A look at the new NJ-21 (and a brief history)

by Stephen Yellin

First, a friendly welcome to the residents of Kenilworth, Chatham Borough, Bernards Township and Far Hills (all 919 of you in the last case) to the 21st Legislative District of New Jersey. I hope you find your accommodations comfortable, as you’ll be staying here for the next 10 years. πŸ™‚

Second, we in the 21st bid a fond farewell to Chatham Township, Madison and Millburn, which will now have a Democratic delegation to represent them in the form of Dick Codey, John McKeon and Mila Jasey. While this Berkeley Heights resident is more than a little jealous to be less than a mile away from having this awesome trio as my delegation, I take comfort in knowing that my friends at Drew University will get to know another awesome ex-Governor a lot better in the year ahead*.  

* Former Governor Tom Kean, Sr. was President of Drew from 1990-2005. “TK”, as he was and is fondly referred to at Drew was a highly successful and popular leader, and still shows up to theatrical and academic events from time to time.

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For those of you new to the 21st, or those outside the district entirely, allow this lifelong Berkeley Heights resident to give you a brief primer on this area of New Jersey:

NJ-21 (originally NJ-22 until 2001, when it switched numbers during that round of reapportionment) is traditionally a Republican district, albeit a moderate one. The central core of the district is “The Ridge” – towns in western Union County like Summit, New Providence, Mountainside and Berkeley Heights. It also includes more “purple” towns like Westfield, Roselle Park, Cranford and Springfield, and more “red” towns like Warren and Watchung. Kenilworth joins the “purple” category, and Bernards/Far Hills the “red” one. NJ-21 also maintains two Morris County towns – Chatham Borough and Long Hill.

The Past

This district elected two Democrats to the State Assembly in the Watergate tide of 1973: Berkeley Heights Committeewoman Betty Wilson and Rahway Democratic Chair Arnold D’Ambrosa. Both only served one term, but had vastly different careers after losing in 1975.

Wilson went on to be a deputy commissioner in the Byrne and Florio Administrations and served as Chair of the Pinelands Commission from 2004-2008, when she retired. D’Ambroso went to jail in 1976 after pleading guilty to stealing an air conditioner while in office. Yes, you read that right – an air conditioner. http://www.politickernj.com/wa…

The victors in 1975 were two moderate Republicans – Union County Freeholder William Maguire and a young Scotch Plains attorney named Donald DiFrancesco. Maguire was joined in 1979 (after DiFrancesco went to the Senate) by another young Republican from Berkeley Heights – Bob Franks.

1981’s reapportionment saw the 22nd become much more Republican, with Morris and Somerset County towns joining the Union County “core”. Millburn Republican Maureen Ogden joined Franks in the Assembly, and the two clobbered their Democratic opponents each cycle.

In 1991 Millburn moved out of the 22nd, and Ogden was replaced by the 30-year old Mayor of Westfield, Richard Bagger (now Chris Christie’s Chief of Staff). The district remained staunchly Republican on the local level, even as it voted for Bill Clinton in 1996; Bagger and Alan Augustine (who replaced Franks in 1992 after the latter’s election to Congress) fell below 60% just once during the 90s.

An interesting race was in 1995, when the Democrats initially failed to run any candidates for Assembly. An anti-Semitic Holocaust denier (and KKK admirer) named John Kucek was the only “Democrat” to file in the 22nd. A massive double write-in effort crushed Kucek in the primary, and helped to establish the new Union County Democratic Chairman, Charlotte DeFilippo as a force to be reckoned with.

2001 began a new odyssey (pun intended)  for the residents of the area. Augustine’s Scotch Plains moved into the new 22nd (now represented by Linda Stender and Jerry Green), causing him to retire. So did Donald DiFrancesco after an embarrassing bid for Governor. Bagger moved up to the State Senate, while Summit physician Eric Munoz and his running mate (some guy named Tom Kean, Jr.) won a competitive race for the two Assembly seats.

For reasons that escape me, Kean ran 5,000 votes ahead of Munoz in the general election…

Kean the Younger’s stay in the Assembly was brief, as Bagger resigned in 2003 to join the private sector. Kean remains the State Senator for the 21st to this time, surviving a vigorous challenge from Gina Genovese in 2007. Presumably Kean will seek reelection this year while waiting for an opportunity to run statewide again. His likely Democratic opponent is an attorney from Warren (Somerset County).

Munoz was joined in 2003 by Westfield comedian/attorney  Jon Bramnick; they beat back a strong challenge from Ellen Steinberg (my first major campaign) to do so. Bramnick remains in the Assembly, while after Munoz’s sudden death in 2009 his wife Nancy replaced him. Munoz and Bramnick have usually drawn about 60% of the vote in each election, with Springfield Democrat Bruce Bergen one of their opponents for the last 3 cycles.

The Future

So, what does the future hold for the 21st District? For starters, there will be a casualty in the Legislature. Assemblywoman Denise Coyle (R-Bernards) will either have to move, retire or face the Kean/Bramnick/Munoz juggernaut in the June primary. Since Munoz stated today that she will run again, the odds are not in Coyle’s favor.

The new district has lost its sole link to Essex County (Millburn) and  3 of its 5 Morris County towns (Madison, Chatham Township and Harding), all to Dick Codey and his running mates. The 21st, as previously noted adds Chatham Borough from Morris, Kenilworth from Union and Bernards Township/Far Hills from Somerset County.

Politically, a quick glance would indicate that the 21st has gotten more Republican as a whole. Taking a look at the 2008 Presidential  and the 2009 Gubernatorial races, it is clear that the following is true:

a) Kenilworth voted for McCain (55%), and gave Christie over 60%.

b) Chatham Borough (48% for Obama) is more Democratic than Chatham Township (45% for Obama), but less so than Millburn and Madison (both for Obama). In fact, having Millburn and Madison may prove critical for Dick Codey in offsetting the Republican bastions of Harding and Hanover in his new district.

c) Far Hills and Bernards Township were both Republican bastions in 2008/9, giving McCain over 55% and Christie big victories (the latter is skewed because it was Chris Daggett’s hometown).

The old 21st actually voted for President Obama in 2008, albeit by just .5% (529 votes!) over John McCain. The new 21st would have gone for McCain, if my calculations are correct, with a shift of about 4600 votes in his favor.

In terms of elected officials, Democrats lose Millburn Committeeman Jim Suell and Madison Councilman Bob Conley, while gaining Chatham Borough Mayor Nelson Vaughan and Kenilworth Councilman Peter Corvelli. I welcome my friend Mayor Vaughan to the 21st, and hope to see him stay as Mayor through 2015 (he is running for reelection).

The key to winning NJ-21 remains largely the same, however – the Democrat has to be able to peel moderates away from pulling the usual Republican lever (or pushing the button in 2011 speak) in towns like Summit and Westfield. Berkeley Heights has mirrored the district-wide GOP performance in 2003 and 2007 (59% for Kean, for example), and I expect it may do the same in 2011.

A Democrat who can successfully take advantage of suburban angst over Governor Christie’s withdrawal of state aid in 2010 would do well here; a number of towns in the 21st lost 100% of their funding, and got only a little back this year. Still, it’s a very tough nut to crack, as Gina Genovese and Ellen Steinberg found out.

I nevertheless forward to a new decade in NJ-21 – a district where Republicans may freely roam…for now.  

Comments (3)

  1. Stephen Yellin (Post author)

    “War and Peace” than “brief primer”…but that’s the History major in me coming out. πŸ™‚

    Let me know what you all think!  

    Reply

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