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Perth Amboy, New Jersey. (Photo: Doug Kerr.)

With no word from Murphy, Perth Amboy candidates split on runoff

Rules scant for second ballot less than four weeks away from election day

By Nikita Biryukov, October 07 2020 12:11 pm

Mayoral candidates in Perth Amboy are split over the prospect of a runoff election that, less than four weeks out from election day, remains shrouded in mystery.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to not know exactly how this is going to happen,” said Barry Brendel, a campaign consultant for Mayor Wilda Diaz. “It is pretty clear to anybody who has been through this, who has done the math, that they’re not going to be able to implement this in any fashion at all.”

Perth Amboy’s six mayoral candidates will face off on November 3rd. If none of the candidates wins a majority, the race will go to a runoff on Dec. 8.

Gov. Phil Murphy has not issued any guidance for Perth Amboy’s runoff, nor has he indicated when such counsel would come.

But some candidates are hoping they can eke out a win in the first round of voting.

“I look at this as an election that’s going to happen in November,” mayoral candidate Joseph Vas said. “If the voters are being honest to me and I’m getting the feel for the community that I’m getting when I’m knocking on doors, I think this is winnable on the first ballot.”

It’s unlikely that Perth Amboy will know the identity of its next mayor before December.

The five-way race includes the incumbent mayor, three sitting councilmen and Vas, the son of former longtime Perth Amboy Mayor Joe Vas, who was also an Assemblyman for six years.

Trump supporter Justin Maldonado was disqualified over problems with his nominating petitions. He’s now launching a longshot gubernatorial bid. Councilmen Fernando Irizarry and Joel Pabon are also seeking the mayorship.

Vas said he was hoping his position as the only candidate who doesn’t currently hold public office in Perth Amboy would change the dynamic of the race.

“The voters recognize there’s a very binary choice in Perth Amboy,” Vas said. “It’s either Joe Vas, who is the only real change vote, or everybody else who’s either taken or given support to Wilda Diaz. They’ve aligned themselves with Wilda Diaz.”

But whatever allegiances existed in the past are gone now, and Diaz’s fellow elected officials are out for the incumbent’s blood.

Councilman Helmin Caba, whose campaign is being managed by former Perth Amboy Council President Lisa Nanton, is also hoping the race will end on the first ballot.

“I’m focused on winning the mayoral election on Nov. 3rd and ensuring that we finally put Perth Amboy on the road to fiscal stability, job growth and a better quality of life,” Caba said. “The details of when the runoff occurs is up to the legislature or the governor.”

Still, Caba, who is also Perth Amboy’s Democratic municipal chairman, is making at least some preparations for the runoff. Namely, his campaign is fundraising for the second ballot, Nanton said.

Of those three campaigns, which are considered to be the race’s top contenders, only Diaz’s camp expressed concerns about the nebulous nature of December’s runoff election.

“They’re going to have to count several hundred thousand ballots across this county, and then you have to have a drawing, then you have to design a ballot, then you have to have a printer, then you have to mail them,” Brendel said. “You’re going to do this in 30 days? It just doesn’t work well.”

Election officials needed weeks to tally the results of New Jersey’s July 7 primaries, and though some counties have invested in additional ballot counting machines, turnout is expected to jump significantly for the general election.

In any case, officials will count mail-in ballots that arrive up to seven days after polls close, so long as they were postmarked by election day. Provisional ballots won’t be canvassed until after all vote by mail ballots are tallied as a safeguard against double voting.

It’s possible results won’t be finalized until late November, meaning the top two finishers could have as little as two weeks to run their second race.

“There’s going to be no time to implement this thing as a vote by mail. What are they going to do, ask us to go vote in person?” Brendel said. “We’ll be locking down the rest of the state, and they’re going to all of a sudden decide people have to show up in person to vote?”

Runoffs are new to Perth Amboy. If there’s one this year, it’ll be the first runoff in the city since Perth Amboy voters last year overwhelmingly approved a referendum requiring a second round of voting if no candidate wins a majority on election day.

The faction opposing Diaz backed the measure, while the mayor was against it.

But that approval came well before the COVID-19 crisis gripped the country and forced New Jersey to drastically alter the way it conducts its elections.

Even the campaigns know nothing about how that runoff will be held, and they’ve not heard about the rules for the second race from Murphy’s administration.

“Not a thing,” Brendel said. “I put a couple of informal inquiries in there but get no answers back, and I don’t think they’ve actually thought about it at all.”

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