Home>Campaigns>These incumbents kept their legislative districts. They might not survive 2023 anyways.

Assemblyman Kevin Rooney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

These incumbents kept their legislative districts. They might not survive 2023 anyways.

Party machinations may deny renomination to a number of legislators

By Joey Fox, February 22 2022 1:11 pm

New Jersey’s new legislative map, adopted last week following a first-of-its-kind bipartisan process, creates two possible showdowns between giants: State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) versus former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) in the 27th district, and State Sens. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) and Brian Stack (D-Union City) in the 33rd district.

But there are a number of other incumbents who, although the map preserves their districts and keeps their hometowns safe, may nevertheless be under threat in 2023. In a state where parties and powerbrokers hold huge influence over primary results via the county line, the new map may provide an opportunity for a change in representation, with a few unlucky incumbents getting dumped as a result.

The 40th district: Assemblymen DePhillips and Rooney

Neither Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Wyckoff) nor Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-Wyckoff) have not done anything in their relatively short tenures that might anger local Republicans in their district – anything, that is, except for living in Wyckoff.

On the new map, Bergen County only makes up around 23% of the 40th district, down from 37% on the current map. Wyckoff, population 16,586, is a minority even within the county. (With a U.S. congressman in Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the township is surely the most overrepresented small municipality in the state.) 

49% of the 40th district’s residents, meanwhile, live in Passaic County, and the remaining 28% is in seven Essex County towns, most of which are new to the district. 

Those numbers make it difficult to justify having two Wyckoff residents – two former Wyckoff mayors, no less – take up the district’s two Assembly seats, especially when Passaic Republicans only have one legislator in Trenton, State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa), and Essex Republicans don’t have any.

Not coincidentally, the Essex County Republican chairman, Al Barlas, was also the chair of the Republican delegation on the redistricting commission. The 40th district’s inclusion of Essex County suburbs like Verona and West Caldwell, both of which were previously in the Morris County-based 26th district, may have been a deliberate gambit on Barlas’ part to get an Essex Republican into office.

So come next year, as the Passaic and Essex County Republican Committees decide whom they’ll place on their party-endorsed slate, it seems unlikely that both DePhillips and Rooney would make the cut.

The 33rd district: Assemblymembers Jimenez and Mejia

Similarly to DePhillips and Rooney, Assemblymembers Angelica Jimenez (D-West New York) and Pedro Mejia (D-Secaucus) have not themselves done anything to jeopardize their future in the legislature, but may still be the victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That’s because, while both of their hometowns remained safely ensconced in the 33rd district (which has been renumbered from the 32nd), the top of the ticket may host a barnburning Senate primary between Sacco and Stack. If the two powerful senators and mayors do choose to run against one another, the Assembly seats could be caught in the crossfire.

Jimenez and Mejia have run and won on Sacco’s slate throughout their tenures, and Stack could decide he wants his own Assembly slate to counter Sacco. Depending on how Hudson County Democrats approach the top-of-the-ticket Senate race, the county party might throw in with the Stack slate and endorse primary challengers to Mejia and Jimenez.

And if Sacco steps aside entirely instead of facing Stack, the same process could play out, though in such a scenario Stack may feel less of a need to assemble a separate Assembly slate.

Fundamentally, there is little Jimenez and Mejia themselves can do to improve their political fortunes. Like so much in New Jersey politics, the top of the ticket reigns supreme.

The 23rd district: Assemblyman Peterson

One notable aspect of the new legislative map is that there is functionally no Hunterdon County seat. 52% of the historically Republican county is in the 16th district, a modestly Democratic district dominated by towns like Hillsborough and Princeton to the south, while another 17% is in the 15th district, a Trenton district that no Hunterdon candidate of either party has much hope of winning.

That leaves the remainder in the 23rd district, which Hunterdon County’s lone legislator, Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin), has represented since 2009. Hunterdon is only 17% of the new 23rd district, while Somerset and Warren Counties are 41% and 42%, respectively. 

Warren Republicans already hold the district’s Senate seat and other Assembly seat, but with no Somerset Republicans currently in the legislature from any district, Peterson becomes the odd man out in a seat dominated by other parts of the state.

Further complicating Peterson’s path to another term in the legislature is his ongoing run for Congress in the 7th district. He narrowly lost the Hunterdon County line to former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) last month, but he may continue his campaign anyways, as he pledged to do when he launched his campaign in January.

If Peterson does indeed run off the line, even Hunterdon Republicans may decide they’ve had enough of him – though if they choose to dump him, there’s no guarantee they’d be able to replace him with another Hunterdon candidate.

Peterson’s future is threatened from multiple different angles, albeit none that are guaranteed to fell him. But if the Hunterdon assemblyman isn’t able to find a path back to the legislature, it may be the first time in state history that Hunterdon County doesn’t send a single legislator to Trenton.

The 32nd district: Assemblywoman Chaparro

Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken) isn’t much more vulnerable in her new district than her old; by losing Union City and Weehawken, in fact, the primacy of Hoboken in one of the district’s two Assembly seats is even more guaranteed.

Rather, her fate rests on the shoulders of Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who by virtue of his office functionally gets appointment power over the county line in that seat.

Chaparro arrived in Trenton in 2015 under the reign of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who then stepped down and endorsed Bhalla to succeed her in 2017. Chaparro has retained her Assembly seat with little drama throughout Bhalla’s tenure.

But now, with a seat mildly redrawn to provide an opportunity for Asian Americans to elect candidates, Bhalla may see an appealing opportunity for a new contender: himself. Even if Bhalla doesn’t decide to run, 2023 may see a reshuffling of the district’s slate, with an open Senate seat likely going to Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City) and an opportunity to shake up the remainder of the delegation.

The 27th district: Assemblymen McKeon and Giblin

To be clear from the outset: Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange) and Thomas Giblin (D-Montclair) are not vulnerable of being dumped by the county establishment. Should they choose to run for another term, they will almost certainly have the backing of Essex County Democrats.

But the reworking of the 27th and 34th districts means that the two men will each be representing large swaths of new territory, and both will have to weather a potentially chaotic Senate race between Codey and Gill.

If, as expected, Codey receives the line and runs with Giblin and McKeon, Gill could assemble her own slate to challenge them. Gill’s slate would be the clear underdog in such a scenario, though, and it would be hard to imagine Giblin and McKeon losing to the lesser-known challengers Gill might recruit.

There’s also the problem that if Codey, McKeon, and Giblin all win, they’ll be an all-white slate representing a narrowly minority-majority district. That’s something Essex Democrats will likely tolerate at least for the time being, but as the decade progresses, racially homogenous slates in diverse districts like the 17th, 27th, and 36th might grow increasingly untenable.

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