For nearly two hours on Monday night in Morristown, candidates for state Assembly District 25 traded charges familiar to anyone who has seen their TV ads.
But things didn’t really heat up until near the end of the evening, when audience members asked why Anthony M. Bucco is seeking re-election to the Assembly when he was sworn into the state Senate last week to succeed his late father.
“The only two people that are really complaining about this are our opponents,” Bucco said, sparking derisive laughter from the audience at the Presbyterian Parish Hall.
If he is re-elected to the Assembly on Nov. 5, 2019, Bucco, a Republican from Mountain Lakes, will relinquish that seat to someone the Morris County Republican Committee will appoint to a one-year term.
Video: Why is a state Senator running for Assembly?
Bucco said he is adhering to procedures followed by both parties–Democrat Sheila Oliver ran the same playbook in dual races for Lt. Governor and Assembly. To bow out from the Assembly race only would have “disenfranchised…thousands” who already cast absentee ballots, he said. His father, Sen. Tony Bucco, died in September.
Democratic contender Lisa Bhimani, 51, an obstetrician from Mendham, expressed condolences. But voters will be disenfranchised, she said, if the GOP gets a “blank check to appoint whomever they please to fill your position.”
Her running mate, Darcy Draeger, 49, a former financial analyst who has a farm in Chester, accused Bucco of a “very troubling” lack of transparency,” asserting he could have chosen to seek re-election to the Assembly and then run for Senate next year.
Bucco and the GOP “chose not to do that, because they understand the power of incumbency, they understand the power of name recognition, and they’re trying to pull over the line on that and then appoint someone of their choice–not the voters of (District) 25. And I think that’s wrong,” Draeger said.
Bucco’s running mate, Brian Bergen, 40, an Army veteran from Denville who owns an indoor landscaping business, said Bucco was thrust into this position by his father’s untimely death, “and the laughing and stuff about this is just not right.”
Forty-five percent of sitting New Jersey legislators initially got their seats via appointments, Bergen claimed.
Bucco, 57, a lawyer who has served in the Assembly since 2010, said this is not a Senate scenario he would have preferred.
“This is not something I chose. My father died. And I don’t know whether you guys have any compassion about that, but it’s a position I was put in. Believe me, I would love to be standing up here today telling you that I’m not in this position. But I didn’t have a choice.”
He said voters will have a choice–next week at the polls, and again next year. Then, echoing a theme he sounded all evening, Bucco added:
“What this comes down to really is whether or not you want this seat to remain Republican. And whether or not you want to make sure that there’s somebody there who’s a check-and-balance against the Murphy administration, and the taxing and spending that are going on. That’s exactly what it boils down to,” he said.
Bucco blamed the “tax and spend” Democratic majority in the Legislature for stifling New Jersey’s economy and driving people out of the state. He pledged tax relief by attempting to make sure property taxes go solely towards funding public education, and asserted he can work with Democrats to get things done, saying he has enacted 110 bills.
The incumbent accused the Democratic challengers of taking “dark money” to distort his record on gun laws and women’s health issues.
Video: Who needs gun laws?
Bergen accused Bhimani and Draeger of a “smear campaign” and tried repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to get them to voice approval for Gov. Murphy’s budget and the $1.2 billion tax increase he said it brings.
The Democrats accused their GOP rivals of distortions of their own: Ads about a Bhimani property in New York–a tax break error by a condo board that quickly was corrected, according to Bhimani–and attacks about Draeger’s farm, which Bergen insinuated was a tax dodge.
Draeger said it’s an 11-acre working farm that contributes to the local economy. The other day she had to euthanize an ailing sheep, she said after the League of Women Voters forum.
Fielding questions submitted by the audience to moderator Toni Zimmer, Bhimani and Draeger advocated for wind farms and other renewable energy projects, to address climate change and create 40,000 jobs.
If elected, Bhimani, a graduate of Brown University, said she would be just the second medical doctor in the Legislature, and the only female one. Her background would prove helpful on health care issues, she said.
Draeger cited nearly 20 years as a financial analyst. She rapped Bucco for opposing tougher gun laws, and for supporting former Gov. Christie’s defunding of family planning services.
Bergen spoke of the need to cut red tape for small business owners like himself. The state requires small business owners to shoulder the expense of collecting sales taxes; he said a fraction of those taxes should be dedicated to defraying those costs.
Video: Parting shots