controversial in the circumstances that led to his first election and the recent loss of his port crane operator’s license for poor attendance. Still, Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis is reportedly supportive of his re-election.
McKnight is also in the mix for the Senate seat, but sources say she is low on the list.
Ridley is well-liked in Jersey City and viewed as a rising star. She ran twice on Fulop’s slate.
She became the first Black and second woman to represent Ward A on the city council in 2017 after she received 42% in a four-candidate field in the non-partisan municipal election and then defeated former Jersey City Democratic Municipal Chairman Joe Conte in the runoff with 67%.
Ridley was re-elected in 2021 with 65% of the vote against Kristin Zadroga-Hart, a former Jersey City Education Association official.
The filing deadline to run in the June Democratic primary is March 27.
Two candidates are in the Senate race so far: Democrat Michael Griffin, an ally of Jersey City Councilman Frank Gilmore, and Republican Luis Soto.
The 31st district has included Bayonne and part of Jersey City since New Jersey went to a 40-distict map in 1973. The new map that will be in force for this election added Kearny to the district. Mayor Alberto Santos is expected to have input into legislative candidate selections.
Republicans won four Hudson County Assembly seats in 1985, but Bayonne has not been represented in the legislature by a Republican for more than 101 years.
Ridley declined to comment on the Senate race.