Nine Tuesday Contests (and a Few Others): InsiderNJ’s Primary Guide

Mapp, and HIllside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese

Although New Jersey usually provides at least one surprise, political insiders on a Zoom call considered Tuesday’s primary elections and could not predict a June 8th upset.

Many – or at least some significant – past overthrows occurred in May nonpartisan elections (including Wilda Diaz’s shocking 2008 upset of Joe Vas; and the less shocking but no more impressive Steve Fulop dethroning of Jerry Healy in 2013; and Hillside scrums, too). Of course, in these three towns alone, the machinery of county party in the case of Amboy, personal ambition in the case of Jersey City, and party maneuvering in Hillside, realigned those contests as partisan June-November – not May – affairs. The result makes the conditions of local contests more susceptible to the governor at the top of the ticket and the controlling forces of county organizations and their choices.

Also, the national overreach by Donald Trump and exhausted conditions around COVID-19 set up the perfect reinforcing environment for the Democratic Party establishment – which has the organizational upper-hand in this state – to consolidate power and minimize insurrectionary activities.  “Insurrectionary”, that has become another words in these times for someone – a citizen – having the temerity to vote for an alternative other than what the party wants to ram back into office.

The following list groups together those areas of greatest pushing and shoving, where again, in each case, the organization-backed candidate begins Election Day as the favorite. Others on the radar include LD11, where the Monmouth County GOP dumped incumbent Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-13) and seeks to supplant her with Holmdel School Board Prez Vicky Flynn; LD2, where former Assemblyman Vince Polistina (R-2) seeks the nomination of his party for the senate seat occupied by retiring Senator Chris Brown (R-2) by outbidding movement conservative Seth Grossman; LD24, where Republican state Senator Steve Oroho looks to stare down challenger Dan Cruz; and Morristown, where Democratic incumbent Tim Dougherty seeks a win against primary challenger Esperanza Porras-Field.


The Camden County Democratic Organization gave incumbent Mayor Frank Moran the heave ho and


supplanted him with Councilman Vic Carstarphen, who now occupies the mayor’s seat and faces three challengers in the Democratic Primary: School Board Member Elton Custis, Councilwoman Felisha Reyes Morton, and local educator Luis Quinones. An outright opponent of the county machine, Custis in particular made a point of noting Carstarphen’s support for measures he says hurt the people of Camden while serving the business interest’s of the county’s network. He might have had some support in high places, because Camden County and incumbent Governor Phil Murphy fought for the first half of his term, with Camden County power broker George Norcross predicting a primary challenge for his statewide political foe. But in the ultimate sign of healed wounds in time for Election Day, Murphy this past Friday issued a loving endorsement of Carstarphen, proving his (and the county organization’s) understanding of the advantage of that all powerful (and timely) concept otherwise known as spiritual enlightenment.

Issues like Carstarphen’s residency (his neighbors insist he doesn’t maintain full-time residency in the city), his vote in support of a resolution to hand over the city’s finances to the county, his backing of the $11.5 billion tax incentives that benefited Norcross’ business allies, the perils of food markets and the coming likelihood of Camden lacking its only full-service supermarket, and voter suppression tactics championed by the party organization, all but dissolved within the reality of Democratic Party process.

In more proof that the county organization would use the muscle of its position to make it hard for a challenger to gain traction (or for a voter to know that a challenger even exists), Custis (and the other alternative candidates) surfaced in a very hard-to-find ballot position, while Carstarphen enjoys a position on the county line under the governor.


Joshi and Murphy
Joshi and Murphy

Faced with his own embattled incumbent mayor (Tom Lankey), and in search of the kind of control Norcross exerts in Camden, Middlesex County Democratic Organization Kevin McCabe yanked anti-county candidate Mahesh Bhagia off the line in a messier version of the artful political guillotining practiced by his South Jersey counterparts. McCabe backed Edison Vice President Sam Joshi, who subsequently picked up the endorsements of nearly every elected official connected to the network of the county party organization, the triumvirate of Murphy and Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker giving him supposedly the biggest power boost.

Bhagia has tried to make the contest about issues: tax hikes, Edison lacking tax fairness at the county level, overcrowding in the schools, sprawl, degraded town facilities, and establishment abuse. But again, in the recurring theme of this election cycle, the Middlesex Democrats and Joshi trust in their candidate’s process advantages. While Bhagia attempts to talk substantively about Edison’s problems, they merely unleash the Ork-sized army of Democratic Party insiders to engulf and overwhelm him. Intellectually offended by the opposition but grudgingly alert to process reality, his allies insist Bhagia – the local Democratic Party chairman and the backer of allies who control the School Board – possesses sufficient organization in Edison itself to make Middlesex sweat on Tuesday while McCabe seeks Norcross-like statewide vistas.


The coming retirement of Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) put the two assembly-people

Vainieri Huttle and Johnson
Vainieri Huttle and Johnson

in the Democratic Party-dominant 37th District on a primary collision course. In another example of organizational power playing a critical role, the Bergen County Democratic Committee backed Assemblyman Gordon Johnson over slate mate Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, placing him in an organizationally advantageous position.

Again, Huttle has tried to make the contest about issues, specifically emphasizing her advocacy as a key  progressive  in the legislature on everything from marriage equality, to anti-bullying, to police reform. Easygoing and noncombative, Johnson has leaned on the organization (and the same network of politically uncomplicated pals, from the governor to the U.S. Senators, to legislative leadership which has advanced progressive causes just far enough to die in time for this year’s general election to spare themselves battleground discomfort) to reinforce the idea that the contest is already over.

Whatever the outcome, Huttle sees Tuesday as a significant battle for independent leadership in the legislature, while Johnson accepts Trenton as a city of compromise, and his very presence as emblematic of that political condition.

From InsiderNJ’s John Van Vliet:

“When Democrats go to the polls on Primary Day, and effectively choose Weinberg’s successor then and there, the chapter can finally be closed on one of the most dizzying state-level races of the season.  The fall-out from the race and how the Bergen Democratic landscape is affected will then fall into the laps of the chairman and committees.  They will have the task of reconciling or reckoning with the contentious factions.”


From InsiderNJ star Fred Snowflack, on this Republican Primary and its significance countywide in Morris in a town with a sitting Democratic Mayor:

“The Republican mayoral primary between Jamie Barberio and Lou Valori is oddly low-key, but at least there’s some comic relief. The stakes here are pretty high. Barberio was mayor for eight years before his ouster in 2017 by Democrat Mike Soriano. Now, Barberio wants his old job back, but first he must defeat Valori, a former township police officer and councilman. Parsippany is by far the most populous town in Morris County and Republicans badly want to reclaim the mayor’s seat. And the fear of Soriano winning again is palpable among active Republicans. At a meeting of the township’s GOP club a few weeks ago, some speakers warned with trepidation that another win by Democrats could put the town in the “blue” camp forever.”

Atlantic City

Mayor Small of Atlantic City.
Mayor Small of Atlantic City.

In another Democratic Primary, incumbent Mayor Marty Small has the upper-hand against challenger Tom Foley.

The local contest featured another instance of a county chair, in this case Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Mike Suleiman, awarding the line without concern for the wishes of the local party organization. The reason? Craig Callaway controls that organization, and last year Callaway worked for U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2).  Suleiman wasn’t about to have a Republican operative picking the Democratic nominee to run against the incumbent mayor, so he gave the line to Small, who on June 8th has the strong edge to defeat a MAGA-affiliated “Democrat.”

A Wyatt billboard on downtown Plainfield.
A Wyatt billboard on downtown Plainfield.


Mayor Adrian Mapp faces three challengers in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary, but one of them – School Board Member Richard Wyatt – has significant traction. Once the face of the progressive movement in Union County, Mapp aligned himself with Union County Democratic Organization Chairman Nick Scutari, which gives his campaign access to institutional support in a pinch. Wyatt on Saturday mentioned how the party has tried to blot out any potential he has to beat Mapp this coming week, but at the very least he has the attention of Mapp and his supporters.


A mailer targeting DeCroce.

Incumbent Assemblypeople Jay Webber and BettyLou DeCroce don’t get along, and every two years they find slightly different ways of expressing their mutual disaffection while mutually surviving and beginning the uncomfortable cycle all over again. This year, Webber – a movement conservative who burnishes the backing he had in 2018 from Donald Trump has paired up with challenger Christian Barranco; while DeCroce runs with Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastraneglo.

Barranco stunned DeCroce this year for the county party line, but it’s complicated.

Anti-establishment Republicans in Morris don’t exactly respect the line, so its strength or lack thereof, or nuanced position in this contest, may come into play. That said, Webber and deCroce maintain high name ID in the county, and significantly, Webber – trusting in part in the pro-Trump wing of the party – has gone nuclear.


Democratic challenger Assemblyman Jamel Holley and incumbent state Senator Joe Cryan got

Cryan in his remarks quoted the Grateful dead: "What a long, strange trip it's been."

entangled early and often, with the assemblyman using some incendiary language to characterize his slate mate and Cryan basically grimacing in agony. In a countywide Democratic Party war for the chairmanship, Holley sided with eventual winner state Senator Nick Scutari (D-22), but somehow, by the time 2021 rolled around, the assemblyman found himself outside the Scutari-Cryan political social circle, dumped off the hallowed party line and in a visceral fight to stay politically alive.

Cryan’s allies would likely argue with the word “fight.”

In this Democratic Primary for Cryan’s senate seat, the incumbent has essentially dented and re-dented his opponent by emphasizing his fellow Democrat’s refusal to support the vaccine bill, and playing to the 101.5 FM crowd, the last desperate refuge of a Lesniak-Scutari deprived ally.

Singh and Ciattarelli
Singh and Ciattarelli


GOP Gubernatorial Election

“Hirsh Singh for Governor, and Jeff Grant for state Senate ,” the bullhorn roared on the street in LD16, where the anti-establishment GOP ticket hopes to cut into statewide frontrunner Jack Ciattarelli and his districtwide ally, Mike Pappas. The relatively moderate Ciattarelli says he’s the only Republican candidate who can beat incumbent Democrat Murphy in the general election.  But in the process of trying to be palatable to the many, the former Ld16 assemblyman has alienated hardcore Republicans who believe Trump won the election, Singh and his allies argue.

From InsiderNJ columnist Bob Hennelly:

This year, the four-way GOP race for the gubernatorial nomination will be every much about whether or not New Jersey Republicans believe that the 2020 Presidential Election was stolen or not as it is about who should challenge Gov. Murphy in November.

Incredibly, five months after former President Trump directed an angry mob on Jan. 6 to head up to Capitol Hill and “stop the steal” of the 2020 election, the question of the last election’s legitimacy dominated the May 25 101.5 FM New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission debate.

The broadcast face-off was between Jack Ciattarelli, who has lined up the state’s county Republican organizations, and Hirsh Singh, a Trump acolyte, who believes that Joe Biden stole the last election. Only Ciattarelli and Singh met ELEC’s qualifications to participate, even though Brian Levine and Phillip Rizzo are both on the ballot.

When asked by 101.5 FM’s Eric Scott who actually won the 2020 election, Singh responded “we all know Trump won” adding that “there are election results being disqualified all over the country.”

Scott did not ask Singh to substantiate his claims by offering even just one example of where 2020 election results were “being disqualified” which should have been easy enough since it was happening “all over the country.”

“So, I hope we will get back to Phil Murphy and New Jersey, but Joe Biden won the presidency,” countered Ciattarelli. “The Trump campaign and the Trump team filed 62 lawsuits around the country with regard to voter fraud and voter irregularity. Two of those cases made it up to the Supreme Court which has a majority of Trump appointees and conservative justices and the decisions went against the Trump team 9 to 0. Joe Biden is our president.”

Dangerous words for Ciattarelli?

Most people don’t think so, predicting a resounding Singh loss.

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