Steve Janoski , Staff Writer, @SteveJanoskiPublished 8:30 a.m. ET May 30, 2017 | Updated 5:04 p.m. ET May 30, 2017
The last time New Jersey’s 39th legislative district sent a Democratic representative to Trenton, Ronald Reagan was president.
Four decades later, an all-woman ticket led by a popular Oakland mayor is looking to retake those legislative seats — and hoping a far less popular president and governor strengthen their chances.
It will be a tough fight. Voters of the 39th, which is composed of 23 towns in northern Bergen and Passaic counties, have elected conservative GOP state Senator Gerry Cardinale nearly a dozen times.
That hasn’t dissuaded two-term Oakland Mayor Linda Schwager, who is seeking the uncontested Democratic nomination to run for Cardinale’s seat in the June primary. Nor has it dissuaded Jannie Chung of Closter and Annie Hausmann of Norwood, who are seeking nominations from the Democrats to run for General Assembly .
Democratic Closter councilwoman Jannie Chung is running for General Assembly in the state's 39th district. (Photo: Jimmy Chae/Special to NorthJersey.com)
“Listen, I know it’s a very Republican district,” Schwager said Thursday. “If we’re going to do anything in the 39th, this is our year. We have so much momentum behind us.”
Flipping the 39th might still seem like a long shot. But it’s worthwhile to note that the district heavily overlaps with the 5th Congressional District, a traditional Republican stronghold that last year elected Wyckoff Democrat Josh Gottheimer to the House of Representatives.
Gottheimer, who upset staunchly conservative GOP incumbent Scott Garrett, won about half of the 21 towns shared by both districts. Garrett had held the seat since 2003.
And Hausmann, who has not held elected office, worked on Gottheimer’s campaign.
Annie Hausmann, of Norwood, is running for state Assembly in the 39th on the Democratic ticket. (Photo: Jimmy Chae/Special to NorthJersey.com)
But county Republicans dismissed the idea that what happens in Trenton or Washington will influence the race. Candidates from the GOP slate, which includes Assembly incumbents Holly Schepisi and Robert Auth, said they are going to focus on local issues. They believe voters will, too.
“I have worked like a dog for the people who I represent over the past five years,” Schepisi said. “If I’m going to be judged on the popularity or unpopularity of somebody else, it’s a sad state for our state.”
Democrats say they’ll run on state issues like affordable housing, education funding, and taxes. But they also believe the nascent Trump presidency has energized the district’s dormant Democratic base —especially women. And they feel Gov. Chris Christie's floundering approval ratings could drown down-ballot candidates.
Both Chung and Hausmann said Donald Trump’s election was partially responsible for their decision to run.
“I won’t lie … it definitely had something to do with it,” said Chung, who was elected to her first term on the Closter council in 2015.
Lou Stellato, the Lyndhurst Democrat who chairs the county party, said the toxic combination of Trump and Christie could make Republicans stay home statewide on Nov. 7. And Bergen’s Democratic base is electrified, he said.
“We see in some of our grass-root groups, we used to get 30 or 40 people out on a Saturday morning. Now we get upwards of 200. Because they’re not happy,” Stellato said.
Paul DiGaetano, the chairman of the Bergen Republican Party, called Gottheimer’s victory an “anomaly.” He accused Democrats of trying to “gin up” interest in a district they’ve historically underperformed in.
“I don’t think the Democratic candidates in that district ... have anything new to offer, and they haven’t fared well in the past,” said DiGaetano, who is himself seeking a state Senate seat in the 40th district.
Cardinale, the state senator, echoed the chairman’s comments. Democrats, he said, were just trying to create excitement.
“If I were them, that’s what I would do,” he said. “But I don’t believe that it has any legs.”