DENVILLE – Anthony M. Bucco was doing some pandemic-related outdoor dining the other day in the heart of his 25th District when he sized up his reelection strategy, or actually his career, this way:
“I think (if) you said to somebody, ‘what do you think about Tony Bucco?’ I think their answer would be, ‘he works really hard for the district.'”
That may be tested in what is a very odd, and difficult to figure, state Senate race in a district that covers northern and western Morris County and one town, Bernardsville, in Somerset.
As Bucco noted, the state constitution arranged for legislative elections to occur in odd years so they would not conflict, or get lost, in the hoopla of a presidential race. This year is different because of the death last fall of Anthony R. Bucco, the current senator’s father. His son was selected to fill the vacancy, but now the younger Bucco must run for the seat himself in a special election this November.
The presidential race certainly creates an unknown variable.
“We are going to see unprecedented levels of turnout,” predicted Rupande Mehta, the Democratic Senate
candidate, in a chat that also took place at an outdoor dining spot in Denville.
These things are hard to judge, but Mehta probably hopes a big turnout would help her.
Republicans still hold about a 5,000-vote registration advantage in the district, but the gap is narrowing; it was 9,000 two years ago. A presidential election could bring out voters who don’t usually participate in a state Legislative race. How they will vote – or if
they vote for the Legislature at all – is an unknown.
With that in mind, Bucco said it’s incumbent upon him to make sure the race focuses on state issues and where the state is headed.
Not surprisingly, Bucco is unhappy with the status quo under Gov. Phil Murphy.
For starters, he says the governor’s nearly $10 billion bonding plan is “bad policy.” He also faults Murphy for problems we’ve seen with the unemployment insurance system and the Motor Vehicle Commission.
Lines have been common since MVC offices reopened after the early round of pandemic closures and some laid off workers have waited months to get benefits. Bucco says the governor had no plan.
He said the problem with unemployment benefits is so acute, his office has had to resolve around 1,200 claims.
Asked about his opponent, Bucco said he really doesn’t know that much about her, other than the fact she’s run for office a few times and lost.
Mehta, a market researcher, unsuccessfully ran for the council in her hometown of Denville in 2017 and for Morris County freeholder in 2018.
On the plus side, she won a three-person party convention battle in March to get the Democratic Senate nomination.
In what New Jersey Republicans are also wont to say, Mehta said “affordability is a very big issue” affecting the state.
Hoping to somehow reduce property taxes, Mehta says, “We have to look at consolidation.” She would like to see school districts and municipalities consolidate at least administrative functions to save money.
This is not a new concept by any means. The perpetual stumbling block has been the state’s embrace of “home rule.”
Mehta knows it’s hard to persuade local officials to give up the power they have. So she wants to go to the public.
“We have to educate folks – put in front of them a viable case why this (consolidation) is a good idea,” she says. “Obviously, nobody wants not to have lower taxes.”
Democrats hold all the power in New Jersey state government and also control 10 of the 12 congressional seats. So, what will Mehta say to voters inclined to back Republicans simply for the sake of having a viable opposition party?
Her answer is that she is determined to be an “independent” voice and not simply go along with party leadership.
“My opponent has not been an independent voice,” Mehta said.
Bucco, naturally disagrees. He also takes pride in constituent service, which was also a strength of his late father’s time in government.
He said a prime example was his work in the aftermath of the recent storm that resulted in many residents losing power. Bucco said he spoke to every mayor in the district about their needs and also contacted JCP&L on behalf of an elderly woman on oxygen who had lost electricity.
“I’m in contact with people in the district every day,” Bucco said.