The retirement of State Sen. Loretta Weinberg has set off a battle in the Democratic party not only for the nomination for her Senate seat in the 37th Legislative District but for one in the Assembly as well.
With Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson each staking a claim for the Democratic nomination for the State Senate, an opening in the party would be created to fill the seat in the Assembly. Alpine, Bogota, Cresskill, Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, Fort Lee, Hackensack, Leonia, Northvale, Palisades Park, Rockleigh, Teaneck and Tenafly are the towns making up the legislative district.
Without attacking one another, Vainieri Huttle and Johnson, both Englewood residents, have amplified on a daily basis their endorsements they have received in their attempts to succeed Weinberg, the Senate Majority Leader who announced her retirement Jan. 13 after nearly 29 years in the legislature.
Vainieri Huttle, who is running as the torchbearer to continue Weinberg’s agenda on such progressive issues as women’s rights and equality, has received a wide breadth of backing from statewide organizations.
A group of 21 influential New Jersey progressive leaders—including Communications Workers of America (CWA) state director Hetty Rosenstein, NJ Working Families state director Sue Altman, and Murphy administration official Katie Brennan—have endorsed Vainieri Huttle for the nomination.
“As progressive leaders, we want to see New Jersey continue to move forward. Senate Majority Leader Weinberg was a giant in the Senate, she was a strong champion for equality and democracy,” the leaders said in their endorsement statement. “With her retirement, we believe that it is imperative that Senator Weinberg be succeeded by a progressive champion who will continue to fight for all of us.
They believe Vainieri Huttle “is that progressive champion.”
“Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle has led the fight to defend access to reproductive healthcare and to safeguard reproductive rights, she has worked to improve protections for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors and to advance conservation efforts in the state,” the progressive leaders stated. “(She has) led New Jersey’s efforts to combat human trafficking and to advance protections for the vulnerable, specifically seniors and individuals with developmental disabilities.”
Those backing Vainieri Huttle include Garden State Equality executive director Christian Fuscarino; New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault executive director Patricia Teffenhart; Bergen County YWCA CEO Helen Archontou; Democratic State Committee LGBT Caucus Chair Lauren Albrecht; HIV/AIDS services activist Axel Torres Marrero; Hyacinth Foundation executive Wesley McWhite III; Planned Parenthood executive Erin Chung; New Jersey Citizen Action executive director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, civil rights leader and Garden State Equality founder Steven Goldstein, Action Together New Jersey executive director Uyen “Winn” Khuong; Blue Wave New Jersey chair Marcia Marley; and Yarrow Willman-Cole, the workplace justice director at New Jersey Citizen Action.
Additionally, the National Organization of Women of New Jersey’s PAC is backing Huttle, noting there are currently only 10 women in the New Jersey Senate, representing 25% of the seats.
“It is essential that we elect more female leaders to our State Legislature where we are woefully under-represented,” NOW NJ PAC chair Linda Weber said. “Women need to have a voice in the legislation that impacts them.”
Among notable leaders in North Jersey supporting Vainieri Huttle are Englewood Democratic Municipal Chair Meisner Phil Meisner, former Bergen County Freeholder Linda Pollit Baer, whose husband, Byron, held the Senate seat before Weinberg won it in 2005, Tenafly Councilwoman Lauren Dayton and Democrats in Leonia led by Mayor Judah Zeigler.
Johnson’s endorsements since he entered the race have centered on gaining the backing of local leaders and leaders of the party, including the officers of the District 37 Democratic Committee in Bergen County.
“We would be lucky to have either of the two capable and dedicated public servants represent us in the State Senate,” wrote Chairman John Bang, Vice Chair Zonie LeSane, Treasurer John M. Hogan and Secretary Kenneth Martin in a statement released Jan. 20. “Both candidates are excellent public servants, and we could fill many pages praising them and their many accomplishments.”
But in their backing of Johnson, the leaders stated “Gordon Johnson not only holds a higher position within the Assembly, but he also has four more years of experience. We feel that Assemblyman Gordon Johnson is better situated to succeed Senator Weinberg.”
Hackensack Mayor John Labrosse, in announcing his endorsement, said that at this moment, when racial justice issues have taken such a prominent and necessary place in our national dialogue, “the best thing I can do to further that cause is to offer my support to Gordon Johnson to become Bergen County’s first-ever African American state senator.”
Johnson has picked up key local endorsements in Englewood, Hackensack, Fort Lee, Palisades Park, Leonia, Cresskill and Tenafly. Among those supporting the Johnson candidacy are Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich along with Councilmen Paul Yoon and Peter Suh, Palisades Park Mayor Christopher Chung, Hackensack Democratic Municipal Chair Lynne Hurwitz, Tenafly Mayor Mark Zinna and Councilman Daniel Park.
If all seats are filled, there are 262 votes in the 37th district portion of the county, putting the magic number to win the line for Senate at 132. Between Hackensack, Englewood, Palisades Park and Northvale, Johnson vote count could reach as high as 106 votes.
Weinberg, Murphy Remain Neutral
Both State Sen. Weinberg and Gov. Phil Murphy have passed on opportunities to endorse one candidate over the other.
“I’m a big fan of both of them, and we work very closely with each,” said Murphy, who commented he would never forget that Johnson in 2016 was one of the first legislators to endorse him for governor. “But if you’re looking for strong democracy, one of the definitions is do you have a good set of choices, and you couldn’t have better choices.”
In the race for the vacant Assembly seat, the two announced candidates are Palisades Park Mayor Christopher Chung and Teaneck Democratic Municipal Chair Alexandra Soriano-Taveras.
Chung has secured significant party support to win the open seat, including from Fort Lee Councilman Paul Yoon who was considered a front runner before passing on the opportunity to run for the opening.
Chung, who ousted an incumbent mayor in the Democratic primary three years ago, has pointed to the diversity of the 37th district in launching his campaign. The first Korean American elected Mayor in Bergen County’s history, Chung would become the second Korean American to serve in the New Jersey Legislature.
Soriano-Taveras’s political experience includes serving on Manhattan Community Board 9 in Harlem before moving to Teaneck in 1999. The daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she served as president of the Teaneck Community Charter School Board of Trustees and teaches in the Bogota public school system.