Where are the primary challengers in the state Assembly election?

This article is being cross-posted to the site BlueJersey.com, the state’s “progressive source of news, political analysis and activism in New Jersey”.

Everyone who’s had an eye on the state’s economic performance the past few years knows that New Jersey hasn’t been doing well recently. As the United States climbs out of the recession, the Garden State is still stuck in neutral. The state’s economy still has only about 60% of the jobs today than it did before the recession, the unemployment rate is still a full percentage point higher than the national average, and the foreclosure crisis is still in full effect in the state.

With such a bleak outlook for the state, many people agree that something has to be done to get the state’s economy back on track. Legislators on the left and right have tried coming up with ways to address budget issues and the state’s anemic job growth. But after several years of plan making and position taking, nothing’s actually worked for state residents. All of the state’s numbers are sliding in the wrong direction.

Which brings me to this year’s statewide election. Every seat in the Assembly, the state’s lower legislative chamber, is up for grabs. If there was ever a time to put pressure on state lawmakers to do what’s really needed to get the state back on track, now would be the time. Clearly what politicians on both sides of the aisle have been trying hasn’t been working, and some fresh, creative solutions are needed. We should be having a vigorous debate in each legislative district about how we got into this station and what’s needed to get out of it. Lawmakers should feel like their jobs are on the line, that this election is a referendum on their ability to govern a state at a crossroads.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to have that conversation or anything close to it. Of all the legislators up for reelection, pitifully few of them will even have to fight to make it to the general election in November. This is due to the fact that of all the seats up for grabs, almost none of them have competitive primaries, meaning the lawmakers you see in the Assembly this year are almost guaranteed to be the ones you see next year.

What does it mean in for a primary election for the Assembly to be competitive? Consider that there are 40 legislative districts in New Jersey, and that each district sends two people to the Assembly. In the primary election in June, the top two vote getters for each party in each district get to go to the general election in November. This means that for a primary to be competitive, there needs to be more than two candidates in a party on the primary ballot.

With this in mind, I took a look at the list of primary candidates for each legislative district in the state (available here). Scanning the list and starting with the first district, I had to reach district number nine before I hit a competitive primary, a 4-way race on the Republican side. It wasn’t again until the 15th District that another competitive primary showed up, this time a 3-way race on the Democratic side. Other highlights include a 6-way Democratic primary in the 20th District in Union County and a 7-way Democratic primary in the 31st District in Hudson County.

Overall, out of a possible 80 primary elections (for both Democrats and Republicans in each of the 40 legislative districts), there were only five that were competitive. That means that just over 6% of total primary races in the state were even worth showing up to the ballot for.

To put it simply, that’s pathetic. The lack of competitive primary races gives a free pass to legislators who have done little to nothing to fix what’s wrong with New Jersey. And in a state that used to be a shining example of success in the Northeast but whose peers are all now passing it by, it’s just unacceptable.

As John Oliver rightfully said, state legislatures are where laws that directly affect you are made. The policy decisions that dictate whether your roads are paved, your trains are on time, or your pensions are funded are all made in Trenton. So it’s disheartening that there is so little competition for those jobs, and that we keep sending the same people back year after year and expecting different results. How do we really expect to move New Jersey forward?


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