Until he was officially sworn-in as assemblyman for the 31st District on Sept. 20, Jason O’Donnell felt a little like an unofficial college student sitting in on classes.
While Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver let him attend all of the Assembly sessions, including committees, he really wasn’t yet a member of that body – even though a committee named him to the position in early September.
“I had a swearing in the night I was appointed, but it didn’t become official until I was sworn in by Speaker (Sheila) Oliver in Trenton,” he said.
O’Donnell, 38, fills the seat vacated by Anthony Chiappone when he resigned in August after he pleaded guilty in June to illegal use of campaign funds.
Oliver, who is expected to name O’Donnell to committee seats shortly, said his experience with local municipal services would be an asset to the Democratic caucus.
Normally, O’Donnell would take over Chiappone’s committee seats, but because Chiappone was indicted in 2009, he received none when committee assignments were issued in January.
“Bayonne has given a lot to me … now I’ll be able to give something back.” – Jason O’Donnell
“She is going to have to make room for me,” said O’Donnell, who currently serves as public safety director for the City of Bayonne, and is on leave as a fire captain.
O’Donnell said he felt very honored to represent his native city of Bayonne and the southern portion of Jersey City, and said he intends to learn as much as possible so that he would become a strong advocate for those he represents.
Creating jobs will be his key concern
O’Donnell said job creation will be among his key concerns, and said he has been asked to sit in on the Assembly Transportation Committee meeting this week.
“The Assembly has treated me like a member, allowing me to go to meetings and caucuses,” he said. “I’m waiting for my assignments. I would like to get on the Homeland Security Committee and any other committee that deals with job creation.”
O’Donnell said he will run for the unexpired term in the November special election against Republican Joe Turella of Jersey City, former Bayonne council candidate Denis Wilbeck, and Robert Mays, an aide to state Senator Sandra Cunningham.
If successful in November, O’Donnell said he will also likely seek the nomination for a full two-year term in next June’s primary.
One of the critical items he needs to address is establishing an off-track wagering facility planned for Bayonne, whose fate remains uncertain as the result of changes Gov. Christopher Christie has planned.
“It’s stalled on the governor’s desk,” O’Donnell said.
There is hope since negotiations are underway that the Bayonne facility might be constructed after being suspended by Christie earlier this year.
Of the eight facilities in operations throughout the state, Woodbridge has been the big money-maker for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, with $90 million annually. Projections for Bayonne would exceed that, according to NJSEA officials.
Although bids for construction were awarded last April, financing has not yet been put in place to cover the $16 million costs for construction.
The facility is a key part of Bayonne’s redevelopment of Route 440, O’Donnell said, noting that it forms the southern tip of a series of retail developments that will become the economic engine for the city in the future, and is among those elements that will bring jobs to residents.
“This facility will generate about 120 jobs,” he said. “It is the anchor for the consumer base along Route 440 and will help draw customers to the area from places like Staten Island. In order for Bayonne to become a destination, it must have something to come to. The OTW, Bayonne Crossing, and the South Cove Mall with its movie theater all make Bayonne a more attractive place to visit.”
As chairman of the Democratic Committee in Bayonne, O’Donnell is no stranger to many of those he will be working closely with, such as Assembly members Vincent Prieto of Secaucus, Ruben Ramos of Hoboken, and Joan Quigley and Charles Mainor of Jersey City.
“I respect them and have long term relationships with them, and I can’t wait to work with them in Trenton,” he said, noting that through his campaign work with former Gov. Jon Corzine and current U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), he met many others with whom he will be working with in the future.
“I can’t say I know them all well, but I’m not going into this blind,” he said. “I’m going down to Trenton to learn and to listen and to represent the people of my district. I’m honored to be able to carry on a career in public service in this manner. I didn’t know this is where it would take me, but I’m glad I’m here. Bayonne has given a lot to me. I went to its schools. I got my first job here, and now I’ll be able to give something back.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Four candidates vie for 31st Assembly seat
Four candidates are running in a special election for the Assembly seat vacated by former Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone.
Although Bayonne Public Safety Director Jason O’Donnell was sworn in as assemblyman for the 31st District this week, he will have to face three challengers in the upcoming special election in November. They include Republican Joseph Turula of Jersey City, who previously ran for the House of Representatives in the 13th District and was a close associate of former state senator and Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham. Turula also worked as deputy director for Gov. Christopher Christie’s successful election last year.
Denis Wilbeck of Bayonne, who ran unsuccessfully for Bayonne City Council earlier this year, will also be on the ballot. Wilbeck has also run for freeholder and City Council several times and is currently a vice principal in the Bayonne School District.
Robert Mays, who is an aide to State Sen. Sandra Cunningham and who has also run for Bayonne City Council in the past, will also be on the ballot.