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No one really talks of “battleground” districts as they do battleground states, but if they did, one such district this time around would be the 21st in parts of Union, Somerset and Morris counties.
Assembly members Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz are the Republican incumbents in this mostly suburban and affluent district. But given the success Democrats had with suburban voters last fall in winning all but one New Jersey House seat, their reelection path may not be easy. Complicating matters are plans of two proclaimed conservatives to run as independents this fall.
The last thing district Republicans need is for GOP incumbents to be challenged from the right in a general election. After all, this 16-town district is becoming more competitive. Bramnick and Munoz won reelection two years ago by about 2,500 votes.
Democrats stand to benefit from the independent challenge, but they can’t afford to get too far ahead of themselves. They have an intra-party battle themselves on tap for the June primary.
Democrats in Union County, which makes up a majority of the district, have endorsed Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman for the two seats. Also running is Jill LaZare. This sets up an interesting primary, given the fact LaZare has run three times in the district, two times for Assembly, and in 2017, for state Senate against incumbent Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr., losing by about 6,000 votes.
Primaries most usually have more to do with experience and personal alliances than they do issues. Keep in mind all primary candidates share a similar political philosophy.
LaZare in a recent interview talked about her experience running in the district in addition to her work with the National Organization for Women, a key Democratic interest group. A public defender in Roselle Park, LaZare said she wants to help combat drug addiction of all kind, having lost a daughter to a drug overdose in 2012.
Like many Legislative candidates on both sides of the aisle, LaZare says there’s a need to improve NJTransit and that affordable housing requirements need to be more reasonable. That won’t be easy. New Jersey’s affordable housing mandate, which dates back to the Mt. Laurel court decision of more than 40 years ago, remains one of the state’s most contentious and difficult issues. Many governors have pledged to fix it; none has succeeded.
Gunderman chairs the New Providence Democratic Committee. Mandelblatt was one of about a half dozen Democrats who pursued the party’s 7th District congressional nod last year, a contest that was won by the district’s current congressman, Tom Malinowski.
Efforts this week to reach the Mandelblatt-Gunderman team for comment were unsuccessful.
Beyond the primary, the key question is whether the surge in Democratic activity that we saw last fall will repeat itself.
“There is a grassroots effort that continues to simmer,” said a confident LaZare.