11 people are running to become the next member of Congress from New Jersey. This is bad news for the party machine.

Eleven Democrats will compete in a special primary on July 18 to replace the late Rep. Donald Payne Jr. It's an unusual, wide-open election campaign that will test the long-held power of New Jersey's political party machine.

“The candidates have gotten it – they are no longer intimidated by running against the organizations. That's why there are nearly a dozen candidates in the race,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, referring to the end of the state's voting system that gave machine-assisted candidates an advantage.

Normally, there would be little to no competition in such an election — the heads of the county-level Democratic political organizations would select a preferred candidate who would normally run unopposed. But this year, those powerful political machines were challenged by community activists, reform-minded candidates and two major corruption cases against longtime members of the Democratic establishment — Senator Bob Menendez and George Norcross, a party boss from South Jersey.

Even in a very low-turnout election where no other offices are up for election, the ability of organizations like the Essex County Democratic Committee to nominate a candidate diminishes.

Payne represented the 10th Congressional District for 12 years before he died in April at the age of 65 from complications of diabetes. The predominantly Democratic district includes most of Newark and other parts of Essex, Union and Hudson counties.

This month's primary will select the Democratic nominee for a September special election who will hold Payne's seat only until the new term begins in January. In the September election, the winner of the Democratic primary is expected to face Republican Carmen Bucco, who is running unopposed in his party's special election.

Separately, a candidate selected by local Democratic Party organizations in the district will run for the new term in the regular general election in November. The selection process has not yet been announced. Bucco was unopposed in the regular primary election in June and will run in that one as well.

With the approval of its chairman, Leroy Jones, the Essex County Democratic Committee has endorsed Newark City Council President LaMonica McIver. McIver is also endorsed by the Union County Democratic Committee and its chairman, State Senate President Nicholas Scutari. The Hudson County Democratic Committee remains neutral.

McIver, 38, who has served on the Newark City Council since 2018, said her track record shows she has the experience needed to fill Payne's seat.

“I'm not saying we're perfect, but we've made great strides,” McIver said. “With our new initiatives to combat crime here in the city, we've truly become a model city nationwide.”

She noted that during her tenure in Newark, a violence prevention and trauma recovery office was established to address mental health issues, substance abuse and gang violence.

McIver is considered the frontrunner in this race because she has the backing of not only the party machine, but also Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Senator Cory Booker and Governor Phil Murphy.

But early in the short campaign, she stumbled. McIver's signature drive, a requirement for election, showed that her mother had collected all 1,081 signatures in just three days. Another candidate, Brittney Claybrooks of East Orange, filed suit to challenge the signature drive, but a judge let the drive stand because there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Claybrooks is a former East Orange City Council member and urban planner. She was involved in the Senate primary campaign of Representative Andy Kim, who defeated the Democratic Party machines and won. Kim was successful with Tammy Murphy, the governor's wife, who was supported by all of the state's major Democratic Party machines. He obtained an injunction in federal court preventing the machines from giving Tammy Murphy an advantageous place on the ballot through a so-called “county line.” Tammy Murphy dropped out of the race shortly before the decision was made.

“I hope that people see this as another opportunity to have a Democratic Party or to participate in a Democratic Party that actually sees them and hears them,” Claybrooks said. “That's what this movement is about. It's about challenging the status quo.”

The county line design is not a direct factor in the special primary because it does not apply to the election of a single office. But the defeat of the century-old ballot design was perhaps the most powerful blow to the power of voting machines this year. It places all party-backed candidates for a primary in a single row or column, regardless of which office they are running for, giving them an advantage with voters that researchers say can rarely be overcome.

“The voting machines almost assume that the line still exists and they can still trample on the primaries and still get their way,” Rasmussen said.

Since the special election is taking place in the middle of summer and there is no other election on the ballot, voter turnout is expected to be very low. Two weeks before the election, only 6,464 voters had cast their mail-in ballots in a district with 746,241 residents. after to the Associated Press.

With eleven Democrats on the ballot competing for a small pool of voters, this special election has the potential to be a surprise.

“It's the Wild West,” Rasmussen said. “The fact that there are 12 candidates shows that not as many people today are intimidated by the idea of ​​running against the organization. I don't think a dozen people in New Jersey would generally run in a race like this.”

The district has been represented by a Democrat from Newark since 1949. But among the 11 candidates, only a few live outside the city, including Claybrooks, whose campaign materials say she wants to focus on investing in housing and transportation, create accessible health care for all and hold government more accountable.

Two candidates come from the eastern part of the district: Jerry Walker, Hudson County Commissioner, and John Flora, a Jersey City teacher. As a county commissioner, Walker can mobilize a voter base that could pose a serious threat to McIver.

The same goes for Derek Armstead, the mayor of Linden in Union County. Given the expected low turnout and the number of candidates in the race, both Armstead and Walker could end up in the lead, while the many candidates from Newark share that city's vote. Walker's campaign emphasizes investments in housing and public safety, access to education, tax cuts, and protecting Social Security and Medicare. Armstead's campaign focuses on addressing income inequality, health care for all, and investments in education and transportation.

The majority of candidates come from Newark:

McIver, the Newark City Council president backed by party leaders, said she supports creating more affordable housing, women's reproductive rights, improved access to health care and funding for transportation infrastructure.

Darryl Godfrey is chief operating officer of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority and vice president of the Brick City Development Corporation. In his campaign materials, he emphasizes investing in the community, creating affordable housing and protecting democracy.

Eugene Mazo is a Newark native and law professor who previously ran for the seat. His research focuses on voting rights, political processes and the Constitution.

Former Payne staffer Shana Melius is a veteran who has worked for several elected officials and entered politics after working to improve racial equity in access to bone marrow transplants.

Sheila Montague, a professor at Essex County College, is a former Newark Public Schools teacher and a member of Parents United for Local School Education. She unsuccessfully ran for Newark City Council and Newark School Board.

Alberta Gordon runs her own consulting business and is the founder of Above the Rim and South Ward Concerned Citizens. In her campaign materials, she lists experience in neighborhood redevelopment, improving community relations with police, and supporting small businesses.

Debra Salters is a Newark activist who previously ran unsuccessfully for Newark School Board and the State General Assembly. She has been involved in many community projects, including feeding the hungry, training citizens in CPR, and promoting mental health among Newark's young residents.

Bucco, the only Republican in the race, was born in Nutley. He is a tailor, has built a business and owns a foundation that supports children.

No Republican has won this seat since 1948.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the agency that Darryl Godfrey heads. He is chief operating officer of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority.

Anna Harden

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