Five Democrats from Mercer County, including three from Hopewell Township, have entered an intra-party contest to decide who will be named to an empty state Assembly seat representing the 15th Legislative district that encompasses parts of Mercer and Hunterdon counties.
Hopewell Township Mayor Kevin D. Kuchinski became the latest candidate seeking to replace Reed Gusciora, a Democrat who served in the Assembly since 1996. Gusciora resigned his seat on July 1, the same day he become the mayor of Trenton.
“I think it’s time we drive forward with a new generation of strong progressive leaders who can really find solutions to some of the pressing issues facing New Jersey,” said Kuchinkski, 49, by phone on July 6.
He joined a field that includes Mercer County Freeholder Anthony S. Verrelli of Hopewell Township, Ewing School District Board of Education member Carl Benedetti, Ben Tew, of Hopewell Township, and Jeffrey Laurenti, of Trenton, a former executive director of the New Jersey state Senate.
Democratic county committee members from the 10 towns in the district are scheduled to have a convention on July 26 at the Cobblestone Creek Country Club, Lawrence Township, to choose Gusciora’s successor.
In Mercer, the legislative district includes Ewing, Hopewell Township, Hopewell Borough, Lawrence, Pennington, Trenton and West Windsor. In Hunterdon, the district includes East Amwell, Lambertville and West Amwell.
Whoever wins the convention will get the Assembly seat and then have to run in a special election in November in order to fill out the unexpired two-year-term.
“I think I can bring growth and renewed vigor to Trenton,” Kuchinski said. “I think Trenton’s been ignored, at times, under the Christie administration at the state level.”
This is the second time this year there has been a vacant Assembly seat in the 15th district. In January, Assemblywoman Liz Muoio resigned to join Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration as state treasurer.
In the same process Democrats will use to replace Gusciora, Muoio was replaced by Trenton Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, who also must run in a special Assembly election in November if she wants to retain the seat.
Verrelli, who could not be reached for comment, is running for the Assembly twice in the same year. He lost his bid to replace Muoio when Democrats chose Reynolds-Jackson at a convention in February.
Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes said on July 6 that he was supporting Verrelli.
“I think he did a very fine job running against Verlina Reynolds-Jackson,” Hughes said. “He went out and he touched all of the delegates. He wrote them letters, he talked to them on the phone. He’s a very one-on-one person, and I like him and I respect him.”
Benedetti, who works in the insurance industry, was elected to the school board in Ewing in 2011 at the age of 20. Now 27, he pointed to some recent victories by candidates in their 20s: Julia Fahl, 27, winning the mayoral primary in Lambertville, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, upsetting a congressman in a Democratic primary in New York City.
“I feel we’re in a unique point in time where we’re seeing, sort of around us, a desire for younger individuals to get into serious positions in government,” Benedetti said by phone on July 6. “I think, given the state of politics in all levels, there is a true desire for younger individuals to get involved and I think that, being a younger individual whose got a decent amount of elected experience under his belt at this point, that I would be the best individual to represent the 15th district.”
Laurenti, 68, ran for Congress in 1986, losing to Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican. Laurenti previously worked as the executive director of the United Nations Association of the United States. He called himself an “alternative who will stand up for Gov. Murphy’s program and try to rein in the kind of confrontational attitude some Democratic leaders in the Legislature have displayed toward the governor.”
So far, the field of candidates does not include a woman, although two out of the three members of the legislative delegation are women: Reynolds-Jackson and state Sen. Shirley K. Turner.
The field also will not include Mercer County Freeholder Samuel T. Frisby Jr., who had indicated previously that he was considering running.
“My schedule is so crazy right now, and I don’t have the ability to shut down to do the type of work it would take to win,” he said in a text message on July 6.