UNION COUNTY, NJ — The Republicans control every council seat in five towns in Union County. The Democrats hold every seat in eight municipalities, plus nominally a ninth.
This leaves only handful of towns relatively competitive on a partisan basis throughout the county for the elections Tuesday, Nov. 7, yet there are issues from Mount Laurel housing, full-day kindergarten and property taxes within the county.
Down the ballot from the governor’s race — largely between Democrat Phil Murphy, 60, a Massachusetts-born former executive at the financial firm Goldman Sachs, and Republican Kim Guadagno, 58, the Iowa-born lieutenant governor under Chris Christie since 2010 and former Monmouth County sheriff — are the state legislative races, one of which will mark the end of a 40-year career in Trenton.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who has represented Elizabeth and surrounding areas as an assemblyman since 1978 and as a senator since 1983, is retiring. He is leaving his 20th Legislative District seat — which also represents Hillside, Roselle and Union — to be contested between Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan, a Democrat, and Republican Ashraf Hanna.
The 20th District has been an unchallenged Democratic stronghold since redistricting in 1982, making Assembly incumbents Annette Quijano and Jamel Holley overwhelming favorites against lone Republican challenger Joseph Aubourg.
The situation is similar in districts 21 and 22, as well.
Since 1982, Republicans have won every seat in the 21st District, except for an Assembly race in 1989. The 21st District includes nine suburban towns from Berkeley Heights to Westfield.
Tom Kean Jr., son of the former New Jersey governor, has held the Senate seat since 2003 and is running against Democrat Jill LaZare, a lawyer from Summit who has twice run unsuccessfully for the Assembly seat in the district.
Union County Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen, a Democrat, is making a fifth attempt at the Assembly, running with Lacey Rzeszowski against Republican incumbents Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz. The Democrats have attempted to tar Bramnick, the Assembly minority leader, for his close association with Christie, whose approval ratings were between 15 and 20 percent in summer polls.
Conversely, the largely urban 22nd District — mainly composed of Plainfield, Rahway and Linden, along with Clark, Fanwood and Scotch Plains — has been uniformly Democratic since the 2002 redistricting.
Nicholas Scutari is seeking a fifth term in the Senate against Joseph Bonilla of Clark, while incumbent Assembly Democrats Jerry Green and Jim Kennedy are facing Republicans Rich Fortunato and John Quattrocchi and Independents Sumantha Prasad and Onel Martinez, a 20-year-old Kean University student from Linden.
Quattrocchi’s wife, Pat, the mayor of Garwood from 2010 to 2014, is leading the Republicans’ annual uphill charge in Union County for freeholder, running alongside Mark Martini and Peter Lijoi for the three available seats.
The Republicans have not won a seat on the Freeholder board since the last three, Henry Kurz, Frank H Lehr and Edwin H. Force, left office in 1997. Democratic incumbents Angel Estrada and Chris Hudak are running with Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson, who essentially is seeking the seat of Vernell Wright. Wright is retiring after two terms.
The fight for the office of county sheriff, which is being left open by Cryan, is between Democrat Peter Corvelli and Republican Marc Krauss.
The departure of Garretson, who leaves behind a trail of controversy in Hillside — most recently a pair of unresolved lawsuits by current and former Hillside Police Department members over the chief of police position — has four people clamoring after her job: Dahlia Vertreese, Salonia Saxton, Jorge Batista and Sip Whitaker.
For the Hillside Municipal Council, four factions are running a trio of candidates each for the three seats available in the non-partisan election.
The remaining Union County municipalities of Clark, Elizabeth, Rahway and Scotch Plains and Fanwood will only have school board seats available during this election cycle; there are no candidates for one three-year seat on the Fanwood school board.
One town where the election will have cross-pollination between town and school government is Roselle, where Democrats Denise Wilkerson and Cynthia Johnson are running unopposed for council seats. Both upset the party-endorsed candidates in the June primary, running on a platform that opposes the town’s proposed Mind and Body Complex, a $55 to $60 million early childhood school, library and recreation complex.
The project ostensibly hinges on a lease agreement between the town and school board, but one in which a former school board member says has expired and is therefore invalid. He has sued to stop the project and Wilkerson and Johnson likely would vote no to enter a new agreement.
School issues also have flared in other towns, such as Summit, where council candidates at a debate earlier this month spent considerable time disagreeing about full-day kindergarten.
The at-large, 1st Ward and 2nd Ward council seats are being contested. Democrat Beth Little and Republican David Dietze are vying for the at-large seat, Democrat Matthew Gould and Republican John Dougherty for the 1st Ward seat, and Democrat Marjorie and Republican Mike Wattick for the 2nd Ward seat.
The Democrats were mostly in favor of expanding the town’s half-day for all, fee-based full-day program into a full-day for all children. The Republicans countered that such an expansion has not been recommended by the school board, which would have the ultimate authority to decide the issue.
Summit is one of seven towns in Union County where the councils are split between Republicans and Democrats; Cranford, Garwood, Roselle Park, Scotch Plains, Springfield and Winfield are the others.
Republicans control every seat in Berkeley Heights, Clark, Mountainside, New Providence and Westfield, while Democrats control all the seats in Elizabeth, Fanwood, Kenilworth, Linden, Plainfield, Rahway, Roselle and Union.
In Union, the focus will be on the school board, where two factions are seeking the three available seats on the school board.
Chief antagonist Steven Le withdrew his candidacy in August for family reasons after he had filed legal papers challenging the board’s expenditure of $5 million in bond money left over from a high school lighting renovation.
The race also has seen the issue of an eponymous website of one faction supporting incumbents Ronnie McDowell, Nancy Zuena and Vito Nufrio being directed to the Facebook page of an opposing faction that supports Linda Richardson, Michelle Schulz and Sherry Higgins.
The issue of Mount Laurel housing has come up in several towns, but none more prominently than in Cranford, where the Hartz Mountain Industries proposal to redevelop its 30-acre plot into a 900-unit apartment complex at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road along the border with Clark has sparked an uproar in both towns.
First-time Republican candidate Richard Buontempo has been outspoken against the project, saying a vote for him on the council is a vote against the proposal. He and incumbent Andis Kalnins, a Republican, are opposing incumbent Democrat Deputy Mayor Patrick Giblin and his running mate Jean-Albert Maisonneuve.