UNION COUNTY — With just days until residents living in the 20th district head to the polls to decide if Democrat State Sen. Ray Lesniak deserves another two-year term in Trenton, his challenger Donna Obe accused him of violating campaign finance laws and he returned the favor by doing the same.
Lesniak, who has served 36 years as a state senator representing the 20th district, alleged the president of the board of education spent more on her campaign than legally permitted and was financed by Real Democrats For Change freeholder candidates who are limited by law to giving another candidate $24,600.
Obe, on the other hand, specifically pointed to examples of how Lesniak is breaking the law. She noted in her complaint that the incumbent illegally used a non-profit organization to promote his candidacy, engaging in “deceptive and misleading” practices by using the non-profit, Infinite Possibilities NJ, when it is, in fact, “an arm of Lesniak’s campaign.”
And as the campaign for the Democratic primary winds down, neither candidate was taking any chances.
Infinite Possibilities NJ is operated by Lesniak’s campaign manager, nephew George Devanney, and two of his former staff members. Lesniak admitted this was true, but pointed out any connection he had with Infinite Possibilities NJ was stopped prior to Obe announcing her candidacy.
But Obe did not buy it and she offered supporting evidence in her court document.
“As proof positive of this connection, Infinite Possibilities is running televised commercials which feature Lesniak’s name and image and which direct viewers to RaymondLesniak.com, which is paid for by the Election Fund of Raymond Lesniak,” the complaint alleged.
Obe’s legal counsel said this put The Real Democrats For Change candidate “at a unfair and impermissible disadvantage.”
Lesniak refuted Obe’s accusations, stressing that while he has been above board in his campaigning, Obe has not.
“I have a grave concern that she has offered nothing but a negative campaign,” said Lesniak, adding that he does not blame the candidate but rather the Elizabeth Board of Education.
Lesniak pointed to the fact that Obe has not raised any funds on her own, according to party insiders. This brought into question exactly where Obe was getting the money to spend on her campaign, which Lesniak challenged in his court complaint.
Lesniak said in an interview with LocalSource Tuesday he strongly believes Obe’s campaign money came directly from the Real Democrats for Change slate of candidates running for freeholder, who he maintained are aligned with the Elizabeth Board of Education.
The senator also said he felt his challengers campaign failed to focus on issues facing the 20th district, and instead relied heavily on smear tactics.
“That doesn’t help the people we represent,” said Lesniak, adding the job of state senator requires not only understanding the issues, but also being able to bring about legislation needed for the residents of the district and state as a whole.
“My campaign is about my record of creating jobs, funding education, reducing violence, and supporting women’s issues,” said the senator, adding that he is running on his record over the last three decades, which included bringing in $4 to $5 million more in school funding for towns like Roselle, Union and Hillside.
But while Obe’s party has continued to make allegations about the long serving senator, he refused “to get down to that level.”
“I run a totally positive campaign based on the issues affecting the residents of my district,” the state senator said, but added he did have a problem with someone breaking state campaign finance laws and that is why he filed a complaint against Obe.
“That is not right,” Lesniak said, noting that in addition to that, he provided evidence in his court complaint that the Real Democrats for Change freeholder candidates solicited campaign donations on school grounds by selling tickets to fundraisers.
“I have a witness that will attest to that in court,” Lesniak said.
But Obe had even more legal concerns about the longtime senator’s current campaign.
Obe also had a major problem with a widely circulated mailer that initially appeared to be in support of the appointment of Superior Court Judge James Wilson on behalf of the Roselle National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Real Democrats for Change claim it merely was a campaign piece about Lesniak.
More damming, they maintained, is the mailer looked like it was paid for by the Roselle NAACP, but Obe’s complaint said this is “absolutely false.” This organization, they claimed, did not pay for the mailer or the postage, which was discounted using a bulk mailing permit.
“The NAACP mailer, therefore, falsely suggests that the Roselle NAACP supports Lesniak, falsely states that the Roselle NAACP paid for the mailer, impermissably coordinates with the campaign activities financed by EFRL, and fails to disclose the actual source of the funds for the mailer,” the complaint alleged.
Tuesday Lesniak denied paying for the NAACP mailer, again referring to the negative campaign his challenger and her party opted for in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary.
“What about the real issues facing the 20th district? That is what we should be discussing,” Lesniak added.
Real Democrats For Change Campaign Manager Francisco Gonzalez, though, challenged Lesniak on this, explaining in a complaint letter to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service that the NAACP did not approve or partake in the mailing of the flier.
“The clear conclusion is that this is a fraudulent mailing which attempts to deceive the residents that this decidedly positive clear view of candidate Lesniak was somehow sanctioned by the NAACP. It clearly was not,” the letter said, demanding an investigation by the postal service.
Supporting this claim is a “certification letter” by Roselle resident Anthony Esposito who received the mailer and took issue with it. He also said in this letter that he attended a NAACP breakfast fundraiser shortly after receiving the mailer where chapter president, Myrtle Smith Counts, “vigorously denied any involvement in the preparation or distribution of the flier.”
According to information supplied by Real Democrats for Change, the bulk mailing permit used to send the mailer belonged to Bravo Media of Carlstadt. Although Lesniak denied paying for the mailer, a spokesperson for Obe, Barry Brendel felt differently.
A copy of Lesniak’s campaign disbursement sheet sent to the state showed a check issued to Bravo Media on March 1, 2013 for $1,829.85, “just before the mailing was sent,” according to Brendel.
Jerome Dunn of Hillside, who ran against Lesniak in the primary two years ago, was outraged by this disclosure.
“I’m not sure which is more outrageous: The illegality of this postal fraud or the arrogance of claiming an esteemed organization like the NAACP paid for your campaign mailer without them even knowing about it — and thinking you are so powerful no one will challenge you,” Dunn charged.
On the other charge by Obe, Lesniak has admitted publically and in the media that the non-profit ran two commercials in March promoting him and distributed campaign literature promoting his reelection. But the state senator denied Obe’s allegations, pointing out that he stopped the ads after filing for the primary. He confirmed that again Tuesday.
The 20th district, comprised of Elizabeth, Kenilworth, Roselle and Union, has been a hotly contested district in the past, with Lesniak coming close to losing his seat two years ago when Dunn challenged the powerful veteran legislator.
Had it not been for Democrat Assemblyman Joe Cryan of Union, who has a strong party following there, Lesniak would not have won his seat back. But even though Cryan pulled out all the stakes for Lesniak with district wide support, Lesniak apparently did not do the same for Cryan.
Shortly after the primary, when Cryan was fighting in Trenton to maintain his seat as assembly majority leader, Lesniak turned his back on the veteran assemblyman and former state Democrat chairman. Subsequently, Cryan lost that bid.
Adding to these woes is the fact that the Democratic party in Union County has seen definite cracks in its once solid foundation in recent months.
With Union County Democratic party leader Charlotte DeFilippo stepping down as county chairwoman right after the primary, the future of the once solid political front is unknown.
The primary should give an indication of whether Lesniak’s powerful hold on the 20th district is as strong as ever, or if carelessness had tainted his chances of retaining his seat in Trenton.
Tuesday Lesniak was confident about the primary, explaining that he was relying on his tenure as a senator.
“People in this district know that I work hard for them and that they need someone with experience in Trenton,” he added.