Good morning, New Jersey.
Today is election day in New Jersey For the 14th time in 2022.
Voters in fourteen New Jersey municipalities head to the polls today for nonpartisan councils in Trenton, Perth Amboy and Manchester, where no candidate received more than 50% of the vote in November, and for special school referendums in Berlin, Dover, East Hanover, Florham Park, Folsom, Hanover, Little Falls, Saddle Brook, Stanhope, Wall and Watchung.
A second round of tours in Trenton, Perth Amboy and Manchester were originally scheduled for December 6, but had to be pushed back after a voting machine failure in Mercer County caused huge delays with Trenton’s vote count. State officials blamed COVID to justify the order.
All three by-elections will be crucial to the future of local government in the three medium-sized municipalities, although only a small percentage of registered voters are likely to go to the polls.
In Trenton, council candidates are hoping to move forward from a highly dysfunctional period in municipal government. In Perth Amboy, an incumbent mayor is seeking reelection to a council he likes against a rival embroiled in a voter-bribery scandal. And in Manchester, the two main factions of the Ocean County Republican Party are fighting for mayor.
Here’s a comprehensive overview of what was on the ballot today.
Trenton’s three local races – incl very important mayoral race – have already been decided after one candidate won the majority of votes in the November elections. Mayor Reed Guschiora and East Ward Councilwoman Joe Harrison will return to City Hall when city officials reorganize in January, joined by North Ward Councilwoman-elect Tesca Frisby.
After a landslide re-election with a convincing 71% of the vote, Guschiora became the first mayor to avoid a runoff since Doug Palmer’s 53% in 2006.
That still leaves five city council seats unfilled, with two of those seats up for election today.
In North Ward, Trenton Municipal Party Chair and former Assembly candidate Jennifer Williams will face off against Algernon Ward, historical re-enactor and a former researcher at the state Department of Health who previously ran for the same seat in 2014 and 2018. Williams took first place in November with 33% of the vote, to Ward’s 28%; Merkle Cherry (22%) and Divine Allah (18%) did not enter the second round.
Given this close result in the first round, it’s hard to say who might have the upper hand in the second round.
Williams, who will be New Jersey’s first openly transgender person, has the support of retiring Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson. While Williams’ party affiliation is out of line with most Trentonians, the election is nonpartisan, and voters likely won’t view the race through a partisan lens.
But Ward is backed by both Cherry and Allah, who combined for 40% of the vote in November. Ward, Cherry and Allah are black, while Williams is white, and Williams’ support came disproportionately from whiter districts in the first round; since North Ward is majority black, now that it’s a one-on-one race, there may be more of an advantage for Ward.
South Ward, meanwhile, has always been a contest between Mercer County Parks Officer Damian Malave and State Department of Children and Family Services Investigator Jenna Figueroa Kettenburg, but thanks to the presence secondary candidate Evangeline Hungary, neither of them scored 50% in the first round.
Malave won 48% to Figueroa Kettenburg’s 42%, meaning he will likely have the upper hand next Tuesday, although Kettenburg is backed by outgoing councilman George Mushall. The parish is 67% Hispanic, by far the highest percentage of any of the city’s four wards.
Malave tried several times to cancel or postpone the drain. He tried to argue that Trenton shouldn’t be holding second rounds at all – an argument that was quickly dismissed by the judge – and that Figueroa Kettenburg shouldn’t be allowed to use her father’s last name, Figueroa, on the ballot as she is registered to vote as Jenna L. Kettenburg. (Judge rejected that too.)
Turnout in both races was already low in November – 1,775 votes were cast in the North District and 1,074 in the South District – and without any top-ticket race to drive voters to the polls, it’s likely to be even lower today. This means that only a few voters can affect any given race.
But even after the North and South District elections are over, there’s another runoff on the Trenton horizon.
In the race for three City Council seats, Trenton City Clerk Brandon Garcia initially declared Yasminelli Gonzalez, Crystal Feliciano and Jassi Edwards the winners because he determined that Gonzalez passed the 50% +1 threshold of all ballots cast. His calculations, however, do not seem to account for the fact that not every elector voted for the three candidates, meaning that Gonzalez only received votes on about 46% of all ballots cast – force the drain eventually.
Because it took a long time to determine whether there should be a second round, it was not possible to hold it at the same time as the North and South competitions. As such, former councilor Alex Bethea, Tywanda Terry-Wilson and Kaja Manuel will now compete against the best in the election scheduled for January 24long after city officials are about to reorganize.
When the judge ordered a runoff, the North and South District runoffs were also postponed to January 24th, but quickly moved to December 13th. This means that the election dates of candidates in these constituencies have been changed at least three times, a chaotic situation to say the least.
The battle for three at-large council seats in Perth Amboy, a Latino-majority, heavily Democratic city in Middlesex County, is both far simpler and far more dramatic than anything going on in Trenton.
In one corner is a plaque supported by Mayor Helmin Caba, including Councilwoman Miledy Tejeda, Kenneth Puccio and Haley Cruz. The second is the Vote for a Better Tomorrow group, which includes Councilman Joel Pabon, Jeanette Rios and Junior Iglesia. (A third group, led by Councilman William Petrick, won enough votes in the first round to force a drain.)
The infighting would be relatively standard in Perth Amboy politics if it weren’t for the fact that Rios’ campaign staffer was accused of bribery in late October for offering voters gift cards in exchange for votes.
Kaba and his associates called for the “Vote for a Better Tomorrow” candidates to be expelled, but they remained in the race with a combined 37% of the vote, while Tejeda’s candidate received 46%. Petrick and his cohorts have since backed the Better Tomorrow vote plan, saying on Facebook that “we need to stop the mayor from getting absolute power.”
As with Trenton, Perth Amboy’s turnout can be quite low. In the city’s 2020 mayoral election in November, 14,909 votes were cast, but only 9,267 were cast in the high-stakes runoff; in November of this year, about 6,400 voters came to the polling stations (out of 27,867 registered voters in the city).
Finally, there’s the staunchly Republican township of Ocean County in Manchester, where the mayor and two council seats will be up for grabs today, Dec. 13.
The current mayor is Robert Hudak led the first round with 44% of the vote, while challenger Robert Aras received 31%; a third candidate, Ken Seda, is trailing with 25%. Hudak and Arase are Republicans, while Seda is a Democrat, though the race was officially nonpartisan.
Last week Seda did non-endorsement endorsement for a runoff, criticizing Hudak’s tenure as mayor and suggesting it’s time for a change. Nothing formal came from the local democratic organization.
Hudak’s council mates, Council President Joan Brush and Timothy Poss, also led in the first round. They received 22% and 21% of the vote, respectively, while Arras’ running mates Joseph Hankins and Roxanne Conniff, who is also the municipal chair of the Republican Party, each received 16%.
The runoff is a rematch of the November 2021 special election in which Hudak won 57%-43%, something like proxy battle between two factions of the Ocean County Republican organization. Arase is endorsed by the municipal Republican Party and aligns with Ocean Republican Party Chairman George Gilmore, who shockingly regained the perch led the organization in the summer, and Hudak supported Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardi in the party chairman’s race.
Special school elections
Each year in New Jersey, four election days are set aside for local school boards to get voter approval of school construction proposals. The state will fund at least 40% of eligible costs through annual debt service assistance under the Education Facility Financing and Construction Act of 2000.
Voters in eleven municipalities in nine different school districts will vote today:
* Berlin: $19,699,285
* Dover: $69,263,500
* East Hanover, Florham Park and Hanover: $44,349,835
* Folsom: $3,892,819
* Saddle Brook: $5,0676,837
* Wall: $53,078,733
* Little Falls: $29,563,225
* Stanhope: $5,985,000
* Watchung: $12,807,985