U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) may have won the nation’s most important runoff election yesterday, but the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-most important are all still to come – and they’re all in New Jersey.
Next Tuesday, December 13, voters in Trenton, Perth Amboy, and Manchester will head to the polls once again to decide a handful of local races where no candidate got more than 50% of the vote in November. The runoffs were initially scheduled for December 6, but they had to be pushed back after a voting machine glitch in Mercer County caused huge delays in counting Trenton’s votes.
All three runoff elections will be critical to the future of local government in the three mid-sized municipalities, although only a small percentage of registered voters are likely to show up at the polls.
In Trenton, council candidates hope to move forward from a highly dysfunctional period in municipal governance. In Perth Amboy, the incumbent mayor is seeking to get his preferred council slate elected against a rival slate that’s become embroiled in a voter bribery scandal. And in Manchester, the two top factions of Ocean County GOP politics are duking it out via the township’s mayoral race.
Here’s a comprehensive look at what’s on the ballot next Tuesday.
Three of Trenton’s local races – including the hugely important mayoral race – have already been decided after one candidate received a majority of the vote in the November election. Mayor Reed Gusciora and East Ward Councilman Joe Harrison will both be returning to City Hall when the city government reorganizes in January, and they’ll be joined by North Ward Councilwoman-elect Teska Frisby.
That still leaves five seats on the city council unsettled, with two of those seats up for election next Tuesday.
In the North Ward, Trenton GOP municipal chairwoman and former Assembly candidate Jennifer Williams will face Algernon Ward, a historical reenactor and former state Health Department research scientist who previously ran for the same seat in both 2014 and 2018. Williams finished in first place in November with 33% of the vote while Ward got 28%; missing the runoff were Merkle Cherry (22%) and Divine Allah (18%).
Given that close first-round result, it’s tough to say who might have the upper hand in the runoff.
Williams, who would be New Jersey’s first-ever openly transgender councilmember, has the endorsement of retiring Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson. Although Williams’ party affiliation is out of step with most Trenton residents, the election is nonpartisan and voters likely won’t view the race through a partisan lens.
But Ward has the backing of both Cherry and Allah, who combined for 40% of the vote in November. Ward, Cherry, and Allah are Black while Williams is white, and Williams’ support came disproportionately from whiter neighborhoods in the first round; since the North Ward is majority-Black, there may be more upside for Ward now that it’s a one-on-one race.
The South Ward, meanwhile, was always a contest between Mercer County Parks employee Damian Malave and state Department of Children and Families investigator Jenna Figueroa Kettenburg, but thanks to the presence of minor candidate Evangeline Ugorji, neither of them cleared 50% in the first round.
Malave got 48% to Figueroa Kettenburg’s 42%, meaning he likely has the advantage next Tuesday, although Kettenburg has the endorsement of outgoing Councilman George Muschal. The ward is 67% Hispanic, by far the highest percentage of any of the city’s four wards.
In a court hearing yesterday, Malave made several attempts to cancel or delay the runoff. He tried to argue that Trenton shouldn’t hold runoffs at all – an argument that was quickly turned down by the judge – and that Figueroa Kettenburg shouldn’t be allowed to use her father’s last name, Figueroa, on the ballot since she’s registered to vote as Jenna L. Kettenburg.
Turnout in both races was already low in November – 1,775 votes were cast in the North Ward race and 1,074 in the South Ward – and without any top-of-the-ticket race to draw voters to the polls, it will likely be even lower next Tuesday. That means just a few voters could sway either race.
But even after the North and South Ward elections are settled, there’s still one more runoff on Trenton’s horizon.
In the race for the city council’s three at-large seats, Trenton City Clerk Brandon Garcia initially certified Yazminelly Gonzalez, Crystal Feliciano, and Jasi Edwards as the winners because he determined that Gonzalez had passed the 50% +1 threshold of all ballots cast. His calculations, however, didn’t seem to account for the fact that not every voter voted for three candidates, meaning that Gonzalez only received votes on around 46% of all ballots cast – forcing a runoff after all.
Because it took so long to determine if there should be a runoff, it was impossible to hold it at the same time as the North and South Ward contests. Thus, former Councilman Alex Bethea, Taiwanda Terry-Wilson, and Kadja Manuel will now compete against the top finishers in an election scheduled for January 24, long after the city government is set to reorganize.
When a judge ordered that an at-large runoff be held, the North and South Ward runoffs were also rescheduled for January 24, but were quickly moved back to December 13. That means candidates in those wards have had their election dates changed no fewer than three times, a chaotic situation to say the least.
The race for three at-large council seats in Perth Amboy, a majority-Hispanic and heavily Democratic city in Middlesex County, is at once much more straightforward and much more dramatic than anything going on in Trenton.
In one corner is the slate backed by Mayor Helmin Caba, which includes Councilwoman Milady Tejeda, Kenneth Puccio, and Hailey Cruz. In the other is the Vote for a Better Tomorrow slate, consisting of Councilman Joel Pabon, Jeanette Rios, and Junior Iglesia. (A third slate led by Councilman William Petrick took enough of the vote to force a runoff.)
The internecine contest would be relatively standard for Perth Amboy politics, if not for the fact that a staffer on Rios’ campaign was charged with bribery in late October for offering voters gift cards in exchange for votes.
Caba and his allies called for the Vote for a Better Tomorrow candidates to drop out, but they stayed in the race, collectively getting 37% of the vote while Tejeda’s slate got 46%. Petrick and his running mates have since endorsed the Vote for a Better Tomorrow slate, saying on Facebook that “we need to stop the Mayor from getting absolute power.”
Like in Trenton, Perth Amboy’s turnout may be quite low. In the city’s 2020 mayoral election, 14,909 votes were cast in November but only 9,267 were cast in the high-stakes runoff; around 6,400 voters came to the polls this November (out of 27,867 registered voters citywide).
Finally, there’s the staunchly Republican Ocean County township of Manchester, where the mayor’s office and two council seats will be decided on December 13.
Incumbent Mayor Robert Hudak led the first round with 44% of the vote, while challenger Robert Arace got 31%; a third candidate, Ken Seda, trailed with 25%. Hudak and Arace are both Republicans and Seda is a Democrat, though the race was officially nonpartisan.
Hudak’s council running mates, Council President Joan Brush and Timothy Poss, also led in the first round. They got 22% and 21% of the vote, respectively, while Arace running mates Joseph Hankins and Roxanne Conniff, who is also the GOP municipal chair, each got 16%.
The runoff – a rematch of a November 2021 special election that Hudak won 57%-43% – is something of a proxy battle between two factions of the Ocean County Republican organization. Arace has the backing of the municipal Republican Party and is aligned with Ocean GOP chairman George Gilmore, who shockingly regained his perch leading the organization over the summer, while Hudak supported Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy in the race for party chair.
This story was updated at 3:56 p.m. to correct an error: Roxanne Conniff is the same person as Roxanne Coburger; Conniff is her married name.