The unexpectedly close race for Reed Gusciora’s open 15th district Assembly seat represents a missed opportunity for Gov. Phil Murphy, since the losing candidate campaigned as an openly pro-Murphy candidate.
Anthony Verrelli won by a margin that was reportedly between five and ten votes – reportedly, because Mercer County Democrats declined to release the total number of votes.
Of the 54 Democrats in the State Assembly, just two are viewed as likely to side with the governor if Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is on the other side. Verrelli is the president of Carpenters Local 254 and is allied with Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe. Murphy declined to take sides in the special election convention.
Verrelli won a second-ballot victory over Jeffrey Laurenti, a longtime Trenton resident who had been one of New Jersey’s most powerful political insiders in the 1980’s. Laurenti was the Executive Director of the Senate Majority Office, a top advisor to Senate President Joseph Merlino, and in 1986, the Democratic nominee for Congress against then three-term Rep. Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton).
Laurenti, 68, surged in final days of the campaign, winning the endorsement of Freeholder Samuel Frisby and apparently flipping a majority of the Trenton Democratic County Committee. Had Laurenti cancelled a vacation to South America – he didn’t get back until just before Thursday’s election – he might have been able to pull off an upset. It’s not like the campaign came on suddenly: Gusciora’s victory in the Trenton mayoral race had been considered possible since he made it into the runoff last May.
Verrelli had the backing of most of Mercer County’s political establishment. Sources say that Laurenti carried Mercer and Verrelli won the election by winning the three small Hunterdon towns.
Two other candidates, Hopewell Township Mayor Kevin Kuchinski and Fatima Mughal, a progressive activist from Ewing, were both eliminated after the first ballot. A fifth candidate, Ewing school board member Carl Benedetti, dropped out and endorsed Verrelli.
Mercer County Democrats will now need to pick someone to fill Verrelli’s seat on the Mercer County Board of Freeholders. Verrelli will run in a special election in November to fill the remaining fourteen months of Gusciora’s term. The 15th district is safe Democratic.
One last thing: the results of the election remain confidential, even though the Democratic County Committee was acting in a quasi-governmental role in picking a new member of the State Assembly. New Jersey statutes do not require transparency in special election conventions.