The Blue Hills of Lykins’ Sussex County

Deana Lykins says her new hometown of rural Green Township in Sussex County looks a lot like her native Kentucky.

But the picture changes quickly when it comes to politics. Lykins says that when she grew up in Owen, Ky.,  her home county was more than 90 percent Democratic. Green Township and most of Sussex County is staunchly Republican, a designation that makes the county at the top of New Jersey something of an outlier these days.

That’s a challenge for Lykins, 47, who was the first Democrat to announce plans to run for the state Assembly in the 24th District. She has since picked up a runningmate, Dan Smith of Mount Olive.
Gerrymandering has made many legislative districts a bit oddly-shaped. But in comparison to many others, District 24 seems logically put together. It includes all of Sussex County, 11 towns in equally-rural Warren County and one, just one, municipality in Morris County – Mount Olive.

This is solid GOP territory to be sure. Two years ago, Republican incumbents Parker Space, a colorful sort who caused a commotion awhile back by posing with the Confederate battle flag, and Hal Wirths, a more conventional type who used to run the state labor department, won reelection easily. And that was a good year for Democrats. Recall that Phil Murphy was elected governor overwhelmingly in 2017.

Hope for Democrats comes with the knowledge that 2018 was even a better year for them. When the election ended, all of Sussex, and for that matter, all of northwest New Jersey, was suddenly represented in Congress by Democrats. Josh Gottheimer in the 5th District didn’t carry Sussex, but he lost by only about 5,000 votes. Mikie Sherrill, whose 11th District includes a handful of towns in the southern end of the county,  lost to Republican Jay Webber by only a thousand votes, Losses are, of course, losses, but close races give challengers more hope than blowouts.

“That influenced my thinking,” Lykins acknowledged, referring to last year.

That’s no surprise, but here’s the question that will make this race and all other legislative contests this year interesting to watch. Can those on the left duplicate the excitement that propelled their success last fall?

“The Democrats I run into are pretty hard core,”: Lykins says. “Are we going to get larger groups excited? That’s the goal. I don’t know. I hope so.”

She notes that Democrats already control the Assembly, but asserts that having an entire Republican legislative delegation doesn’t help the district in terms of funding and support for local issues.
Like many of the voters who fueled last fall’s success stories for the Dems. Lykins said she is motivated by Donald Trump’s win in 2016. Expressing frustration with how national politics unfolded, Lykins said she decided to get involved in the “front end.”  She at first expressed interest in local office, but was told that her background makes her a good candidate for the Assembly.

Her resume is varied. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, (yes, she is a devoted fan of the school’s storied basketball team), Lykins came to New Jersey in 1998. Most relevant to her mission at hand, she worked for the Senate Democrats in the early 2000’s. More recently, she worked in the insurance business and now is director of development for Project Self-Sufficiency, a non-profit in Newton that seeks to help low-income families.

Lykins says she grew up in a family who were “yellow dog Democrats,” and seems to hold those same moderate views today.

She said she would vote “no” on legalizing marijuana, a chief goal of the Murphy Administration. Lykins referred to the opioid epidemic, adding she doesn’t want to do anything that may make the problem worse.

Of course, that issue may be decided this year, months before Lykins would get to the Assembly anyway.
She also has mixed views on a recently-signed bill to eventually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. It goes from $8.85 to $10 this July and then jumps incrementally over the next few years. Her concern is that a higher wage may prevent younger or unskilled workers from getting hired. She says there’s a fair amount of poverty in Sussex and jobs are needed.

Census data shows that  the population in Sussex has decreased from about 148,000 to about 141,000 since 2010. That brings problems such as reduced state aid.

This is not necessarily a partisan issue. Many young people growing up in Sussex apparently would rather spend their young adult years in, say, Hoboken, (where Lykins once lived) as opposed to Ogdensburg. Politics can’t really solve that problem, but Lykins says transportation improvements,and most especially train service, can make the county more attractive to young people raising families.

The state’s Highlands Act, which was passed almost 15 years ago now, limits development in much of the district. Lykins admits it’s tough to find the needed balance between preserving land and ensuring there’s enough population growth to maintain a good public school system. As she put it, people want clean water, but they don’t want their schools to close.

Virtually all candidates these days say they have the ability to “reach across the aisle.” It’s an obvious cliche. Lykins to her credit did not say that when we met for lunch Monday in Newton. But she did say a good friend she still has from her days working in Trenton is Sen. Gerry Cardinale. The Republican from Bergen County may be the most right-wing voice in the Senate.

You probably can’t get more “across the aisle” than that.

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