UNION - Battered and exhausted, the LD 20 incumbent team headed by state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20) thrashed Democrats for Change in Union Twp., lost Elizabeth by 500 votes, and finally won districtwide.
"We lost in Elizabeth but won the election," announced Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, arriving at the Galloping Hill ballroom in Union.
As part of their 54-46% win, the Union numbers, all unofficial: Lesniak - 1,999; Joe Cryan 2,128; Annette Quijano 1,998. The challengers, Jerome Dunn - 773; Tony Monteiro 643; Carlos Cedeno 590.
In Elizabeth, the city-based challengers led by political organizer Rafael Fajardo won about 3,600 compared to 3,100 for the incumbent ticket.
"Their base is 3,500 in Elizabeth but they can't seem to get beyond that," said a source close to the race, referring to the Elizabeth underdog organizers affiliated with the Board of Education.
Disappointed, Fajardo and company took their city victory as an indicator of future domination. There is, of course, a mayoral election next year.
"In the end, they spent $2.5 million and we spent $250,000," he said.
The incumbents also won in Roselle, with Lesniak besting challenger Dunn 1,647 to 1,172; Cryan and Quijano defeated their challengers by about 600 votes in Roselle. Dunn narrowly defeated Lesniak in Hillside, where Union County Dem Chair Charlotte DeFilippo lost her local district in a committee fight but preserved a majority to be able to retain her chairmanship. The legislative incumbents also won in the vote by mail category, with Lesniak netting 174 votes, Cryan 191 and Quijano 167. Dunn received 42, Cedeno 30 and Monteiro 33.
The early returns from Union, at the very least, didn't surprise incumbent allies gathered in the Knights of Columbus headquarters in Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan's hometown.
"In Union, we kicked ass," Cryan told a whooping blue-collar local suburban crowd around 8 p.m.
"This was the most rewarding day I've had in politics," he added, nursing a 1,700-vote lead as the incumbents awaited the results in Elizabeth.
The campaign was coming to an end and an hour earlier he had stood in his backyard as family members who helped with GOTV headed for their cars and the night's festivities at the Galloping Hill, where U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6), State Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski, and state Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden) joined laborers and other union workers who turned out the vote.
"We're going to be fighting Chris Christie," Cryan yelled to applause. "Tonight, you sent a message to Chris Christie, because of all your work."
Sources in Cryan's camp projected confidence in the knowledge that their allies had turned out the vote sufficiently in Elizabeth to make Cryan's vote totals count here in his hometown and stem the Elizabeth totals registered by the opposition, Democrats for Change. It proved true, as Bollwage kept it close enough to bump up Cryan's suburban effort.
What was apparent late was that the battle was most significantly a two-front effort, with Bollwage and his council - including Manny Grova in the 1st Ward by the docks and Nelson Gonzalez in the 2nd Ward and the mayor personally in the first - expected to perform a counter-offensive to the Elizabeth-based insurgent organization.
Roselle would help the incumbents because there was a mayor's race there tonight featuring the legislative incumbents' local ally, Council President Jamel Holley, challenging a wounded incumbent mayor in Garrett Smith. Holley won.
Sources within Cryan's retinue expected the challengers to win in Hillside. It has been state Senate candidate Jerome Dunn's hometown for nearly 40 years and is new to the district, making the names Lesniak, Cryan and Quijano especially distant in a short time frame election.
Moreover, Hillside Mayor Joe Menza was hungrily engaged in an ongoing struggle to wrest control of the council away from Union County Democratic Committee Chair DeFilippo.
Menza was motivated.
That left Cryan to drive a large plurality and large numbers in Union Twp., the suburban aftermath of Newark - given the migration patterns - which abuts Elizabeth. At a VFW rally last night, Mayor Joe Florio boasted that the incumbents would be able to nail almost 4,000 votes in Union, a total that seemed ambitious by the off-the-record reckoning of both camps.
Sources close to Cryan figured if they won Roselle, lost Hillside, kept it relatively even in Elizabeth and turned out a wide margin of victory in Union, they would win re-election.
At the victory party, having weathered the bulk of his opponents' attacks in mail pieces that targeted the lavishness of his shore house, a campaign-trail haggard Lesniak addressed the crowd, thanking everyone who helped his team win, including an ex-president.
"And yes, Bill Clinton," he said, happily defiant.
His opponents had chuckled at his insistence on bringing a global figure to a local event.
Early in the evening, as he prepared to leave his house in Union to digest the numbers at the Knights of Columbus HQ, someone asked him if the opposition had flown over his neighborhood to photograph his modest digs for a mailpiece.
"They did," he said with a grin, "but too fast."
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