The battle in LD37 is among the most bitter and personal, but also hotly cynical. The story seems to be playing like a drama fit for television. With Senator Loretta Weinberg retiring, her successor—almost certainly a Democrat given the history and political demographics of the district—will not come to power without enduring a scathing primary campaign. Assemblymembers Gordon Johnson and Valerie Vanieri Huttle have been locking horns and nothing, it seems, is off the table.
It would make a compelling movie, except the characters are real and the contest to serve the district is laying open some very dire wounds for Dr. Dierdre Paul. Paul had been a Democrat but became a Republican in 2013, disgusted with the Democratic machine in Bergen county.
The drama is also as bizarre as it is cutting. In the close sense, Paul has accused Assemblyman Gordon Johnson of inappropriate sexual conduct in 2008. At the time, she was seeking a seat on the Englewood council. She said that during a conversation with the Assemblyman, she said she would like to get married again. She alleged that Johnson had suggested she become his concubine because she was too old to get married again and that her political prospects would depend on what she was willing to do for Englewood.
According to Politico, Paul emailed a number of Democrats, including Weinberg, Johnson, and Huttle about what had happened. Weinberg, Johnson, and Huttle apparently all denied receiving such an email.
As the 2021 campaign has marched on, Paul said on social media that while she had high esteem for Senator Weinberg, despite having ideological disagreements, neither Johnson nor Huttle “were eligible to tie her shoes.” But of the two, she “grudgingly” conceded online that of the two, Johnson was a better successor to Weinberg than Huttle.
A recent communique from Paul to Huttle through social media, however, exposed the intensely personal nature of their feud. The former friends and colleagues are split over Johnson, with Paul accusing Huttle of using her experience with Johnson for her own political leverage, trying to undermine the off-the-line contender’s campaign. Johnson has served in the Assembly for nearly two decades. The Huttle campaign attacked Johnson in more than one statement, while not specifically mentioning Paul in those exact statements, but referring to the incident in some detail and demanding the assemblyman “come clean.” Paul said that Huttle mentioned her twice by name during an hour-long online debate hosted by the NJ Globe.
Johnson had said he did not recall making such comments to Paul and said he had never been accused of impropriety.
Paul was incensed – with Huttle. “Do you remember when you personally asked me to serve as the Chair of the Englewood Democratic Municipal Committee in June 2008 because you claimed that you were impressed with my political skill? …So, apparently, I thought you were a friend and I told all of my friends about the incident discussed in the email that has been so widely publicized by someone other than me,” Paul continued. “I want you to hear how I am affected each time you use my story for your own political advantage and reinforce negative stereotypes that Black women are often willing to be used by the White, political establishment (even if it is for the purpose of disparaging Black men) for mere trinkets and a little media attention that wouldn’t be offered to a thinking person.”
She further added that “I am a person who has remained in politics since 2007 because I legitimately wish to be a public servant and help people. Just as you recognized my political skill, others have as well. I like to think that skill and my intellect rather than my sexuality will get me where I need to go. Each time there’s even the intimation that I have to depend on keeping in some man’s good graces to serve in a different capacity, I am insulted and hurt. And any man with whom I have regular contact or I have actually loved will tell you that I am fiercely independent and want to do everything on my own merits.”
She closed by telling Huttle “I am putting you on notice” and threatening legal action if she should “continue to use my experience for political advantage”.
It is difficult to unpack the dark depths of the state of Bergen County inter-party politics when a situation has devolved into one so bitter and nakedly cutthroat. Prior to going public about her allegations of Johnson’s misconduct, Paul—installed in 2020 as the Bergen County Women’s Republican President at that—would, in a way, endorse Democrat Gordon Johnson. Indeed, the man who she said verbally exploited her sexually, was a better choice than Valerie Huttle who she said is “an ideologue,” had done nothing to improve the lot of persons of color, and only attended functions that were of benefit her.
That is, in a word, intense. If it is realpolitik, putting public political function over her own personal experience with Johnson, then it is a raw example of iron pragmatism.
It is highly unlikely that a Republican will emerge the victor in the November election. But either Democratic candidate will return to Trenton looking worse for wear. The political establishment itself suffers as a whole when the character of both choices is marred on such a level. Public confidence is eroded, regardless of the outcome, unless there is some clear demonstration of accountability. The Bergen county Democrats in particular will be forced to do some soul searching and, perhaps, housekeeping.
Johnson has rolled up endorsements from Governor Murphy and Lt. Governor Oliver. The Murphy campaign has had to contend with allegations of sexual misconduct as well, a matter which has largely been ignored since the pandemic took center stage. But prior to the coronavirus, Senator Weinberg herself oversaw the hearings of women’s complaints against Murphy administration officials. It is a strange twist of fate that a would-be successor to Weinberg’s seat in LD37 would also be embattled with sexual misconduct allegations of his own, and stranger still framed as the preferable choice by an alleged sexual harassment victim than his own primary opponent.