LINDEN, NJ — He recited the 13th Amendment nearly verbatim, then stumbled. So he reached into his jacket and produced a battered copy of the U.S. Constitution.
“There was a cover,” said Onel Martinez, who is running as a District 22 Independent for the state Assembly, during an interview at Kean University on Sept. 1. “I actually have a newer one, but I always take care of my old one.”
Martinez, 20, says he is the youngest candidate running for state Assembly. He’s so young he couldn’t serve right now, since the state constitution requires that Assembly members be 21. But he’ll meet that qualification between the election and the time he would be sworn in.
There are two seats up for grabs in the 22nd Legislative District, which includes: Clark, Linden, Rahway, Fanwood, Plainfield, Scotch Plains and Winfield as well as municipalities in Middlesex and Somerset counties. Martinez is running against incumbent Democrats Jerry Green of Plainfield, who’s been in the Assembly since 1992, and has represented the 22nd district since 2002, and James Kennedy of Rahway, who is completing his first term.
Also running are Republicans Rich Fortunato of Scotch Plains, a former candidate for freeholder, and John Quattrocchi of Clark. The district has been represented exclusively by Democrats since 2002, following the redrawing of boundary lines after the 2000 census. Independent Sumantha Prasad is also in the race.
Martinez, an Elizabeth native who has lived in Linden for the past two years, is a junior studying political science at Kean University. He knocked on about 3,000 doors to get more than the 100 signatures required to appear on the ballot in November.
He plans to take on rising taxes, the heroin epidemic, crime and the struggling public pension system — all issues about which he said his constituents have expressed concern.
“They made the platform themselves,” Martinez said, referring to residents in his district. “I’m asking them what they want, or what solutions they want, and making that my platform instead of making it my assumption that what’s best for me is the best for everything, which is not the case at all.”
Martinez hopes to lower property taxes by generating revenue for local projects through a unique state tax, possibly similar to Hawaii’s tourism tax. His tax plan also includes a concept of “volunteerism,” or the ability for people to decide where their taxes go.
“With volunteerism, I decided let’s make it 50-50,” Martinez said. “With 50 percent of the taxes, you can decide to make it go to wherever you want to go to. But the other 50 percent has to go to programs that will have a lack of funding.”
Some essential programs that would require funding, for example, would be public education, Martinez said. He would also want to mandate a list be sent to residents showing how many taxes go toward programs within the state and in their municipalities. He said this would help people decide where their taxes should be allocated.
According to Martinez, that transparency would also help him identify how to improve the public pension system. He would also consider making the pension system a mandatory program that must be funded.
“There’s no easy solution,” Martinez said, noting that the tax plan would only be implemented if his constituents wanted it. “But what we can do is, we can start listening to people and start listening to what they want to see within their own communities.”
A friend of Martinez walked through the dining area at Kean while he was being interviewed.
“You don’t look like a politician,” said Darien Deermam to his buddy, when he realized Martinez was being interviewed. He said Martinez never brought up that he was running.
Martinez has a largely grassroots campaign. A photo on his official Facebook page showed a campaign meet-up event taking place in a backyard with a pool.
A self-described libertarian-socialist who puts himself at center-left on the political spectrum, Martinez wants the government help people — especially all minority groups — but also wants residents to have the freedom to decide how the government should work for them.
When it comes to crime, Martinez said he would lessen the penalties on all drugs, including heroin, and legalize marijuana for recreational use. He pointed to other countries like Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs and has some of the lowest numbers of drug users in the European Union and one of the lowest rates of overdose deaths, according to 2017 data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction.
The young candidate said he would redirect the funds that go toward imprisoning people for nonviolent drug charges to rehabilitation programs instead.
Martinez said he was an anarchist when he was younger, but all that changed during the 2016 presidential election. He has worked on campaigns for Lindsay Brown, a progressive Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress, and for Jim Johnson, a N.J. gubernatorial candidate who lost in the Democratic primary to Phil Murphy.
Martinez will complete school by going part time if he wins in November. He said the arrangement is doable since the Assembly position is only a part-time one anyway.
He believes there’s a shift coming in both local and state politics in which career politicians will soon be replaced by a younger generation of those interested in politics. Critics who may say he’s inexperienced or will be easily manipulated by powerful state politicians should take a hard look at who is currently in office, Martinez said.
“If you want to put in people with experience, what’s the point of experience when none of that experience goes toward improving the communities you’re supposed to serve in the first place?” Martinez asked.
“If you want to talk about the inexperience I have, you have to talk about how the experienced members aren’t doing anything in the first place.”