New Jersey is one of the greatest states to be a political observer, which is why I'm glad that I live here. I figured it would be a great idea to let people know about our state politics through our legislature, which is why I decided to start writing this series. I want everyone to learn, including myself, what makes Jersey politics tick, as well as how Democrats and progressives can make gains here in the future. As you'll see, this is a state where the Democrats really have made quite a bit of progress, taking the legislature from a strong Republican majority to a 60-40 Democratic majority since the 1980s. Of course, there's also the issue of the underlying bossism in our political culture, a fascinating but unfortunate aspect of political life in the Garden State.
Before I get started, here is briefly how the legislature works. There are 40 legislative districts. Each district elects 1 Senator and 2 Assemblymen (so, 40 Senators, 80 Assemblymen). The Assembly and Senate candidates have the same districts, so it is incredibly common for all three elected officials from each district to be of the same party. Towns cannot be split, with the excpetion of Newark and Jersey City (which are bigger than a legislative district), which makes life a bit simpler and gerrymandering a bit harder at the state level.
Senators are elected in years ending with 1, 3 and 7. Assembly members are elected in every odd year.
I'm going to go into each district in depth, starting with the 24 Democratic districts and then moving to the 16 Republican districts (based on which party the State Senator comes from). The first six districts (which I'm going to call the South Jersey Six) are all held by Democrats, and are under the thumb of South Jersey political boss George Norcross III. South Jersey Democrats pledge fealty to Norcross, and tend to be more conservative than their North and Central Jersey counterparts. All can be considered Christiecrats to at least some extent. With that said, let's start with District 1, one of the few districts where all three legislators are not of the same party (we have two Democrats and a Republican).
Cape May County is red, but it's been trending bluer over the years. Still, this a county Mitt Romney won by 9%, so it's not quite there yet. This is the home of the district's Senator, Jeff Van Drew, who is by far the most popular elected official in the county. The district itself is a tossup, but his popularity in its reddest area makes it Safe D for Van Drew.
Cumberland County has taken a sharp left turn in recent years, though the district does not include the Democratic stronghold of Bridgeton. Still, this is the district's Democratic base, and Democrats are still favored here without Bridgeton. This district's largest city, Vineland, is located here. Republicans do have some success here in off years, but Cumberland is quickly approaching Safe D status as the Hispanic population is exploding. Still, the district's Republican Assemblyman, Sam Fiocchi, hails from Vineland, which undoubtedly gave him some of the push he needed for his narrow victory.
State Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis Township, Cape May County)
Van Drew is a dentist, who received a B.S. from Rutgers and a D.D.S. from Fairleigh Dickinson. He was elected Fire Commissioner of Dennis Township in the 80's, and got on the town council in the 90's. He served as Mayor for eight years, and held a seat on the Cape May County Board of Freeholders (county council for non-New Jerseyans). He was the first Democrat elected to the Freeholder Board in decades, a sign of things to come.
He ran for a seat in the Assembly in 1997, losing by a very small margin in the deeply Republican 1st. He sat out 1999 and tried again in 2001, edging out an incumbent. Finally, he won the district's Senate seat in a surprisingly lopsided victory in 2007. A three-term incumbent, he chairs the Community and Urban Affairs Committee.
Van Drew is probably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. He opposes marriage equality and has been a key ally in passing Chris Christie's legislative agenda. Still, he holds the most Republican seat held by a Democrat, so this is understandable, in my view. There are plenty of Christiecrats who come from deep blue districts, and I find their behavior much more appalling than Van Drew's.
Van Drew is associated with the South Jersey Norcross machine, as all South Jersey Democrats are, but he's probably the most independent from it. Van Drew is the boss in his district, so he has no need to fear "The Organization" running a primary challenger against him. He has also shown no interest in expanding his power base, which makes political alliances beyond the borders of the 1st somewhat irrelevant. He votes how he likes, and in a way that is broadly popular in LD1. That's what makes him so well regarded. While I wish he was more progressive, he is the model for winning in red areas, in any state.
Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D-Middle Township, Cape May County)
Andrzejczak lost his leg in Iraq after his convoy was hit with an IED. While I was personally a bit skeptical about him after his appointment, no one in the legislature can match that kind of life experience. I'm not sure he comes off all that well publicly, though it may just be a case of poor public speaking skills. He had no prior elective or government experience before his appointment.
He chairs the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, very odd for a freshman, and indicative of Van Drew's influence. We'll have to see how he develops politically. Sometimes these fresh faces are the quickest to turn around and leave, but I'm very interested to see where Andrzejczak goes in politics.
Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi (R-Vineland, Cumberland County)
Fiocchi was the one bright spot for Republicans in 2013. Despite Christie's massive win, this was the only seat Republicans picked up in either the Senate or Assembly. Of course, this was more a consequence of Albano's scandal than anything else, but Fiocchi may be moderate enough to hold on to this seat in the future. He could also prove to be a money drain for the NJ Republican Party; we'll see what happens.
This is an ancestrally Republican district, one of several that Democrats have picked off in the last few decades. Republicans held all three offices from the seventies until the turn of the millennium, except for a brief period in the 80's where we held an Assembly seat. Now-Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R) served three terms in the Assembly from this district.
James Cafiero was the State Senator here during the 70's and 90's. Like many NJ pols, Cafiero was a classic good old boy, Republican by party affiliation, but not a rabid partisan dog like we see so often today. He generally won his elections comfortably, but got a scare against Bill Hughes, Jr in 2001, winning by less than a point (Hughes, the son of former Congressman Bill Hughes, is running against Frank LoBiondo for Congress this year). Meanwhile, in that year's Assembly race, Dennis Township Mayor Jeff Van Drew snuck into the Assembly over incumbent John Gibson. Cafiero retired in 2003; Assemblyman Nicholas Asselta moved up to take his place.
Gibson was reelected to the Assembly in 2003 behind Van Drew, but a major recruiting success turned the tide in 2005. Nelson Albano, a union shop steward, lobbied for stiffer drunk driving penalties after his son was killed by a drunk driver in 2001. Seeing potential in Albano, Van Drew recruited him to be his running mate in the 2005 Assembly election (the Senate was not up that year). Though he finished almost 8 points behind Van Drew (35%-28%), Albano crushed Gibson (22%) and conservative activist George Cecola (14%) to enter the Assembly. With his rival vanquished, Van Drew set his sights on Senator Asselta.
Along with Albano and Vineland business owner Matt Milam, Van Drew ran for State Senate in 2007, crushing Asselta by over 10%. Albano and Milam were also elected comfortably. With that victory, the Republican 1st became a Democratic stronghold.
The team's dominance continued in 2009 and 2011, but Republican smelled blood in the water as 2013 dawned. At the peak of Chris Christie's popularity, Nelson Albano was caught in a scandal. A video surfaced of him (rather rudely) asking for special treatment after being pulled over for speeding. It was a Broken Pedestal moment for a politician who partially built his career on protecting motorists after the vehicular death of his son. Meanwhile, Milam resigned his Assembly seat to focus more on his business (whether or not he was pushed out for a better vote-getter is a matter of debate; Milam consistently underperformed Albano's numbers by quite a bit).
Van Drew retained Albano as a running mate, and recruited 27-year-old Purple Heart recipient Bob Andrzejczak to run for Assembly as well. He was appointed to Milam's seat and proved to be an able candidate, receiving 27% of the vote. The traffic scandal proved to be too much for Albano to overcome; he placed third with 24%. Cumberland County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi became the district's newest Assemblyman with 25%. Some NJ Democrats didn't mind the result; Fiocchi is a marriage equality supporter, while the entire Democratic ticket remained opposed.
I think 2013 was the low point for the LD1 team; Van Drew is a great recruiter, and I'm sure he'll find a good replacement for Albano. Van Drew is 61, and I think he'll hold onto this seat for awhile. Democrats are desperate for him to challenge Rep. Frank LoBiondo, but he seems to want to stay in Trenton. I can see him as Senate President one day if the powers that be decide to keep that office in South Jersey after current Prez Steve Sweeney runs for Governor.
Andrzejczak is so young that the sky's the limit for him politically. Only a lucky bastard gets an Assembly seat in their 20's with zero political experience. Maybe he's the one to run for Congress one day instead of Van Drew. As for Fiocchi, he's stuck until Van Drew retires (which might mean he's just stuck, since they're about the same age). Even if Van Drew were to become vulnerable, it will take a Cape May Republican to defeat him; Fiocchi can't do enough damage from Cumberland.
Next time, we'll take a look at LD2, another competitive district.