The new committeepeople who are elected next Tuesday will be the ones voting a week later for the next state Senator in the 31st District. All indications are that Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria will be pitted against Sandra Cunningham, the deceased senator's widow.
Committeepeople represent the bottom rung of a party political structure. They are elected to represent the specific neighborhoods or precincts that make up the political wards. The wards, in turn, make up the overall district. The 31st District has about 160 precincts, 99 in Jersey City and 51 in Bayonne.
Each year, voters from each political party elect two committeepeople from each precinct to represent their interests. Committeepeople in each precinct vote to select candidates for ward leader and also approve the nomination of candidates for higher office, such as council members and mayors as well as candidates for state and federal levels. Normally, committee elections are routine - with factions in each party lining up supporters who will back future candidates.
The 31st state legislative district has been strongly disputed over the last few years, with the Democratic Party divided into two major factions: people supporting the former Mayor Cunningham (called the Hudson County Reform Democratic Committee), and other people supporting the Hudson County Democratic Organization. Traditionally, the HCDO has holds a majority of the committee seats, and control over who becomes the ward leader, city committee chairman, and ultimately the county party chairman.
During the 2003 Democratic primary, voters for a Cunningham ticket managed to give the nomination for Senate to Cunningham and the district's two Assembly seats to Cunningham's runningmates, Lou Manzo and Anthony Chiappone. They got voters in the districts Cunningham controlled to come out in greater numbers - since candidates are ultimately elected by the total number of votes cast in the district.
The HCDO, despite the loss to Cunningham, maintained control over a majority of districts, especially in Bayonne.
In most years, primary elections for committeepeople affect future elections, deciding who will get the party line. But on June 8, the new committee members will be elected. Those members will get to exercise a rarely used power to directly select the candidate who will take the Senate seat to replace Cunningham, since the committee is required under state law to vote on the replacement in case of a death, resignation or other reason a seat is vacated - according to which party the office holder belongs to.
In this case, Cunningham was a Democrat, so the Democratic Committee from his state Senate district (31st District, which includes Jersey City and most of Bayonne) decides. After the death of Freeholder Hank Gallo in 1997, for instance, committeepeople in the 2nd freeholder district in Jersey City met and voted to fill Gallo's seat until a general or special election can be scheduled. When County Executive Robert Janiszewski resigned in 2001, committeepeople throughout the county voted to fill his seat. Because Cunningham died just prior to the primary, the committee vote for Senate will not take place until at least seven days after the primary election on June 8, when the newly elected committee takes power.
This means that a vote for a committeeperson in the 31st District on June 8 is a vote for senator, since each committeeperson is already on either the HCDO or Cunningham line. The senator who is chosen a week later will remain until the general election in November, when the public will be asked to vote for a candidate to fill Cunningham's unexpired term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2006
Although Doria's office would not comment on the matter out of respect for Cunningham - whose funeral services had not yet taken place - insiders in the party claim that the HCDO will be supporting Doria as its candidate.
"It's his seat if he wants it," one insider said.
Scrambling to save the seat, Cunningham supporters appear to be looking to Sandra Cunningham, the mayor's widow, as an alternative.
Doria has the edge
Thus, the death of Glenn Cunningham has caused a major change in the meaning of the primary - shaping the battle for 31st District committee seats into a vote on who will potentially sit as the state Senator.
Doria would normally have a significant advantage in any upcoming committee vote because of 102 committee members from Bayonne. But a sympathy vote for Sandra Cunningham could swing control of the 218 votes in Jersey City in her direction. If she takes control of enough committee seats, she could become the next state senator.
Doria's office, when contacted for comment on the reported deal to give him the HDCO nod, said it was too early to comment with the district still in mourning over Glenn Cunningham's loss.
Most HDCO people contacted see Doria as the perfect person to fill in the vacated senate seat since he served 24 years as the 31st District's assemblyman, leaving office at the end of 2003 after a primary defeat stripped him of the Democratic nomination.
Ironically, Doria's ticket included L. Harvey Smith as its candidate against Glenn Cunningham. Smith, as Jersey City Council President, is currently serving as interim mayor. A Jersey City Council vote - tentatively slated for June 3 - was expected to name Smith mayor until the November election.
Other significant primary races
The Democrats in Hudson County will be asked to choose their candidate for U.S. President from a slate of John F. Kerry, Dennis J. Kucinich, and Lyndon H. La Rouche, Jr. Most are expected to support Kerry.
The Cunningham-supported faction of the Democratic Party, however, has put up candidates for several other prominent local elections.
Until Cunningham's death, the key race in the June 8 primary was between HDCO-backed Rep. Bob Menendez, who is seeking his eighth term in the House of Representatives, and Cunningham-team supported Steve Fulop, a Jersey City resident.
The 13th District encompasses most of Jersey City, Bayonne, and North Bergen, all of Union City, Weehawken, West New York, Hoboken, Guttenberg, and East Newark and Harrison - as well as large parts of Newark, Elizabeth all of Perth Amboy and Carteret.
Menendez, 50, has served on the Union City School Board, and as Union City mayor, state Assemblyman, and state Senator. Menendez was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, and as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Menendez is considered the third most powerful House Democrat. He is running on his record that includes bringing back to the district, health programs and other bread and butter issues.
The 27-year-old Fulop, an employee of Goldman Sachs, a Marine Corps veteran and former president of the Paulus Hook Neighborhood Association, is running on an anti-corruption platform that also emphasizes reduced taxes and increased security.
Richard W. Piatkowski of Perth Amboy is running unopposed in the Republican primary for this seat. In another countywide race, Democratic incumbent Sheriff Joseph T. Cassidy is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Vince Lombardi of Union City and the Cunningham-team supported Richard G. Rivera of West New York. Alexander Garcia, of North Bergen, is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
Also supported by Cunningham's Hudson County Reform Democratic Committee, John Caulfield of Jersey City is seeking to replace HCDO-backed incumbent Donald W. DeLeo of North Bergen as county surrogate. The surrogate's office oversees numerous legal issues from immigration to the probating of wills. Kenneth C. Marano of Jersey City is unopposed in the Republican primary for this seat.
Jose G. Falto of Union City is seeking to unseat Incumbent Tilo E. Rivas for the Union City freeholder spot vacated earlier this year by Mayor Brian Stack. Falto is running on a ticket independent of the Cunningham slate, but Rivas is backed by the HCDO.