UNION COUNTY, NJ — Primary election season in Union County is well underway, with a host of contenders ready to fight for a spot on the November ballot.
There are 40 legislative districts in the state and all 80 seats in the lower house are up for grabs for the first time since 1999. However, there are only eight contested races statewide, with Union County among the incumbents fighting to keep their seats.
Specifically, there are six candidates vying for two nominations in the 20th district political battleground. Voters will have a choice between the Regular Democratic Party ticket, a renegade group called Democrats for Change and yet another group calling themselves the Union County Progressive Democrat Organization.
Two separate duos are running for the two open seats. Those seats are presently held by Democrat incumbents Annette Quijano, in office since 2008, and Jamel Holley who was appointed in January by his party to fill the unexpired term of Joe Cryan, who stepped down when he was elected Union County Sheriff.
The Democrats for Change team consists of Tony Monteiro, a longtime school board member and Giuliano Farino, while the Union County Progressive Democrat Organization includes Hillside residents Jorge Batista and Vivian Bell.
New Jersey only requires that assembly candidates be U.S. citizens, at least 21-years-old and be a resident of the district they are seeking election for one year, and resident of the state for two years. Candidates also have to file at least 100 names on their nominating petition.
Holley and Quijano, whose district represents Elizabeth, Hillside, Roselle and Union, kicked off their campaign by releasing their first cable television advertisement, which began running in Elizabeth on April 1.
Narrated by Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, the ad, called “Working Hard,” notes that the two assembly incumbents share a similar upbringing as children of single parents and the struggles they overcame to become the public servants they are today.
The ad, according to a press release from the incumbents, shows Quijano’s record of legislative accomplishments in working to make college more affordable and provide equal access to healthcare. It also highlights the advocacy Holley displayed as mayor of Roselle involving gun control and job creation.
“I have big shoes to fill,” Holley said when appointed to fill Cryan’s seat in late January.
“I didn’t have the traditional household that others did,” he added, pointing out that he was born to a young, unwed mother who was on public assistance. Holley also mentioned that he used public programs to obtain financial assistance so he could go to college where he received a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree from Kean University.
Looking to unseat Holley and Quijano are two duos from their own party but running under separate banners.
Real Democrats for Change candidates Monteiro, who lives in Elizabeth, and Farina, a teacher who hails from Union, believe they have more than a fighting chance of winning the upcoming primary battle.
“There has been too much inaction on too many issues of importance,” said Monteiro, adding that the 20th district needs assembly people “who are willing to face the challenges before us and find solutions.”
Monteiro, a member and former president of the Elizabeth Board of Education, is Democrat Sen. Ray Lesniak’s arch enemy when it comes to the political underpinnings in the 20th district. The Democrat for Change candidate draws strong support in Elizabeth and Union, where there is a large Hispanic population.
The candidate is also known for his stint as a councilman in Elizabeth, where during his tenure he was arrested during a council meeting for protesting a tax increase the administration was trying to pass without comment. The Supreme Court overturned that arrest and according to Monteiro, earned him the nickname “the taxpayer’s hero.”
“I have a record for standing up for everyday people, addressing problems and finding solutions. Sadly the incumbent assembly people do nothing,” said Monteiro, who owns a group of four restaurants, adding “I bet no one knows who they are and no one can cite a single achievement by either of them. Our district deserves better. We need active, aggressive leadership.”
Farina, his running mate, while an unknown, is a teacher who co-founded At Heart’s Length, a non-profit charity that is involved in numerous community activities, including delivering toys to needy families at Christmas, sponsoring community events and seminars, picking up the homeless and driving them to shelters on cold nights and raising money for multiple sclerosis, which his wife developed when they were dating.
“We are amazed with the lack of concern with a recent study that revealed 1 in 4 kids in our area suffer from asthma,” said Farina, noting that “there should be no debate, all monies from polluters should be directed to improving our environment.”
Both candidates said they see problems with crumbling streets, lack of affordable housing and declining transit opportunities.
They are also bringing to the forefront the problem of under funding the state pension and unemployment rate that is higher than neighboring states.
Former Hillside Councilman Batista, a real estate attorney, and Vivian Bell of Union, a teacher, are seeking to unseat the incumbents but also knock the Democrats for Change candidates off the ballot in the fall.
Batista, running on the Union County Progressive Democratic Organization ticket, has said he threw his hat in the ring to give Hillside a voice.
“I have a platform that hard working citizens of our great country can relate to,” said the candidate who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Hillside in 2013, pointing out he will “fight any attempt to raise the gas tax and our property taxes.”
“I believe in collective bargaining to maintain good paying jobs in our country while being fully aware we need to make the state of New Jersey more business friendly to attract and keep jobs in our area,” he said, explaining he is committed to “being relentless to ensure that government works to provide a better quality of life for all residents in our legislative district.”
“In addition, I will also work to combat the Kean University land grab that would deprive Union and our county of millions of much needed tax revenue,” said Batista.