With the primary elections safely to the rear, the New Jersey electorate may have a brief reprieve from campaigning and electioneering from their various representatives in government. But not in LD-11, where the battleground conflagration rages early, especially around the issues of parental notification and women’s right to choose.
As the shadows begin to grow longer on the final term of Governor Phil Murphy, both Democrats and Republicans are looking for ways to best jockey their paths forward. While the primary election was, as a whole, not a particularly exciting one—the Canadian wildfire smoke notwithstanding—institutional power protected incumbencies and there were very few surprises across the Garden State.
In LD-11, they don’t have to search.
The issues tumble forth on a daily basis, where politicos and political junkies keep close watch as Senator Vin Gopal (D) seeks re-election.
Gopal’s meteoric career in the public sector may face one of his greatest challenges in LD-11 as he tries to keep his balance on the historically-shifting sands of the district’s political leaning and attempts to fend off a game Republican ticket headed by businessman Steve Dnistrian of Colts Neck.
By way of background…
When Gopal first ran for Assembly in 2011, he challenged Republican incumbents Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande, both of whom kept their seats, although the margin of victory was not huge. The Republicans took about 26% and the Democratic ticket of Gopal and Kathleen Horgan took about 22%.
As Chairman of the Monmouth County Democratic Organization, he built up further steam and resigned, running not for Assembly again, but for State Senate. He challenged incumbent Republican State Senator Jennifer Beck with his Assembly running mates, Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey, both incumbent Democrats.
What had been a solidly Republican district lost its assemblymembers, and then later its senator, to the Democrats. Since then, the pendulum began to reverse itself. The Millennial senator is now, like an inverse-Beck, the lone Democrat with Republican assemblymembers.
When Gopal defeated Beck in 2017, he took 53.5% to Beck’s 46.4% in a race whose price tag ran over $4 million. A comfortable margin, if not a landslide, but this also coincided with Murphy’s first electoral victory in which he roundly defeated Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno who had been unable to escape the political fallout of an unpopular Christie administration. Gopal, in fact, performed better than Murphy in the district.
Fast forward to 2021, Governor Murphy was seeking re-election and there was endless talk statewide of a “Red Wave” coming. The wave was more of a ripple in the end. The biggest shock was not that Jack Ciattarelli lost, but how close to defeat Murphy came. Nevertheless, Murphy broke the Democratic governor’s curse of not winning second terms, but Republican gains were made elsewhere around the state.
Short of a red wave, there has been a rising red tide. With the State Democratic Party all but surrendering South Jersey’s congressional aspirations, and Tom Malinowski the sacrificial lamb for consolidation of other Democratic strongholds, on the state level, the party can be expected to throw its full energy behind Gopal when he faces his opponents in the general election.
Post-redistricting, LD-11 still leans more Democratic than Republican, but there is a sizeable bloc of independent/unaffiliateds who must be wooed to win. Incumbent Senator Gopal has Ocean Township Councilwoman Margie Donlon and Long Branch resident Luanne Peterpaul as his all-female assembly running mates. Republican senate challenger Dnistrian has two women incumbent Republicans behind him, Assemblywoman Kim Eulner and Assemblywoman Marilyn Piperno.
Undoing Murphy’s school funding cuts; fiscal discipline; parental rights in all education matters; providing law enforcement with the tools they need to combat a brazen crime wave impacting all corners of Monmouth County, fueled by Murphy’s failed bail reform efforts; and improving access to healthcare.
In particular, Dnistrian and his running mates this week seized on the issue of parental notification, citing a vote by Democrats in the senate to block a floor vote. The Republican senate candidate issued a statement in what can be considered an intensified general election salvo.
“Today, the Murphy administration filed lawsuits against the boards of education in three additional New Jersey municipalities (Middletown, Marlboro, and Manalapan) for passing policies that support notifying parents if and when a student asks teachers, or school staff, for accommodations or changes regarding their own gender.
“Kids do best when parents and teachers work together to support them. When Governor Murphy and Attorney General Matt Platkin try to interfere in the relationship between parents and children, families, parents and kids suffer. We should encourage schools to communicate with parents when children are struggling, not sue to stop them, and not insist that the state knows better when it comes to parent-child relationships.
“When it comes to facing these tough issues, it is better for local school boards, teachers and parents to come together to find a solution that fits their community, but ALWAYS with parents as part of that discussion. Democrats, however, are insisting that parents NOT be part of the discussion if kids express questions about being LGBTQ. These heavy-handed, one-sided mandates from Trenton are just wrong.”
Dnistrian made Gopal the focal point of his criticism.
“Make no mistake about it, the only reason Republicans tried to force a floor vote on a Parents Bill of Rights, is because Vin Gopal has refused to do his job and hold a senate education committee meeting where this legislation and others could be considered,” said the Republican senate candidate, noting that Gopal chairs the Senate Education Committee.
“His committee has not met since March 2nd — that’s 110 days! By contrast the Assembly Education Committee met three times in those same 110 days. During that time, 314 pieces of legislation have been left to languish in Gopal’s Committee.
“Three hundred and fourteen pieces of legislation. Legislation to close the learning loss gap. Legislation to improve school security. Legislation to fully-fund our schools. Legislation to give parents a voice in their children’s education. All these bills – and more – contain solutions to the challenges facing our schools and our kids. Thanks to Vin Gopal, they will never see the light of day. From learning loss to lost funding, our schools – and our children – face some serious challenges. For our own legislator, the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, to sit by and not even bother to hold a committee hearing on any possible solutions is a disgrace.”
For his part, Gopal sponsored legislation to make September 11th a holiday.
“Nearly 3,000 of our countrymen and women were killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. New Jersey lost 750 people that day, including 147 from my home county, Monmouth,” said Gopal. “Even 21 years later, those losses are still heartbreaking. We must never forget our fellow citizens lost in the towers, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93.”
He also has a social issue of his own that he won’t make the voters forget.
This Saturday, Gopal, Dr. Margie Donlon, and Luanne Peterpaul Esq., will hold a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. “They will be joined by local, state, and federal elected officials from across the region,” a Democrat press release promised.
The clash had come.
Gopal versus Dnistrian.
Both primary elections were formalities as neither the Republican nor Democratic tickets were contested. Here, a finger in the wind can attempt to gauge the future, but November is a long way off, politically, and it is unwise to make any particularly strong predictions at this juncture.
In 2021, Gopal only eked out a victory over Republican challenger Lori Annetta, taking 51.9% to her 48.1%, which reflected Murphy’s win over Ciattarelli. This time, however, Gopal does not have to contend with a gubernatorial or presidential election. His allies Senate President Nick Scutari and the State Democratic Machine can be expected to throw their full weight behind Gopal, whose race constitutes one of only a small handful of “battleground” contests this cycle.
Without the immediate effect of a president or governor on the ballot, it is likely that voter turn-out for the general election will not be especially high. What may drive voters to the polls, however, will be matters closer to home, where Republicans try to make inroads on education and parental rights and, of course, taxation. State Democrats will point to the ANCHOR program and new relief for seniors ready to put cash into New Jerseyans’ pockets, as Murphy continues to try to redefine himself (and by extension his Democratic allies) as a fiscally responsible figure.
It is a difficult thing to stop a pendulum from swinging and to change its direction. This election, however, may present the best possible hope for Gopal’s bid to hang on and avoid repeating history where LD-11’s blue sands run red, just as the red sands gave way to blue when Gopal made his first foray into elected politics.
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