Both Democratic Assembly candidates running with Gordon Johnson dropped out of the race this week as Valerie Vainieri Huttle called for an open primary in the 37the Legislative District with no county line in June.
Both Teaneck Democratic Municipal Chairwoman Alexandra Soriano-Taveras and Palisades Park Mayor Christopher Chung withdrew their nominations for the Assembly as their campaigns faced scrutiny about their past experiences. The Assembly seats are open as Johnson and Vainieri Huttle are vying to replace the retiring State Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
Soriano-Taveras decision to leave the race follows her apology after calling for a boycott of Jewish businesses at a rally last July, while Chung step aside after a State Comptroller’s Office investigation found financial irregularities due to Palisades Park officials failing to follow a state law that capped sick leave payouts for municipal employees.
In a letter announcing her decision March 10, Soriano-Taveras decried “a smear campaign” that served to undermine the democratic process by officials in her hometown to “allow these baseless attacks on my character to become a distraction for the Democratic Party.”
“From the moment I announced my candidacy I have been attacked by the vicious and underhanded tactics used by Jim Dunleavy, the Mayor of Teaneck, as well as members of the Teaneck Township Council, led by Deputy Mayor Elie Katz,” said Soriano-Taveras. “These personal attacks are baseless, libelous, and unacceptable.”
The attacks referenced centered around the protest Soriano-Taveras took part in last July after the Teaneck Township Council went with an all-white leadership team and rejected a bid for deputy mayor by Gervonn Romney Rice, who was to be Soriano-Taveras’ opponent in the June primary.
Entering the race attempting to become the first Latinx and Afro-Latinx woman to represent this district, Soriano-Taveras said previous political feud is what is forcing her to step down.
“You see, I dared to publicly criticize Teaneck’s Council leadership for unfair and illegal practices that advanced their personal agendas, all while they ignored the needs of our diverse population,” she stated. “In recent weeks, Jim Dunleavy, Elie Katz and their cronies have been exposed by countless decent members of our community who have publicly denounced their false claims. It is clear that Dunleavy and Katz seek to sow hatred and to divide our community, not to unite us in common purpose.”
The now former candidate had come under fire after she was heard declaring “Boycott those businesses, including the Dunkin’ Donuts and everything else, and we hurt them in their pockets. Who owns those businesses that we continue to support on Cedar Lane?” After the issue was raised, Soriano-Taveras faced criticisms from Gov. Phil Murphy, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and Johnson.
Chung Steps Down
Chung’s decision to not seek the nomination came on the heels of a State Comptroller report that found Palisades Park officials reimbursed employees for personal expenses and allowed contracts and employee perks exceeding state guidelines. Additionally, the review disclosed instances of wasteful spending, including $120,000 on gasoline charges after the borough administrator issued fuel cards to some employees and did not track the expenditures.
The independent state report faulted Palisades Park officials for failing to adopt and implement internal controls to protect borough funds, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of “improper, fiscally irresponsible, or otherwise questionable payouts.”
After reviewing the report, Chung said he was “deeply troubled” by the issues revealed.
“In light of this new information, I cannot in good conscience leave the Borough of Palisades Park knowing how much work is still left to be done,” Chung said. “Serving as Mayor is the greatest honor of my life and my community must know that I am 100% focused on reforming our local government and completing the job they elected me to do.”
No Running Mates for Johnson
The two withdrawals leaves the Bergen County Democratic Committee (BCDC) without any Assembly candidates on the organization line headed by Murphy and Johnson. Party leaders, who are set to hold their convention March 15, now must find a replacement before the April filing deadline.
Vainieri Huttle sees this as an opportunity for Democrats to change to open primaries where no legislative candidates are awarded the county line, arguing “the closed process behind the primary in District 37 has already caused considerable division and animosity.”
“An open primary will ensure that longtime allies and colleagues can debate ideas and visions, not petty politics,” stated Vainieri Huttle. “I am calling for an open, fair and equitable process where there are no backroom deals, where all the candidates can take their message, their record and their platform directly to the people of District 37.”
Vainieri Huttle Support Open Primary
Vainieri Huttle, who is challenging Johnson off the line in the Democratic Senate primary, is currently slated to be bracketed with Assembly candidates Teaneck Councilwoman Romney Rice and Tenafly Councilwoman Lauren Kohn Dayton. Advocates have sought to rid bracketing in elections across the state in order to offer a level playing field for candidates, especially for those challenging incumbents.
The Assemblywoman stated the change is “sorely needed, and, in fact, necessary” due to the bylaws of the BCDC not allowing for candidates to enter into the race after the process has closed.
“The decision to hold an open primary will allow for all potential candidates to be vetted and to bring their case directly to the voters of District 37. An open primary will help to rebuild and strengthen our party,” commented Vainieri Huttle. “It’s this simple, we are a stronger party when we are a more open party. The cure for what troubles the Bergen County Democratic Party is more democracy, not less.”