For the last two months, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) has been hospitalized with cognitive health issues, and it’s not clear when – if ever – she’ll be able to return to the legislature.
The unfortunate situation has precipitated an intense behind-the-scenes battle over Cunningham’s potential successor in the safely Democratic 31st legislative district. One of her running mates, however, said today that Cunningham’s story is still far from over.
“I will say this: do not count her out,” said Assemblyman William Sampson (D-Bayonne), though he added that he had not spoken to Cunningham recently. “She’s been resilient. And let’s pray for her, everybody – from the 31st district and abroad. I love her, she’s been nothing but a great mentor for me… God will always have the last answer.”
Sampson, a union longshoreman, is a new addition to the Assembly, winning his seat last year after Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis chose to ditch Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne). At 33, Sampson is by far the legislature’s youngest member.
Cunningham, on the other hand, has had a far longer career in state politics. The wife of the late Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, Cunningham has served in the Senate since 2007, and was chosen to be Senate President Pro Tempore at the beginning of this legislative session.
But Cunningham’s health issues may bring that distinguished career to an end sooner rather than later. Cunningham has not left the hospital since first being admitted on October 4, and few expect her to return to the Senate – though legal issues surrounding her ability to make major decisions, such as resigning her seat, remain unresolved.
If Cunningham does depart the Senate before her term ends in January 2024, it’s expected that John Minella, the chief of staff for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, would be appointed as a caretaker.
More complicated is who would get the county line for the seat in the 2023 elections, a decision that ultimately lies with Fulop. Possible contenders include Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City) and Hudson County Commissioners Jerry Walker and Bill O’Dea.
Asked if he would consider running for the Senate in Cunningham’s absence, Sampson refused to speculate, saying that the seat is still Cunningham’s as far as he’s concerned.
“I will never talk about Senator Cunningham’s position, because she’s still the senator,” Sampson said. “It’s about what she wants to do. She’s in the seat.”