Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) went on the offensive against Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) in a debate where agreement on policy was the norm.
The longtime running mates find themselves on opposite sides of a contest for Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg’s seat in the upper chamber. Weinberg is not seeking re-election, capping a legislative career that spanned for nearly three decades.
Vainieri Huttle attacked the Bergen County Democratic Committee, repeating a campaign-trail grievance claiming they awarded Johnson the party line after negotiating a closed-door deal.
“I wanted to play by the rules, and the cards were stacked against me. I wanted a fair and open process. I fought and authored the Party Democracy Act,” she said. “I fought for open transparency at the convention. I don’t believe it was fair and transparent when my opponent’s running mates were selected on Sunday night and the convention was held on Monday morning.”
The assemblywoman declined to rule out running on organizational lines in the future. Progressives in the state have railed against New Jersey’s party line system, which allows party officials to award candidates a preferential position on the ballot.
Johnson said he won the line by campaigning, both to municipal chair people and rank-and-file committee members, before attacking his onetime running mate over what he said was a sudden about-face on the practice.
“For all these years that we’ve both been in the Assembly, this system that we have in the Bergen County Democratic Party was never an issue until this year,” he said. “I wonder, for a person to donate $75,000 to the Democratic Committee of Bergen County all these years and then say that you don’t support them, I’m not quite understanding how that can happen.”
Pressed on allegations of sexual harassment, Johnson said he did not recall a conversation with Dierdre Paul, a political activist who accused Johnson of offering political advancement if she became his “concubine” in 2008.
“People who know me, know my reputation, know about me know that’s not my personality. Getting back to professor Paul, I do not remember that conversation from 13 years ago,” he said, adding the allegations were “inconsistent with who I am as a person and a legislator.”
The assemblyman called Paul after the allegations resurfaced in March but said Sunday the conversation did not improve his recall of the 2008 meeting.
On policy, the two candidates found agreement great regularity. Both backed universal health care and child care. Both supported a Hudson-Bergen Light Rail that actually extends into Bergen County, and they each acknowledged difficulties in funding tuition-free bachelor’s degrees while praising Gov. Phil Murphy’s $50 million proposal for two years of free tuition four-year schools.
But the hourlong debate wasn’t without its disagreements. Vainieri Huttle backed blocking counties from entering into any contract to hold detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, While Johnson suggested contracts that allow counties to hold only immigrants found guilty of a crime should persist.
“If you’ve been found guilty of a crime, you probably should be incarcerated if you’re a threat to society. That I understand,” said Johnson, a former Bergen County sheriff. “That I get, but to incarcerate a person and separate them from their family because they overstayed a visa or some other code is non-criminal, they should not be penalized and kept in a cell for that.”
Activists have railed against such contracts in recent years, fueled by immigration policy under President Donald Trump. Essex County officials last week announced they would stop holding ICE detainees, and Hudson County officials have since signaled willingness to reexamine its lucrative agreement with the federal agency.
The assemblyman is sponsoring a bill that would block counties from renewing, extending or entering into new contracts to detain immigrants, though that measure would have no impact on Bergen County’s indefinite ICE contract. Vainieri Huttle is co-sponsoring the legislation.
The assemblywoman issued a firmer rebuke of a 2020 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that eliminated the Newark Civilian Complaint Review Board’s subpoena powers. The high court ruled Newark lawmakers did not have the authority to give the review board subpoena power.
She said the courts got it wrong, while Johnson said he a bill co-sponsored by Vainieri Huttle that would require court approval for subpoenas filed by civilian boards.
Vainieri Huttle backed removing senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to indefinitely block gubernatorial nominations in their home county, while Johnson said the rule could be sued to ensure a diverse set of nominees.
The assemblywoman was also more willing to relax a widely-used exemption that shields legislators from disclosing documents through the Open Public Records Act.
“I don’t think we should be exempt at all, and I know that Sen. Weinberg is continuing to fight for OPRA but leaves us out,” she said. “Why should we be exempt?”
Johnson said there were differences between the legislature and other units of government that could justify non-disclosure but said he was open to discussing changes to the exemption.
He stopped short of calling for Rockleigh, a one-square-mile town of a little more than 500 people with no school district or police force of its own, to be merged with a neighboring municipality.
“As you say, it’s not a town where you’re going to find many minorities there or different groups of people there, that’s for sure, but I guess that’s the way they want to live,” he said. “As long as that’s what they want and they have home rule and it’s allowed, I guess they’re allowed to exist.”
Vainieri Huttle said “there’s really no reason why Rockleigh should be, in itself, a small entity.” She suggested it could be merged with neighboring Northvale or Norwood but added efforts to eliminate the tiny town while she was a Bergen County freeholder were stymied by home rule, which allows municipalities to run their own government services.
Neither of the two gave a clear vision for how they’d fill the void left by Weinberg.
Johnson urged a focus on environmental justice and equity in the state’s nascent cannabis market, while Vainieri Huttle urged progressivism and independence from legislative leadership while suggesting she would break tradition by not seeking a lengthy career in the Senate.
The 37th district has had only three senators since the state adopted its 40-district map in 1973. State Sens. Matthew Feldman, Byron Baer and Weinberg held the seat for 20, 12 and 16 years, respectively.