UNION COUNTY — Despite a strong outing by newcomer Donna Obe, Sen. Raymond Lesniak managed to continue his stranglehold on the 20th district with a win in the Democratic primary on Tuesday night. The dragged out, nasty competition saw Lesniak garner 9,281 votes, or 65.87 percent, to Obe’s 4,802, or 34.08 percent, according to unofficial tallies on Tuesday night.
Lesniak, of Elizabeth, and Obe, of Roselle, campaigned hard prior to the primary, with Obe throwing low blows at the veteran state senator right from the start.
Those in the political trenches were aware that Obe challenging the long time state senator had more to do with the Elizabeth Board of Education’s feud with Lesniak, which is aligned with The Real Democrats for Change party. Lesniak and the board have been battling for years over a variety of issues, several that landed both in court.
Although Obe challenged Lesniak, the war actually has been between two political machines. One strongly entrenched in the county for several decades, the other fighting to unseat the powerful senator and become the reigning political party.
The Real Democrats for Change are a long way from accomplishing that task, but this never stopped them from launching a vicious campaign, which targeted Lesniak as building his fortune off of taxpayer dollars.
The Real Democrats for Change did not hesitate to back up their claims with examples of Lesniak’s foibles, claiming the longtime senator’s law firm had $4.6 million in government contracts in 2012. They did not, however, explain that these contracts were not all in Union County, but rather spread evenly across other North Jersey counties.
However, although the Real Democrats for Change took some heavy hits at Lesniak during the primary campaign, the state senator did not bring up the fact that the Elizabeth Board of Education had a black cloud hanging over it because some of its members cheated the state’s free lunch program, or that school employees were solicited for political donations on school property.
Adding another layer to the primary campaign race was the fact the Union County Democratic party 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. As is who will lead the once powerful Democratic stronghold in the county.
Lesniak, who has served 36 years as a state senator representing the 20th district, which includes Elizabeth, Union, Hillside and Roselle, took one hit after another from Obe.
A challenger with no real political experience other than her role as president of the Roselle Board of Education, Obe’s campaign focused on bringing out the dark side of the state senator’s past 36 years as an elected official.
In the weeks right before the primary election, things came to a head with both candidates gathering enough information on the other to make accusations of campaign violations in court complaints.
Lesniak, who said he tried to run a campaign that did not sink to this level, charged the incumbent with spending more than the state allowed, financed by the Real Democrats for Change freeholder candidates, who are limited by law from giving another candidate more than $24,600.
Obe’s legal complaint pointed to examples of how Lesniak broke the law, specifically noting that the state senator engaged in “deceptive and misleading” practices by using the non-profit Infinite Possibilities to promote his candidacy.
Lesniak refuted Obe’s accusations last week in an interview with LocalSource, pointing out that while he has been aboveboard in his campaigning, the board of education president had not.
“I have grave concern that she has offered nothing but a negative campaign,” he said, adding that he did not blame Obe but rather the Elizabeth Board of Education.
He also felt that Obe’s campaign failed to focus on the issues and how the Real Democrats for Change candidate intended on representing the residents of the 20th district.
“My campaign is about my record of creating jobs, funding education, reducing violence and supporting women’s issues,” Lesniak said, adding that he also brought $4 to $5 million more in school funding to towns in his district.
Asked why he filed a complaint against Obe, Lesniak said that what the Real Democrats for Change did about moving campaign funds to Obe “was not right.” He was especially concerned that campaign donations were solicited on Elizabeth school grounds by the grass roots party challenging his seat.
By Cheryl Hehl, and Patrick Bober