The recent debate between Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson revealed the significant differences in their records for Democratic voters choosing who would be the best representative in the State Senate primary for the 37th Legislative District.
Johnson, who struggled at times to give clear explanations of his positions, produced the most memorable moment of the debate when he attempted to ask Vainieri Huttle about accepting political contributions while a member of the Englewood Planning Board from an entity looking to gain approval on a housing matter.
When pressed by Vainieri Huttle for specifics, Johnson could not name the company nor the individual who purportedly made the campaign contribution.
The issue of alleged inappropriate sexual comments made by Johnson to Dierdre Paul was raised twice in the debate. After moderator David Wildstein questioned Johnson, the Assemblyman reiterated his stance he does not have any recollection of this meeting with Paul where she has publicly stated he offered to help her move up the political ladder if she became a member of his “concubine.”
“I am not going to disparage her in any way,” stated Johnson, who said since the allegations became public he has attempted to reach Paul but has not spoken to her. “People who know me, know my reputation, know about me know that’s not my personality. I do not remember that conversation from 13 years ago (with Paul).”
When questioned later by Vainieri Huttle directly if the attention to the allegations had brought up any memories of the incident, the Assemblyman curtly stated “No.”
The hour-long debate held on May 2 sponsored by the New Jersey Globe addressed issues such as the states’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, the process of choosing the nominee, senatorial courtesy, social reforms, childcare, ICE contracts, gun control and the need to make higher education more affordable.
The two candidates staked their claim as being the best representative to continue the legacy of the retiring State Sen. Loretta Weinberg. Johnson portrayed himself as the candidate most attuned with the district while Vainieri Huttle pushed her campaign’s theme that she has been the one doing the hard work required of a legislator.
The debate began with Johnson saying voters would be hard pressed to find a difference on their records, except for the Assemblywoman’s lack of support for the legalization of marijuana that have significantly affected communities of color.
“Val is campaigning on breaking some glass as if our district’s Senate seat hasn’t been held by a woman for the past 15 year,” said Johnson. “I want to make it clear, there is only one campaign that will make history this year—in our State Senate, there has never been a Black representative from Bergen County. It’s 2021, it’s time for the diversity of our district to be represented in the statehouse.”
Vainieri Huttle contrasted her record of accomplishment in the Assembly for the past 15 years as compared to Johnson’s, and noted she is the only woman in a contested primary running for a State Senate seat. The Assemblywoman was specific on the legislation she authored and passed on a wide variety of issues, including combating human trafficking, bullying, and most recently, reforms to the long-term care facilities brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“A record is more about then how you vote, it’s about who you fight for,” she said. “You just can’t be a vote, you have to be a voice. I use my voice to be your voice…I am running for State Senate to keep your voice being heard.”
Johnson presented the case that he is the party’s nominee due to his close connection with the grassroots of the district, stating he won the county line as a result of his relationships with the municipal chair people and rank-and-file committee members of the party.
“For all these years that we’ve both been in the Assembly, this system that we have in the Bergen County Democratic Party was never an issue until this year,” he said. “I wonder, for a person to donate $75,000 to the Democratic Committee of Bergen County all these years and then say that you don’t support them, I’m not quite understanding how that can happen.”
Vainieri Huttle said that she had previously fought to remove the party line and took the opening to claim that Johnson’s nomination was a backroom deal among state and Bergen County Democratic Committee party leaders.
Fighting the Machine
“Those chairs straight told me straight out, ‘Val, the deal has been made, stay in the Assembly,’ she stated. “I am an independent voice…the best thing for me is to bring (my case) to the voters of District 37.”
“I wanted to play by the rules, and the cards were stacked against me. I wanted a fair and open process,” continued the Assemblywoman. “I fought for open transparency at the convention. I don’t believe it was fair and transparent when my opponent’s running mates were selected on Sunday night and the convention was held on Monday morning without being vetted.”
Throughout the debate, Vainieri Huttle was more concise in explaining her position on such issues as women’s rights and the need for more transparency in government as compared to Johnson.
Transparency in Government
Vainieri Huttle said she backed removing senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to indefinitely block gubernatorial nominations in their home county, while Johnson framed keeping the courtesy as a way to ensure a diverse set of nominees for state judicial appointments and various state boards.
The assemblywoman was more willing to relax a widely-used exemption that shields legislators from disclosing documents through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
“I don’t think we should be exempt at all, and I know that Sen. Weinberg is continuing to fight for OPRA that leaves us out,” she said. “Why should we be exempt?”
Johnson at first argued differences between the legislature and other units of government that justified non-disclosure, but then said he would be open to discussing removing the exemption.
Rockleigh’s Home Rule
Another area of disagreement was if Rockleigh, a one-square-mile town of a little more than 500 people with no school district or police force of its own, should merge with a neighboring municipality.
“It’s not a town I visit…as you say, it’s not a town where you’re going to find many minorities there or different groups of people there, that’s for sure, but I guess that’s the way they want to live,” he said. “As long as that’s what they want and they have home rule and it’s allowed, I guess they’re allowed to exist.”
Vainieri Huttle argued “there’s really no reason why Rockleigh should be an entity,” suggesting it should be merged with neighboring Northvale or Norwood. She cited her history as a Freeholder where she attempted to force more shared services in Bergen County but was stymied by home rule, which allows municipalities to run their own government services.
Areas of agreement between the two candidates during the debate included universal health care and child care, a Hudson-Bergen Light Rail that actually extends into Bergen County, and the desire to fund tuition-free bachelor’s degrees.
A Man of the People
In his closing statement, Johnson stated he preferred being on the ground, listening to the concerns of constituents, “joining them in the celebrations of their heritage and supporting them in their times of crisis.”
“My priority has always been to the people of the 37th District and our grassroots supporters, organizers and advocates,” said Johnson. “The Democratic Party has supported me as their candidate for the race as I have proven over 20 years to be reliable and accessible, always willing to put the people I represent first. And that will not change if I become State Senator.”
Johnson noted Gov. Phil Murphy is supporting him because he knows that Johnson is the best person to serve the 37th District as it recovers from the pandemic “to help with vaccines to underserved communities, do the work of rebuilding our Main Streets—especially in poor and low income neighborhood—and bring greater equity to our criminal justice and healthcare systems.”
“I want to be the 37th district next State Senator because there’s a lot of work to do to make it a safer and more equal state then it was before,” concluded Johnson.
Vainieri Huttle made the case that elections should be just like any other job interview—the candidate with the best record should win.
The Assemblywoman then made her case that she has the best resume to be the nominee for State Senate, citing her work on authoring legislation for women’s rights, seniors, equality, securing funding so that houses of worships are protected and updating statutes to fight terrorism and White Supremacy.
Val’s Reform Bills
Vainieri Huttle noted she has worked with Murphy in writing important legislation reforming long-term care facilities as recommended by the Manatt Report and a suite of seven bills that gives more rights and protections to survivors of sexual assault and harassment.
“I do not just show up to cast my vote, I do the hard work of writing landmark laws that make our state safer, healthier and more equitable…that is what a real leader does,” she said. “To me, the moral test of government is how one treats those at the dawn of their life, the twilight of their life and those in the shadows.”
“As your assemblywoman, I have passed that test. And as your Senator, I will too,“ concluded Vainieri Huttle.