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Assemblyman Ralph Caputo and Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker
Assemblyman Ralph Caputo and Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker. (Photo: Assembly Majority Office).

Caputo won’t seek Rice Senate seat

Veteran assemblyman says he thinks next 28th district senator should be a person of color

By David Wildstein, August 23 2022 12:02 pm

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Nutley) will not be a candidate for State Senate in a special election convention next month to replace Ronald Rice, a Newark Democrat who is resigning for health reasons after nearly 36 years in Trenton.

“I’m not interested,” said Caputo, who is a white lawmaker in a Black majority district.  “It’s a seat that should go to a minority.  It’s a stretch for me to aspire to that seat.  It has to be from the urban community.”

He said Rice’s “shoes will be tough to fill.”

Caputo wants his longtime running mate, Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Newark), to replace Rice.

“I’d like to see Cleo,” he told the New Jersey Globe.  “It would be good for her.”

But Caputo said he’s not certain if the 79-year-old Tucker will be a candidate to replace Rice, who said last week that he would resign from the Senate on August 31.

His departure triggers a special election convention to fill the seat until the results of a November special election for an unexpired term of nearly 14 months are certified.

“I don’t think she’s aggressively seeking it, but I think she would have the support,” Caputo said.  “You’ve got to want it more than anyone else.

The final decision makers are the 279 elected Democratic county committee members in the current 28th district who will meet next month to select an interim senator and a nominee for the special election.  The deadline to put a name on the ballot is September 15.

So far, no candidates have announced their intent to be a candidate in a vote that could come as early as September 7.  Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who served in the State Senate for nine years, on Monday refused to rule out a bid for Rice’s seat.

Caputo said he’s not even sure there will be a contest, suggesting that Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr. will likely find a consensus candidate.

“LeRoy will find his way through this,” Caputo predicted.

Caputo has been redistricted from the 28th district into the newly drawn 34th district, which includes East Orange, Orange, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Nutley and Belleville.

That district has no incumbent senator – Nia Gill’s hometown of Montclair was moved into former Gov. Richard Codey’s 27th district – and Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-East Orange), a 36-year-old rising star, is the clear frontrunner to move up to the Senate.

Caputo is expected to be on Timberlake’s ticket for another term in the Assembly.

“I intend to run again,” he stated.

That would leave Timberlake’s Assembly seat open for Democrats to fill when they pick their candidates for 2023.

Bloomfield, which is the second-largest municipality in the new 34th, could wind up with an Assembly seat.  Possible candidates include Dr. Wartyna Davis, a Bloomfield councilwoman who could double the number of openly gay members of the New Jersey legislature, or Councilwoman Sarah Cruz.

Tucker was elected to the Assembly in 2007 when she and Caputo ousted incumbents Craig Stanley (D-Irvington) and Oadline Truitt (D-Newark) in the Democratic primary.  Her late husband, Donald Tucker, was a fixture in Newark politics as an eight-term city councilman and was re-elected to the legislature posthumously in 2005.

If Tucker were to win a Senate seat, Democrats would have to hold another special election convention to replace her in the Assembly.

The second Assembly seat in the new 28th district is already reserved for Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-South Orange), who was redistricted from the 27th under a new map approved earlier this year.

Caputo, 81, first won an Assembly seat in 1967 as a Republican running in a Newark North Ward-based district.  He served two terms before losing a primary to Carl A. Orechio (R-Nutley) in 1971.  Caputo switched parties in the 1970s, made a bid for Essex County Executive in 1978, and returned to public office when he ousted Republican Freeholder Joseph Scarpelli, now the mayor of Nutley, in 2003.  He spent nine years as a freeholder.

His 2007 win marked a return to the legislature 40 years after his first election.  He’s now in his eighth term – and tenth non-consecutive term.  Caputo chairs the Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee.

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