The needler in the haystack.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How would an Assembly seat be filled in case of vacancy?


How would an Assembly vacancy be filled?
From time to time, Plainfield Today readers ask how an Assembly seat is filled when its holder dies, resigns or is removed from office.

The recent death of Assemblyman Peter Biondi of Hillsborough, just re-elected earlier this month, provides an opportunity to see the replacement process up close.

New Jersey's Constitution requires that a vacancy -- whether caused by death, resignation, or removal from office -- be filled within 35 days (see here) by a convention of the political party of the person who held the seat. This convention is to include the party committee members from all of the municipalities and/or districts comprising the Legislative District of the now-vacant seat.

For instance, if a vacancy were to occur in Plainfield's district, the 22nd Legislative District, a convention to fill the vacant seat would include the male and female county committee (or, in shorthand, municipal committee) members from --

Union County: Plainfield, Fanwood, Scotch Plains, Clark, Linden, Rahway and Winfield;
Somerset County: North Plainfield andGreen Brook;
Middlesex County: Dunellen and Middlesex.
This appointee, selected by convention and confirmed by the Assembly, would serve until the next GENERAL ELECTION, at which time a candidate would be elected to fill the balance of the regular term (there is an exception when the term is close to its end).

As Colleen O'Dea points out in an excellent article on NJ Spotlight (see here), it has not always been this way.

New Jersey's 1947 Constitution originally provided for special elections to be held in the event of vacancies. Over time this turned out to be quite a burdensome expense and left the election in the hands of a tiny number of voters who turned out for the special elections.

Politicians thought an easier -- if not better -- way was to have the replacements made by the political party of the (former) officeholder and proposed a constitutional amendment. This amendment was adopted in 1988 by a more than 2-to-1 margin, says O'Dea.

As usual with New Jersey politics, there are some pretty cold calculations involved.

Basically, those in control of the District's political machinery try to quietly engineer a single choice before the convention. As evidence, consider that the Ledger reported on Nov. 25 that recently elected Jack Ciatarelli was to be Biondi's replacement (see story here) -- though the convention itself does not take place until November 30.

On the other hand, since this is usually a process of moving pieces up the pegs on a board, it is possible for a fight to break out at a convention over competing candidacies, if not for the seat itself, then for a seat that the appointee may be vacating. That is exactly the scenario with the Biondi seat, where there is expected to be a fight between two factions for the Freeholder seat Ciatarelli is vacating, according to PolicikerNJ (see story here).

For pols, the neat thing here is that the person filling the vacancy -- if even for a few months -- gets to run in the next General Election as an INCUMBENT, which is a tremendous advantage.

According to O'Dea, almost a third of the members of the Legislature have arrived at their incumbencies through the replacement route.

Things could get very interesting in the event of a vacancy involving Plainfield, just because of the complicated demographics of the 22nd District.

Conventional political 'wisdom' with regard to the two Assembly seats has held that there is a 'Plainfield seat', reserved for a minority, and an 'other seat', reserved for a non-minority person.

With the District's demographics shifting (
Plainfield, its largest community, is becoming increasingly Hispanic, as are several other towns), it will be interesting to see how the District's aging white leadership handles such a situation.

Should the need ever arise.


-- Dan Damon [follow]

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