East Brunswick Councilman Sterley Stanley and Edison Councilman Joe Coyle will face off in a special election convention on Tuesday to fill the State Assembly seat vacated last week when Nancy Pinkin resigned to become Middlesex County Clerk.
The 18th district has the largest percentage of Asian American residents in the state. If Sterley wins, he would become the first Asian American assemblyman from Middlesex County.
Stanley has been the front-runner for the Assembly since Democrats announced that Pinkin would run for county clerk in February 2020.
Most insiders had expected him to face a different Edison councilman, Ajay Patil. But a scandal that went public in November allegedly implicating him in a conspiracy involving a racist campaign flyer in a 2017 school board election essentially ended his hopes to win an Assembly race.
Coyle, who had been viewed as a potential mayoral candidate this year, entered the race after being passed over for council president and then not retaining his council vice president post.
He has the backing of Edison Democratic Municipal Chairman Mahesh Bhagia, also a likely challenger to Mayor Thomas Lankey in the Democratic primary. Bhagia’s brother, Raj, is one of the Edison Eight.
The decision to back Coyle puts Bhagia in a precarious position of backing a white candidate for Assembly despite calls by the South Asian community for representation in the legislature.
If Coyle wins, both 18th district Assembly seats – the other is held by Robert Karabinchak — would be occupied by white men from Edison.
But pushing Coyle into the Assembly race potentially clears the field for Bhagia to emerge as the candidate of the Edison Eight.
In an email to supporters in East Brunswick, Stanley pushed for all 79 Democratic county committee members to vote to “bring this seat home to Democrats.”
“A call to arms to defend against a takeover is the challenge we face this weekend,” Stanley said.
Coyle accused Stanley of using an “inflammatory tone” and denied that his candidacy is a hostile takeover.
“Words invoke emotions and have consequences,” he said. “Belligerent and divisive language has no place in politics.”
Coyle is the executive director of the Edison Chamber of Commerce and the owner of the Raritan Bakery.
Stanley was elected councilman in 2017 and re-elected in 2020.