History in the 31st Legislative District

Representation matters and it showed in Bayonne and Jersey City

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Assemblyman-elect William Sampson, photo by Daniel Israel
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Assemblywoman Angela McKnight
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Senator Sandra Cunningham
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Assemblyman-elect William Sampson, photo by Daniel Israel
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Assemblywoman Angela McKnight
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Senator Sandra Cunningham

With the election of crane operator William Sampson to the 31st Legislative District of the New Jersey General Assembly, and the re-election of Assemblywoman Angela McKnight and Senator Sandra Cunningham, the district is now represented by a trio of Black lawmakers.

This is not only historic, but also further indicative of the ongoing shift and diversification of demographics in Bayonne as well as Jersey City. The Bayonne Community News spoke with Sampson, McKnight and Cunningham on the historic election in the 31st Legislative District, and what that means for its future.

Sampson told the BCN that it’s the “greatest honor of his life” to be a public servant. He considers his new role an opportunity to bring more change and diversity, something he brings to Trenton as the first Black person from Bayonne elected to the statehouse.

“I know as a black man, every time that I open any door it’s not for me, it’s for somebody else,” Sampson said. “It’s so they can also do and achieve. But you’ve got to see it first. Once you see it, you feel like you can achieve it. Every door that I open is for somebody else and not myself. And even though this is a milestone, I represent all people. I am a Black elected official but I represent all people.”

This was Sampson’s first election, having not held public office prior. However, the campaigning, events, and other election-related activities came natural to him, Sampson recalled.

“I’m a people person and it was exciting just being able to be in this position to ask people what they’re looking for, what they feel like we need to do better, and where we’re lacking,” Sampson said. “The outpouring of support for me gave me a real boost because it’s also giving people hope. That’s what I did this for, to give people hope. When you see somebody that looks like you in a position like this, then you feel as though you can also do it.”

Working for Bayonne and Jersey City

According to Sampson, he and his colleagues McKnight and Cunningham are excited for Jan. 11, 2022, when he is sworn in. In the meanwhile, was invited to voting sessions in November and December, as well as an orientation this month. Sampson hopes to hit the ground running in both Bayonne and Jersey City.

Sampson said that Ward F in Jersey City is a specific problem area, particularly when it comes to the homicide rate: “We have to figure out how we can advance and move Ward F forward, because it is completely different than downtown. Whether that’s more activities, doing something to get kids off the street and have activities, and something to do. So I’ll talk to the leaders in those wards.”

According to Sampson, he has already been in discussion with Jersey City Ward F Councilman-elect Frank Gilmore: “We’re talking and sit down with him to see what we can do to move Ward F forward, and what’s the best thing for that ward, and what we’ll need to tackle those issues. In Bayonne, we got other issues that we need to move forward.”

In terms of any other legislative specifics, Sampson said it’s hard to say what the first thing he will do in office is as the future can be unpredictable. One thing is for certain though. While Sampson will head to Trenton to represent the 31st Legislative District, he doesn’t plan on giving up being a crane operator.

“I will never leave this industry,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the labor movement. I probably will be the only person in the Assembly that is from labor and actually works in labor. I actually work hands on in these machines, so I will be hands on in the Assembly. I’m proud to be a voice for labor and for all labor, not just my union.”

Sampson added he will work with McKnight on other issues in Bayonne and Jersey City.

“Somebody took their time with me and gave me an opportunity and I just want to do the same,” he said. “Hopefully I can change somebody else’s life. I want to make an impact in peoples lives and I want to move Bayonne forward. I want to move Jersey City forward in every way that we can.”

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight

McKnight, who was first elected in 2015, told the BCN that she was proud of the electoral accomplishment that reflects the changing nature of Bayonne and Jersey City.

“The district has diversified even more and representation does matter,” she said. “Having William now join the team is a phenomenal thing. It is a historic moment and I’m proud of that moment because it’s great to see representation. But I just want to  emphasize that since being elected and taking this oath, I serve all people regardless of color. The three of us will continue to work for all people.”

McKnight echoed Sampson that representation matters. She hopes it will no longer be a question for future generations regarding whether or not a person can do or achieve something in America based on the color of their skin.

“Looking at our former President Barack Obama, I can say: ‘One day I can be The President of the United States,'” she said. “Now we have people continuously looking at the three of us saying: ‘Wow, I can be an assemblywoman or I can be an assemblyman, or I can be a state senator. They can do it, I can too.’ … Representation does matter. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow and leting people know that we’re here. And we’re here for everyone, and no matter your color.”

According to McKnight, the legislation she champions benefits all residents in the district, in both cities.

“If you look at my different pieces of legislation, it touches every type of community throughout Bayonne and Jersey City,” she said. “No matter what color I am, I’m going to serve all the people and I look forward to continuing to do legislation for all.”

McKnight said she will continue to support legislation on an array of topics that affect residents of the 31st Legislative District: “There’s so many things to address, but there always is. That’s why New Jersey is very diversified. There’s so many issues from education to homelessness, to social justice, to making sure that people feel that they’re represented. I have an array of legislation that I’m working on and it’s not just on one particular group of people or one particular topic. I’m looking forward to continuing to work for hunger, homelessness, social justice, education, on the environment. You’re going to see a plethora of legislation come out from me throughout an array of topics.”

Senator Sandra Cunningham

Senator Sandra Cunningham

Cunningham, who has been in the state Senate since 2007, told the BCN she was excited and pleased with the results of the election.

“I think it shows that our constituencies have faith and trust in us,” Cunningham said. “I think it shows up that there is a change, not a gigantic change, but there is a movement. And there is the willingness for people to come out and vote, even in difficult times, and try to make a change. I’m very excited by it and very proud of it.”

When it comes to representation mattering, Cunningham said “to an extent that is true… It shows that if we can do it, they can do it. However, I would like to say that while historically African-Americans have always felt comfortable in electing people of other races, they have not always felt comfortable in electing their own.”

However, that is changing with young people, Cunningham said. And it can be seen from Bayonne and Jersey City to across the state, as more youth who can afford to live in Hudson County move in. Cunningham said that she has been addressing the issues that have been affecting young people as well as all residents in Bayonne and Jersey City, such as unemployment due to the pandemic.

“We do the best we can every single day and our numbers for the most part were fine because people know that we’re here,” she said. “We’re working and we’re trying to do the best we can for Jersey City and Bayonne. And I think that carries through.”

Cunningham plans to keep up that work with Sampson now joining her and McKnight: “They are a marvelous team. This is the first time that William has run for office. This is his first opportunity. I think he’s coming in representing many of the union issues that he’ll be able to help me to deal with, and to work alongside our assemblywoman.”

According to Cunningham, she plans on continuing to promote social justice other legislation she has already been championing.

“I’ve spent a lot of my time helping people who come out of the judicial system who were incarcerated,” she said. “I’ve come up with legislation to help them have another try at life, another opportunity. I’ve done a lot of work with that I intend to continue. I’m also chairperson of the Higher Education Committee for the Senate and we did wonderful legislation in helping our governor move forward with his plan to make sure that everyone gets free college education. And our assemblywoman, Angela McKnight has a long history of working with senior citizens and providing services for them, and I’m sure that she’s certainly going to continue that. And I think William will find his niche and he will figure out what he is really good at. I’m sure he’s going to work very hard and be someone that we can all look up to and say job well done.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.