Voters in Hoboken, Union City, Weehawken, and parts of Jersey City have the opportunity to elect one state Senate candidate and two General Assembly candidates for the 33rd District in the primaries in June – but there was confusion during the last two weeks over who would be on the ballots.
Hoboken City Councilman-at-Large Ravinder “Ravi” Bhalla formally announced his candidacy for one of the two Assembly seats on Wednesday.
His announcement came less than a week after five Hoboken residents proved successful in knocking off one of his opponents from the ballot (at least, temporarily). They challenged the candidacy of Carmelo Garcia, the full-time executive director of the Hoboken Housing Authority who was running on a slate with incumbent State Sen. Brian Stack and Assembly running mate Raj Mukherji.
Stack’s candidates would be hard for Bhalla to beat, but not if one of them is removed from the ballot.
(Garcia was still appealing the matter late on Friday and the results were not available by press time, but will be available on hudsonreporter.com).
The five residents 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.
“The residents of the 33rd District are entitled to the kind of stellar representation that Ravi has provided to Hoboken.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer
Bhalla had said in recent weeks that he was unsure about running, despite having filed his petitions on April 1.
Bhalla, Mukherji, and Garcia are (or were) competing for Democratic votes in the June 4 primary.
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.
In heavily Democratic Hudson County, the winner of the Democratic primary often beats the Republican candidate in November.
Though the court proceedings were not decided by press time, 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.”
But Judge Peter Bariso decided two weeks ago that the state code was relevant in this case.
Garcia said last week that he believed that Bhalla was behind the lawsuit, but Bhalla denied the claim. Bhalla did admit that he had met four of the five plaintiffs, but was unfamiliar with the lead plaintiff, Jerome Abernathy.
Two of the plaintiffs, Sheilah Scully and Avi Ohring, did not return phone calls for comment.
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.
However, Garcia and his lawyer, Rajiv Parikh, stood firm in their reasoning.
“We tend to think that the state code is either invalid or outdated,” said Parikh.
Garcia said that before filing his petitions with the state, he had consulted the legal opinions of 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.
Mark Albiez, a spokesman for Stack, said earlier this week that the senator had confidence in the appeals process, but declined to speculate on whether or not Stack would back Bhalla or a write-in candidate should Garcia be barred from running.
These are technically his only options, as the lawsuit was filed one day after the deadline to replace a candidate on an official party line.
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.”
Garcia, for his part, echoed Stack’s confidence, saying that he hopes he will be allowed to run. Addressing concerns on how he would manage the pressures of his full-time position at the Housing Authority and the part-time demands of serving in the Assembly, he referred to himself as the “Energizer Bunny.”
“All 1,500 people who signed my petition did so knowing full well that I already have a full-time job, and they seemed confident in knowing that I’d be doing both,” he said. “I hope that the people’s will and desire will be heard.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org