Up to this point, there have been honorable mention choices and six choices listed from PolitickerNJ’s top races from the last half decade. Continuing forward, there is the fourth choice: The LD 20 incumbent Democratic Party ticket against the Elizabeth Board of Education in the 2011 LD-20 Democratic primary.
Leading up to 2011, there was local infighting between state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) and Rafael Fajardo from the Elizabeth Board of Education. Both had their power and sway and Fajardo set out to find a way to unseat Lesniak and his district team. Hoping to take down Lesniak and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-20) and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-20), Fajardo assembled a minority based team led by an African American candidate in Jerome Dunn in this heavy minority voter district.
As the race developed, the challengers had capital in Elizabeth with voters and Lesniak was forced to shift much of his focus along with Cryan and Quijano to work extra hard in Union County. With two Democratic teams battling in heavy Democratic areas in the state, attacks began to intensify and the incumbent team seemed to have an answer to everything thrown their way.
That ability to handle the pressure and challenge led to Lesniak beating Dunn by a 53% to 47% margin despite finishing 500 votes behind him in Elizabeth. The Union strategy the incumbent team used worked to perfection as district wide they covered enough voters to make up for Elizabeth. The incumbent team tallied over 6,000 votes compared to less than 2,000 for the challenging team. Cryan’s power in the district ultimately carried the team and like state Senator Richard Codey (D-27) two years before; Cryan paid for his electoral success by losing his majority leader post after the election as the South Jersey Democratic political machine saw him as a growing threat to their power. Lesniak had a better post election with his payback directed at the Elizabeth Board of Education and Fajardo for his attempt to unseat Lesniak.
Next on the list and at number three is the 2011 2nd Legislative District contest between state Senator Jim Whelan (D-2) and Assemblyman Vince Polistina (D-2). Polistina was hand picked by his party in the years leading up to 2011 as their preferred choice to unseat Whelan and represented a bright, upcoming star for the party in the state. While the two men engaged in a negative contest; the wildcard potential involvement of Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford and his will he, won’t he potential candidacy and role in the race was a something that kept voters on edge and unsure of the state of the race. That certainly assisted the incumbent as Polistina could not always focus solely on Whelan.
In the end, Whelan would prevail by a 53% to 47% difference. The two left the race as two men who could not stand one another. Despite his win, all other Democrats in the district and county had not been as fortunate. He was a man to celebrate alone almost. That is even more the reason why Polistina and the state GOP were left scratching their heads in defeat.
With the top two choices on this list, two were deemed worthy of being at number two. The first being John Bencivengo against Glen Gilmore in the Hamilton mayoral race in 2007. Gilmore had weighed his options in the state before deciding to run again while Bencivengo and the GOP were hoping to paint a picture of a need for change. Normally, races at the local level lack the hellish rhetoric of state or national races, but this one was very personal. It seemed that a fight was almost seconds from breaking out. Civility was thrown out the window as each man looked to dig deeper into the other’s record. The ultimate factor in the election’s result: Bencivengo posting the financial records of Gilmore’s tenure. A slate of data that did not endear voters to the incumbent as he fell by almost 600 votes to the challenger. Gilmore would not truly recover from the loss, but he would get revenge as Bencivengo would be cited as taking $12,000 in bribes during his time as mayor.
The other race that was deemed worthy of a top two spot was Alex Blanco against Vinny Capuana in the 2008 mayoral election in Passaic. Due to then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie’s cleaning up of Passaic, there was an opening for a new government in Passaic. Blanco and Capuana would emerge among a field including Joe Garcia, Carl Ellen, and Jose Sandoval. There was a divide quickly formed among Democrats in Passaic County in terms of whom to support between Blanco and Capuana. Despite that, Sandoval was also viewed as a strong candidate by the media led by the Herald News. The trial and proceedings started by Christie’s investigation consistently circled around the race as different key figures was falling left and right. Blanco looked to keep the race clean and prevent Capuana from being dragged through any mud and it would pay off for him as he defeated the field. Capuana ran and finished second to Blanco. There would be a small window to celebrate before the two engaged in a general election contest six months later for a full term for the winner. Blanco would win that election as well.
Those races and the rest lead up to the top choice of race of the last half decade: Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ8) versus Congressman Steve Rothman (D-NJ9) in this year’s Democratic primary in the new CD-9. It was a race that had the potential to happen as many thought through scenarios of what two incumbents would be pitted against one another as a result of redistricting. However, Rothman was originally slated to race Congressman Scott Garrett (R-NJ5) in the new CD-5. But, Rothman felt more connected to CD-9 and was willing to challenge a friend in hopes of continuing his political career. What would transpire would be two friends becoming very heated foes and two counties in Passaic and Bergen being put under a major spotlight. Pascrell’s Passaic County and Rothman’s Bergen County would be key battleground areas for pulling together voter support.
As the race unfolded, it was truly a tale of two different campaigns. Pascrell’s was a smooth and steady ride while Rothman’s was bumpy and unpredictable. Voters began to settle in and notice the two types of campaigns and candidates. Moreover, Pascrell ran against Republicans while Rothman was almost always running against Pascrell. Early on when Rothman decided to face Pascrell, it looked like an uphill climb for Pascrell to win. However, the Paterson fighter proved worthy to the challenge as he not only climbed the mountain, but knocked Rothman down it.
It looked like the face would a true toss up down the stretch. However, Pascrell turned an underdog challenge into a heavyweight knock out of Rothman beating his fellow congressman 61% to 39%. The two key counties for both men proved as such as Passaic turned out heavily for Pascrell while Bergen did not do the same for Rothman. It was an almost fitting end to the type of contest it turned in.
There have definitely been quite a few elections over the last half decade that rise above the typical contests that most residents have come to accept or expect. There will likely be a few worthy choices that will emerge over the next decade or half decade as shown in this list. Like a few of the choices, intraparty battles sometimes give voters more drama and unpredictability. In 2013, there could be two potential choices: the Democratic primary for governor and the 2013 gubernatorial election with Governor Chris Christie against the Democratic primary winner.
Continuing down the road, there is also the potential for Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ7) to face another round of challenges from both Democrats and Republicans alike, CD-3 could be a battleground area every two years, the mayoral election in Jersey might unfold in many ways, and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Newark Mayor Cory Booker might be headed towards a primary faceoff.
Battles for the State Legislature, Congress, and the Presidency will likely provide different types of stories as well overall.
For a state that sometimes could be labeled with a status quo climate; there are times when elections get interesting and PolitickerNJ showed that over the last 5 years alone.