Two longtime Democratic senators square off in primary

May 5, 2023

Thirty years ago, Nia Gill joined the Legislature after winning election as a Democratic assemblywoman in the Essex County-based 27th District on Sen. Dick Codey’s ticket.

The pair ran together until 2001, when Gill’s home was moved into the 34th District and she ran for and won a Senate seat there. For over a decade, the two Essex County natives worked side by side in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

Now, the longtime colleagues are pitted against each other in a closely watched primary after a new round of redistricting moved Gill’s home back into the 27th District. Codey has the upper hand, with the endorsement of Democratic Party leadership and a massive cash advantage, but Gill — never known as one to hold back — declined to back out of the race.

“We’ve been a team for a while, and sometimes teams split, and sometimes they don’t,” Codey said in a recent interview. “No hard feelings.”

The heavily Democratic district now includes Montclair and Clifton and has dropped some towns in Essex and Morris counties. The winner of the primary is expected to be seated next year when the new Legislature convenes (there is no Republican running).

The two have their own advantages, but the lack of organizational support behind Gill makes her the clear underdog in this race, said Julia Sass Rubin, professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Whether it’s running against Sen. Nicholas Scutari for senate president or joining the GOP in seeking an investigation of the thousands of deaths in nursing homes during the pandemic, Gill has long been “a thorn in the side” of powerful Democrat lawmakers, Sass Rubin said.

“She’s someone who’s willing to stand up repeatedly. It’s just unfortunate that the few people who will speak up, and who have no great friends in machine politics as a result, are the ones who are being targeted,” Sass Rubin said.

Gill has previously won without the party endorsement — it’s known as winning “off the line” — when she mounted a successful 2003 reelection bid against Leroy Jones, who had previously run on a ticket with Gill and Codey. Jones, who lost that race, now chairs the Democratic State Committee and the Essex County Democratic Committee.

Jones said both candidates made presentations to municipal Democratic chairs in the district in an effort to win the party’s endorsement, and Codey won unanimous support — results Jones said Gill graciously accepted.

“Each municipal chair exercised their point of view. Just like they go into, like you or anybody else, goes into a voting booth and voted their conscience. And they did that, and the process was complete,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.

Sass Rubin said the race is a prime example of the stronghold political machines have in New Jersey politics, with party endorsements giving candidates a fundraising advantage and better placement on the ballot. Codey’s name will be listed with eight other Democrat candidates running with party backing, while Gill will be grouped with her sole running mate and one Essex County commissioner candidate who does not have the party’s support.

“Voters might look at that line and say, ‘Oh, this isn’t a full slate.’ I don’t know how powerful that is,” Sass Rubin said. “But anything could happen — it’s not impossible.”

Codey’s running mates are incumbent Assemblyman John McKeon and Alixon Collazos-Gill, who replaced retiring Assemblyman Tom Giblin on the ticket (Collazos-Gill is married to Brendan Gill, president of the Essex County commissioner board). Nia Gill’s Assembly candidate is Eve Robinson of Montclair. Her other running mate dropped out of the race.

Codey, who has served as governor, first joined the Legislature as an assemblyman in 1974 and became a senator in 1982. He repeatedly said he wouldn’t criticize Gill, as they’ve been friends for a long time.

“We have no plans to make an assault with money, I can assure you,” he said. “I’d like to think that after all the time I’ve spent in the Legislature, I deserve to be renominated by my party.”

Gill could not be reached to comment.

“I have fought for the people’s right to transparency into how their government works and the decision-making processes that shape public policy, for accountability to guarantee our government answers to the citizens it serves, and to ensure that people can access the democratic process and have their voices heard,” she said in a statement announcing her candidacy.

Codey said the two don’t differ much on policy but have a different approach in their “style” of legislating, he said.

“I’m a little more active in the community. It’s more style than policy,” he said.

We’ve been a team for a while, and sometimes teams split, and sometimes they don’t.

Sass Rubin noted that if Gill loses, the Senate will lose one of its few Black women members. That’s on top of already losing several women lawmakers who aren’t seeking reelection.

“We’re slipping backwards. It’s particularly concerning because this is a district with a lot of people of color,” she said.

But Jones argued that, overall, the Statehouse’s Essex County delegation will be more diverse, with nine women — a majority women of color — and three men on the ballot this year. Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, who is Black, is running unopposed for the open Senate seat in the 34th district, where there is no Republican candidate.

“This is something I’m quite proud of,” he said of the representation. “New Jersey is becoming a more majority-minority state, and Essex County is leading that charge.”

Codey said the Legislature “very much looks like New Jersey more and more and more, and that’s the way it should be.” He said it would be “unethical” to step aside from a primary fight just because he’s a white man.

He said the top three issues he’d want to tackle in his next term are mental health, pandemic recovery, and crime.

“It’s just time to finish it up, top it off, and move on,” he said.

New Jersey Monitor 5/5/23

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