MONTCLAIR, NJ —
Most of New Jersey’s primary races are expected to be handily won by the incumbent. But one race political observers are watching closely is the fight State Senator Nia Gill is facing with a former Obama campaign director.
The Democratic sentator from Montclair is being challenged by Seton Hall law professor Mark Alexander. Although an untested candidate, Alexander, 48, comes with a political resume.
He was the state campaign director in New Jersey for President Obama and his father worked for two presidents – Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
Gill talks easily about her record in Trenton. She’s pushed New Jersey to offer a needle exchange program to reduce the risk to HIV or is arguing for tougher gun control measures.
But when the conversation turns to her opponent, Gill offers little more than a tight smile.
“I have had opponents before. I’ve run without opponents. So, I run for the people and the people then make the decision,” Gill said.
At first, Alexander’s early entry into this primary race in Essex County helped spark a quick bump in campaign donations, catching Team Gill – initially - a little flatfooted.
“Nia Gill has been in Trenton for 20 years and she lacks the energy and leadership we deserve in this district,” Alexander said.
Alexander has also chastised Gill for taking a $50,000-a-year, no-bid legal contract for the past five years with the Essex County Improvement Authority which he claims is controlled by Chief Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
The authority manages the Essex County Airport and owns the Bears and Eagles Stadium in Newark.
Gill says there’s not anything wrong with working for the authority as general counsel.
“The constituents know about it and have always re-elected me. So it’s not something anyone is hiding,” Gill said.
As Alexander criticizes Gill’s political connections, he’s emphasizing his own.
He wears a baseball hat with the seal of the White House emblazoned on the front when he goes knocking on voters’ doors. His mailers to voters feature a photo of him with the president.
Still, his network has not delivered the campaign cash needed to buy him better name recognition, said Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University.
“You have someone with these very impeccable credentials – a constitutional law scholar – someone with his political background – who really did not utilize his political connections in raising money,” Harrison said.
Despite the early lead in contributions, Gill’s name recognition continues to earn in campaign contributions. Earlier this month, she reported a campaign war chest of $200,000 compared to Alexander’s $40,000.
And Gill’s incumbency has done more to help her candidacy than hurt it.
DiVincenzo co-chaired a Gill fundraiser as well as contributed to her campaign. And she’s won the preferred top position on the ballot, which can give any candidate a huge leg up on a rival.