Democratic municipal chairs in the 21st district have until Sunday to decide who they want to run on the Union County organization line for State Assembly in the 21st district.
With seven candidates seeking the nomination, the consensus is that this is now a three-way contest between Stacey Gunderman, Jill LaZare and Lisa Mandelblatt.
In recent years, Democrats struggled to find candidates to run against Republican incumbents Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) and Nancy Munoz (R-Summit).
That was before Democrat Lacey Cotter Rzeszowski came within 1,554 votes of ousting Munoz in 2017.
The district now has 3,837 more Democrats than Republicans. When the 21st was drawn eight years ago, there were 4,599 more Republicans than Democrats.
Onetime Republican strongholds of Summit and Westfield have now shifted to the Democratic column.
After losing two Assembly bids, LaZare challenged Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) last year and won 45% of the vote. She won Summit by 392 votes and lost Westfield by just 160 votes.
Union County Democrats award the line after a screening committee vote of the ten municipal chairs of the 21st district. A candidate needs six votes to win; a tie is broken by State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), the county chairman.
The preferred candidates of the Union Democratic organization are Gunderman and Mandelblatt, according to several sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In past years, that was sufficient to claim the organization line.
Now with Democrats thinking they could win one or two seats in the 21st for the first time since 1989, the winner of Sunday’s screening committee vote – it was originally scheduled for last night, but postponed due to snow – is less certain.
Also uncertain is exactly what happened at a meeting of the New Providence Democrats on Tuesday evening.
The New Jersey Globe spoke to more than one attendees who confirm that just seven of the twenty members of the New Providence Democratic county committee were in the room. None of the participants would allow their names to be used for fear of retribution.
Gunderman, the municipal chair but not a county committee member, was asked to leave the room while the rest discussed the Assembly race. She waited in her car and only returned after receiving a text message in inviting her back into the private home where the meeting was held.
At that point, Gunderman was informed that a vote had been taken by secret paper ballot.
Gunderman and LaZare each received five votes, with four votes going to another candidate, Goutam Jois. Mandelblatt received no votes.
The vote is non-binding: there were not enough committee members to constitute an quorum, and local party by-laws do not include instructions for state office.
As municipal chair, Gunderman has two votes at Sunday’s screening committee meeting. She will presumably cast one of those votes for herself.
New Providence Democrats have empowered Gunderman to cast her second vote based on her own judgment, without any strings attached, according to another source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Gunderman can use her second vote to boost her own candidacy — either to win one of the spots on the Assembly ticket or to get her preferred running mate.
Let’s say she has a solid count that puts her in second place, one vote ahead of another contender. She could cast her vote strategically for one of the other candidates to assure her own victory.