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A Look Back at 2003:  The 31st Legislative District Showdown

The 31st Legislative District has been a fault line in Hudson County Democratic politics for the past decade.  Factions of the Democratic Party have fought over the State Senate Seat and the two Assembly seats in knock-down drag-out fashion.  In 2003 there was a cataclysmic battle between the forces of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, led by Joe Doria, and the forces of the Reform Democrats, led by Mayor Glenn Cunningham.  And like many things that happen in Hudson County politics, the election ended up in the law books.

In Hudson County, politics and elections are part blood sport and part cottage industry.  Control of the levers of power means control of jobs, of law enforcement and of the rivers of tax money that flow through the various city halls and the county seat.  In addition to the county government and the city halls, there are three legislative districts.  The 31st district covers all of Bayonne and part of Jersey City, and has provided more political drama in the past decade than the other 39 districts combined.

In 2001, two events opened up the fault lines in the 31st:  Glenn Cunningham was elected Mayor of Jersey City, and powerful Hudson County Executive Bob Janiesziewski was indicted for official misconduct.  The election restored Jersey City City Hall to the Democrats after nine years in Republican hands.  The indictment removed the most powerful politician from county politics.

In 2003, Mayor Cunningham ran for state senate in the 31st.  On his ticket were former freeholder Lou Manzo and Bayonne City Councilman Tony Chiappone (Both Chiappone and Manzo would later become Howes & Howes clients).  Because he was mayor of Jersey City, Cunningham was able to raise enough money to challenge the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), whose ticket was led by former Assembly Speaker Joe Doria.  The Democratic primary was brutal and it was expensive.  Once the votes were counted, the Cunningham team had won.

HDCO challenged the election in court, alleging that the Cunningham team had committed multiple serious violations of New Jersey campaign finance law.  The Superior Court heard the case under the election contest statute.  At the outset, the Cunningham team moved to dismiss the case or in the alternative remand the case to ELEC on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction over campaign finance questions.  The court denied their motion.  The case proceeded to trial.

The trial court did not disturb the result of the election.

HCDO/Team Doria appealed.  It was their contention that the alleged campaign finance violations effected the course of the election, and as such, Team Cunningham should forfeit their victory.  The Appellate Division held that the campaign finance violations should be remanded to the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) because the statute provided ELEC with the authority to administer the campaign finance laws.  The litigation resulted in a reported decision of the Appellate Division:  IN RE: the CONTEST OF the DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY ELECTION OF JUNE 3, 2003.

Team Cunningham went on to win the general election, and took their seats in the state legislature.

Their victory did not last.  In 2004, Mayor Cunningham died of a heart attack.  His coalition unraveled.  In the 2004 special election, his senate seat went to Joe Doria (who beat Chiappone), and the mayor’s seat went to Jerry Healy (who beat Manzo).  The Cunningham coalition unraveled after that.  Indeed, both Manzo and Chiappone are now retired from politics.  The Senate seat went back to the Cunningham family when Cunningham’s wife, Sandra won the seat, beating Manzo in the primary.  Sandra Cunningham still serves the 31st District as its Senator.

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