Meet NJ-39: A Microcosm of a Nation Turning Blue

By Stephen Yellin

Normally, state legislative races are not the most exciting to observe, help or provide aid for - particularly when you're not from that state. If you're reading this right now and are not from New Jersey - DON'T LEAVE. This diary is an introduction to what I believe will be one of the most exciting races to watch in 2007 - and a race that is a microcosm of the United States at large. New Jersey's 39th Legislative District is worth watching for three reasons:

1. The changing dynamics of the suburbs of America - both in New Jersey and across the country. A victory in NJ-39 would serve as a template for races across America.

2. Clearing obstructionist, out-of-touch Republicans out of office, in order to better present a progressive agenda for New Jersey. After all, would you want a State Senator who opposes a woman's right to choose - even for rape and incest? Or a State Assemblyman who bullies his constituents?  Again, this would serve as a template for both state and Congressional races all over this country.

3. A Democratic ticket that represents a microcosm of the suburbs - a young, driven attorney for State Senate, a teacher and community activist for one Assembly seat, and a Wall Street manager and business leader for the other. Joe Ariyan, Esther Fletcher and Carl Manna represent an impressive coalition of the Democratic Party's membership and values.

I will be covering this race extensively over the next two months (Election Day is November 6th); for now, I'd like to concentrate on points 1 and 3. After all, it's easy to attack the opposition, but another story entirely to explain why your candidates are worth fighting for. Luckily, the latter job is easy enough.

First, some background on New Jersey's 39th district. It's located in northern New Jersey, in the swing county (for statewide elections) of Bergen County. Its northern border stretches from the Hudson to the Appalachian mountain range; its southern border, also on a diagonal, skirts the urban areas of Hudson and Essex County to the north and passes through a variety of suburban towns. Indeed, if there's any district in New Jersey that's exclusively "suburban", it's this one.

New Jersey's districts are drawn up to incorporate roughly 200-225,000 residents per district. This has led to 28 municipalities being placed in the 39th, none of whom are very big. One-third of the district's residents live in just five of those towns, the biggest of which has less than 20,000 residents. As you can see, these are small, community-based towns we are talking about. And that means they are towns primed for Democratic takeover.

In New Jersey, most voters register as "unaffiliated", as that is the designation they get upon first registering. Most voters in the state simply never bother to change it. This is especially true in NJ-39, where 58% of the district's voters are unaffiliated. 25% are Republicans, and the rest are Democrats. However, most independents tend to vote one way or another in a general election; as a result, NJ-39 is a swing district when one accounts for how unaffiliated voters tend to vote.

This has not always been the case; only in the last decade have the 39th's towns and elected officials moved towards the Democratic column. In 1997, just three of the district's 28 towns had Democrats serving them; in 2007, that number is 18. Seven towns are now completely controlled by the Democrats, an unheard-of level of support in the 39th. Assemblyman John Rooney (one of the GOP incumbents) was ousted from his other job last year as Mayor of Northvale; Democrats also now control the hometowns of State Senator Gerry Cardinale and Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk. Three of the county's seven Democratic Freeholders come from the 39th, and the county as a whole voted for Bob Menendez last year in the US Senate race. This suburban trend has been witnessed across the country, and can in this case be accredited to local Democratic efforts in each town. Their victories provide an important building block for winning the 39th in 2007.  

Despite the district's purplish tendencies, and its growing minority population, NJ-39 has had Republican representation in Trenton for years. The State Senator, Gerry Cardinale was first elected in 1981, ousting Democrat Frank Herbert (who I wrote about in my last article), and has generally faced minor opposition since. In 2003, Cardinale drew 62% against a poorly funded Mayor, Richard Muti. Of Cardinale's running mates, John Rooney has been in office since the 1980s, and Charlotte Vandervalk since 1995. Again, neither incumbent has faced strong opposition in recent years.

Their political fortunes have changed in 2007 - from safe incumbents to candidates "in the fight of our lives" (according to Rooney). For the first time in a generation, the New Jersey Democratic Party and its leaders are targeting NJ-39 as one of their key pickup areas for this election cycle. Jon Corzine, Dick Codey and Joe Cryan (our State Chair) know that while the GOP incumbents haven't changed, the district they serve has - and has increasingly become winnable for a strong Democratic slate. Accordingly, the Democrats have recruited three strong challengers to Cardinale, Rooney and Vandervalk, each with a different background, experience level and voting base. They are:

1. Joe Ariyan for State Senate - Joe is a 39-year old attorney and public official in Bergen County (he's a Public Advocate on land issues, including the problems of "suburban sprawl" and overdevelopment). Born to a working class Armenian family, Joe is conscious of the growing divide between rich and poor in our country, and is doing his best to bridge that gap by protecting homes and open space from big business and eminent domain abuse. He stands 100% for Stem-Cell research and its expansion (his opponent is 100% against research), is solidly pro-choice (again, his opponent is solidly anti-choice), wants to promote community development of parks and forests, and promises to vote his conscience in the State Senate, not just the party line.

2. Esther Fletcher for State Assembly - Esther is a town councilwoman in River Edge, formally a Republican stronghold that in recent years has shifted to the Democrats. She is a former teacher and PTA leader in her town, and as a Councilwoman has lobbied for increased statewide funding for children with special needs. She also has been successful in securing state grants in order to compensate for lower property taxes in her town, the money instead going to land preservation and redevelopment. An honest, energetic candidate, she is also a proud Democrat who's not afraid to say it.

3. Carl Manna for State Assembly - Carl is a town councilman in Dumont, the 2nd biggest town in the district. Up until recently, Dumont was run by a corrupt, despotic Republican administration, who when they were ousted from office were discovered to have "cooked the books" with the city's finances. Manna was one of the Democrats who were elected to clean up the mess, a promise which he and his colleagues have delivered on. He recently retired from the New York Stock Exchange after 40 years on the job, including five years running the floor of the NYSE as Director of Market Operations. His financial expertise would be valuable in helping to clean up New Jersey's poor fiscal situation.

The District 39 Democrats will have their website us this week; for my next article, I'll provide a link for it. If you want to bookmark it now, it's http://www.voicefor39.com If you live in the area, or are interested in helping out through volunteering or donating, stay tuned - your vote and your voice would help NJ-39 out a great deal as the election approaches. And even if you aren't able to help out, keep reading my reports as they come; you'll be reading about a change for the better, both for New Jersey and (as a powerful example) for the country at large.

[editor's note, by MrLiberal] I'm currently working for State Senate President and acting Governor Dick Codey, who has brought me on board to help target the 39th.

Tags: 2007, Carl Manna, Charlotte Vandervalk, Elections, Esther Fletcher, Gerald Cardinale, John Rooney, Joseph Ariyan, legislature, new jersey, NJ-39 (all tags)

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by MrLiberal 2007-09-11 08:42AM | 0 recs

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