It’s not over ‘til it’s over, and the ballots for the June 4 Democratic primary were still not printed as of Thursday. The primary will decide which two Democratic Assembly candidates from the 33rd Legislative District – which includes Union City, Weehawken, Hoboken, and parts of Jersey City – will compete with Republicans in November for seats in the state legislature.
Each district has one state senator (currently Brian Stack, who is also mayor of Union City) and two Assembly representatives. The person who wins as a Democrat in June usually wins in the fall as well, since Hudson County is heavily Democratic.
Two weeks ago, a group of five Hoboken residents sued to take one of Stack’s candidates, Carmelo Garcia, off of the ballot. Garcia is the full-time executive director of the Hoboken Housing Authority, which oversees federal subsidized housing in Hoboken. The residents said that he can’t run due to the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from participating in partisan elections.
Garcia noted that a federal amendment to the act allowed him to run, although similar state law has not caught up.
At first, Superior Court Judge Peter Bariso barred Garcia from running, but on Tuesday of last week, Garcia won an appeal.
Still, the lawyer for the five plaintiffs in the case said Wednesday that his clients would attempt to take the case all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“We’re of the opinion that this is not yet over,” said Flavio Komuves, who is representing the five Hoboken residents.
Komuves planned to submit a stay motion with the Appellate Court, which would mean that the effects of the decision (for example, the printing of the ballots that included Garcia’s name) would be temporarily voided until an appeal could be filed with a higher court.
“We’re of the opinion that this is not yet over.” - Flavio Komuves
“I appreciate all the love, prayers and positive energy from throughout the community and the state,” he said. “I look forward to addressing the issues and serving the people.”
Garcia is on the Hudson County Democratic Organization-endorsed slate. Besides Stack, his running mate is Assembly candidate Jersey City Deputy Mayor Raj Mukherji. Mukherji and Garcia will be competing against Hoboken City Councilman-at-Large Ravinder “Ravi” Bhalla, who is running independent of any organization and obviously would have benefited from Garcia being off the ballot.
Also running in the Democratic primary are Union City resident John Hilt IV and Jersey residents Anthony Mills and Peter Basso. There are only two Republican candidates – Armando Hernandez of Union City and Jude Anthony Tiscornia.
Garcia said last week that he believed that Bhalla was behind the lawsuit, but Bhalla denied the claim. Bhalla acknowledged that he had met four of the five plaintiffs, but was unfamiliar with the lead plaintiff, Jerome Abernathy.
Complicated legal proceedings
The plaintiffs in the case, Abernathy and four other Hoboken residents, originally challenged Garcia’s candidacy based on a potential violation of a section of the New Jersey Administrative Code which mirrors the Hatch Act, a federal law that bars civil servants or municipal employees whose salaries are funded by the U.S. government from participating in partisan elections.
Garcia said around 23 percent of his salary at the Housing Authority comes from federal grants, and the majority comes from rent proceeds. His salary has been publicized as nearly $175,000, but Garcia disputed the claim, claiming it is closer to $150,000. He also said he plans to donate half his Assembly charity, or half of $52,000, to charities and scholarship funds throughout the 33rd District.
Garcia said that he believed a 2012 amendment to the Hatch Act, which was only signed into law by President Barack Obama in January, preempted the state administrative code. The amendment limited the prohibition on state and local employees from running, excluding only those whose salaries were completely funded by the federal government.
Garcia called the amendment something that was designed “so that it would not prevent individuals like me from serving the community. Because this amendment was only signed into law in January, the state’s administrative code just hasn’t had time to catch up.”
Bhalla, a lawyer, said that he believed the state code speaks for itself.
“The state code holds [employees] to a much stricter standard,” he said.
Garcia said that before filing his petitions with the state, he had consulted the legal opinions of lawer Rajiv Parikh, the Housing Authority’s counsel, the state’s Office of Legislative Services, and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a Washington D.C.-based office specifically designed to enforce the Hatch Act.
The OSC has intervened in New Jersey state politics before for Hatch Act violations, such as in 2009 when they recommended that an employee of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families be terminated after attempting to run for an assembly seat in the 16th District. The same employee had attempted to run for Borough Council in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, in 2006, and was also barred on the grounds that he violated the Hatch Act.
For his part, Stack said consistently that he believed Garcia’s candidacy was legitimate and said last week that he was pleased with the appellate court’s decision.
Bhalla and Stack have some history. Bhalla’s law firm received a $240,000 contract from Union City in 2007. In 2008, Bhalla’s firm donated $2,450 to Union City First, a pro-Stack political group. The firm received a contract from Union City worth $127,000 a few months later.
Bhalla said last week that he was not sure if any donations will be made in this election cycle.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Mayor Stack; that remains unchanged,” said Bhalla. “There are other partners at the firm, and I think that would be something we’d discuss together first.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org