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Incumbent Legislators Face Progressive Primary Challenge

In Wake of Trump's Victory, Progressive Democrats Challenge The Establishment
Two Teams
On the left is the team of incumbents. On the right are their challengers in the hottest primary election in Central NJ. Facebook/Twitter

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In the state primary election on June 6, voters in legislative district 17 will choose between incumbent career Democrats and their challengers, who promise progressive policies.

Bill Irwin, President of the Piscataway school board will challenge incumbent State Senator Bob Smith in the hottest contest on the ballot.

Irwin's running mates, New Brunswick resident Heather Fenyk and Piscataway's Ralph Johnson, will take on Smith's team of incumbent Assemblymen, Franklin's Joseph Danielsen and Joseph Egan, of New Brunswick.

Irwin, Fenyk and Johnson are all first-time contenders for state-level office, though Johnson and Irwin have previously won election to the Piscataway Board of Education.

They have banded together with other progressives across the county under the slogan Central Jersey Progressive Democrats (CJPD), exhorting voters to choose “Column C for Change.”

The challengers’ promise to bring social, political, and economic justice that includes fighting against President Donald Trump’s anti- immigrant stance, with Irwin saying that one of the most pressing social issues in District 17 is protecting undocumented immigrant families from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They support raising the state minimum wage to $15 per hour, bringing transparency to campaign finance and providing communities greater access and engagement in decision-making that affects them.

New Jersey legislative primaries often don't garner much attention or see a high voter turnout, but that isn’t discouraging the group from challenging establishment candidates.

“More and more folks wanted to get involved in committee races,” said Irwin. “We looked at the Democratic leaders we have representing us, and did not see champions of working people.”

The CJPD movement started as a meeting of 13 people in Irwin’s living room, he recalled.

It was a few days after the presidential election, and the group of Piscataway residents wanted to talk about what they could do locally to resist the Trump administration.

Their numbers have grown to over 250 in the months since, with more than 70 having filed as candidates in Central Jersey races, with Irwin leading the ticket as a candidate for State Senate.

Irwin faces a powerful incumbent Senator in Bob Smith, a fellow Piscataway resident, former mayor, and private attorney who has represented the district since 2002.

Smith serves in the Judiciary Committee and is Chair of the Environment Committee.  Smith is one of the longest-serving Senators and has raised a reported $669,513 in his campaign this year, one of the largest sums for any candidate in a contested primary.

Despite the natural exchange of bitter words, the two Piscataway tickets have remained civil neighbors, and CJPD has stated that they aren’t running to rebuke Smith’s record.

Irwin and his team know it is an uphill battle challenging such powerful politicians.

“Even though they have the ability to outspend us thirty to one, our momentum has been great and I think it’s an affirmation that the energy of the Democratic party is in its progressive base right now,” said Irwin.

Smith maintains that the 17th district’s Democratic team is “one of the most progressive in the country” and says Central Jersey Progressive Democrats are trying to divide the party.

The Progressive Democrats sued Middlesex County Clerk Elaine Flynn after Flynn led them to believe they would appear in the favorable Column A on the ballot, only to place them on Column C.

Flynn’s alleged refusal to provide the campaign proofs of what the ballot would look like appears to be a symptom of the larger web of political bureaucracy and dirty politics in the district.

Senator Bob Smith’s association with and influence over shady political fundraising organizations has raised many questions, even moreso given his day job as land use attorney and owner of a law firm, Bob Smith & Associates.

The firm shares the same address as his legislative office in Piscataway, and Smith holds positions in two important senate committees.

He chairs the Senate Environment and Energy Committee and is a member of the Judiciary Committee, both of which are among the most powerful in the senate.

Smith has sponsored and passed laws to reform the state’s oil spill prevention efforts, protect citizens from lead poisoning, and increase penalties for violations of environmental laws and carjacking.

Though he has been recognized for his efforts toward protecting the environment and has passed legislation to keep New Jersey’s water clean, the public interest is often at odds with his role as a practicing attorney in the very county that he represents in the Senate.

On closer inspection, Smith’s record might appear more establishment than progressive, and Irwin describes him as a “transactional Democrat” entrenched in classic New Jersey politics. 

Several publications including this newspaper have revealed the existence of multiple political action committees (PAC's) that received donations from the same group of corporations, developers, and other businesses.

Most of the monies from these donations went to campaigns for elected officials from Middlesex county, circumventing pay-to-play reform laws that limit the size of donations from companies that want to do business with the government. Smith has denied any questionable role in the PACs.

An obvious case of conflict of interest appeared in 2012, when PolitickerNJ.com reported an application filed by the Middlesex County Planning Board for approval to allow alternate board members to vote on legislation in the absence of regular members was made to the senator.

The agenda for the proceedings also contained a request for approval for a 108-acre Chevron plant in Perth Amboy and Woodbridge.

The attorney for Chevron was Smith himself, and the application was approved.

When the Christie administration wanted to allow a company called Soil Safe to pour millions of tons of soil, treated for petroleum contamination, on a stretch of cyanide-infused sludge pits in Carteret in 2014, Smith represented the company at a hearing before a government board.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection approved the plan, despite concerns from several members and scientists that a flood could potentially wash the mound of dirt into the Rahway River, posing a threat to the environment and to public safety.

For his part, Smith denies any conflicts of interest from his donors or his work as a lawyer and says he takes the toughest environmental stance, mentioning his opposition to plans for a new natural gas compressor station in Franklin Township.

But Smith’s challenger, who also opposes the compressor station, disagrees about the incumbent's conflicts.

Asked if he brings a cleaner slate to politics in the district than Smith, Irwin cited the Soil Safe case, and argued he has no conflicts of interest.

"I have no conflicts of interest, and also do not have large campaign donors or interest groups to answer to," said Irwin.  "It is not reasonable to expect that we will have political leadership that truly represents the interests of the vast majority of the people when that leadership owes their offices to the money and power of a wealthy few."

Smith’s voting record identifies him as a consistently left-leaning senator for the past 15 years.

His ascent to power however, was unusual, because the seat was handed to him by his predecessor, John Lynch, who went to prison on corruption charges in 2007.

Heather Fenyk and Ralph Johnson are joining Irwin down-ballot, and running for the district's two seats in the General Assembly.

Like the State Senate race, the candidates are all running in five municipalities: New Brunswick, Piscataway, Franklin, Milltown, and North Brunswick.

Assemblyman Joseph Danielsen has been in the Assembly since 2014 when he replaced Upendra Chivukula, of Franklin.

Assemblyman Joseph Egan has served since 2002 and is currently the Assembly's Deputy Majority Leader.

On the 2014-2015 legislative scorecard maintained by the New Jersey arm of the ACLU, Danielsen scored a 100% on his voting records while Egan scored 89%.

Egan has voted against end-of-life assistance from physicians, while Danielsen voted yes.

Egan did not vote on a bill, introduced after Trump’s victory, that requires presidential candidates to disclose tax returns. Danielsen voted yes.

From 2002 to 2010, Egan served on the New Brunswick City Council while also serving in the assembly, benefitting from the practice of holding dual offices in New Jersey.

Dual-office holding has since been banned in the state, though those in multiple offices at the time were "grandfathered."  In 2011, Egan’s son took over the council seat.

Challenger Heather Fenyk is a founding member of the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance and Green Team. She also founded the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership.

She suggested, in an email, that her opponents could do better in responding to homelessness and providing affordable housing.

Fenyk said her focus was remediating polluted areas, and primarily, providing improved community engagement in decision making that affects local communities.

Her running mate, Ralph Johnson, worked in law enforcement and has worked as an educator and school administrator.

“One of the biggest complaints I hear when talking to voters is that our current representatives do not address their concerns -- or even have staff who answer their phones,” wrote Johnson.  "Our communities are tired of being taken for granted; we all members have a fundamental right to be heard."

Among other issues, Johnson said he intends to fight for better funding for district schools, and representing working families, not millionaires.