A quintessential New Jersey game of musical chairs brought Albio Sires to Congress. The music started in November 2005, when Sen. John Corzine was elected governor. To fill his Senate seat, the party machine tapped Rep. Bob Menendez, which created an opening for Menendez’s House seat. Albio Sires, the mayor of West New York, had previously run for Congress in the 1980s as a Republican, but was by then also state assembly speaker and a loyal member of the Democratic machine. He won a special election in 2006 with 90 percent of the vote and has represented the North Jersey district, home to the largest Cuban diaspora outside Miami, ever since. 

Sires has kept a low profile, largely voting with the party on the House floor. It’s hard to measure obscurity, but fewer than 70 Democrats have served in the House as long as Sires, and suffice it to say that Sires has not managed to translate that seniority into a national profile or measurable power in Washington. 

Corzine, a Wall Street baron, was unseated by Republican Chris Christie after one term; Menendez remains in office, and both he and Corzine have escaped prison despite being the targets of federal investigators. Sires has hung on, but as New Jersey’s Cuban population ages and migrates south to Florida, his district has become more diverse, with growing Central and Caribbean American populations. 

In South Jersey, the Norcross bosses, whose family has had a longstanding stranglehold on local politics, are holding on. George Norcoss, known as one of New Jersey’s most influential unelected bosses, holds an outsize influence over parts of the state legislature’s South Jersey delegation. An insurance executive, he’s been accused of pulling strings to benefit from a state corporate tax incentive program that came under federal investigation last year. His brother, Donald, represents parts of South Jersey in the U.S. House. Donald is a former labor leader who was elected to the state assembly in 2009. He was later appointed to fill a vacant state Senate seat, which paved the way for his eventual transition to Congress.

Now Sires, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, is facing his first serious primary election since 2006, from insurgent challenger Hector Oseguera, an attorney with roots in Honduras and the Dominican Republic who specializes in fighting money laundering. Oseguera, who attended Boston University at the same time as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but didn’t know her then, was one of the earliest volunteers on her 2018 campaign to unseat then-Rep. Joe Crowley in Queens and the Bronx. 

Oseguera is part of a wave of challengers taking on the local machine in North Jersey.

Oseguera is part of a wave of challengers taking on the local machine in North Jersey. Sires, a functionary of the West New York/Union City machine, known as the Hudson County Democratic Organization, or, often, simply, “the Organization,” is just one of many targets, with a slate of six Hudson County Freeholder candidates allied with Oseguera challenging incumbents up and down the ballot. 

Elsewhere in the Garden State, similar battles are taking place, as the coalescing of activist groups and insurgent candidates launches a statewide assault on the cartoonishly corrupt New Jersey Democratic establishment, which long considered itself immune from the biannual annoyance of elections. So immune that the party did nothing to shunt aside Menendez in 2018, even as he faced trial for corruption charges in the midst of his reelection. Little-known challenger Lisa McCormick, with next to no financing, stunned the party by winning 38 percent of the vote in the primary that cycle against Menendez, who got off on a mistrial due to a hung jury and won reelection.

Sen. Robert Menendez and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer talk to reporters following the weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 25, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Chip Somodeville/Getty Images

Now McCormick, a perennial candidate for local and federal office who has never disclosed the names of any campaign donors, is challenging state Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman. Coleman was elected in 2014 as the state’s first African American woman in Congress and has a pretty solid progressive voting record. 

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, among the most conservative House Democrats, is facing a serious challenge from Dr. Arati Kriebich, a neuroscientist and former Gottheimer volunteer. In South Jersey, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a party boss elected in 2018 and concerned about losing a primary challenge from the left this cycle, switched and became a Republican. Democratic Reps. Bill Pascrell and Donald Payne Jr. are also facing primary challenges from Zina Spezakis — who’s also running under the “Not Me. Us.” slogan —  and Alp Basaran, and Eugene Mazo and John Flora, respectively. 

Across the river in New York, party bosses there are taking primary challenges extremely seriously, with Reps. Eliot Engel, Jerry Nadler, Yvette Clarke, Greg Meeks, Carolyn Maloney, and Tom Suozzi all facing challenges. In Queens, Zohran Mamdani is running for State Assembly against five-term incumbent Aravella Simotas, and there are a handful of other state legislative races in play, with a number of challengers backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and No IDC NY, a progressive organizing group that targets the state legislature. Last week, the Board of Elections, which is controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, booted Sen. Bernie Sanders off the primary ballot, with the transparent goal of depressing progressive turnout and dampening support for challengers.

Oseguera lucked into an advantage on the ballot — or, more accurately perhaps, he made his own luck — that may be consequential in a race between two people with such little name recognition. In New Jersey, machine politicians for decades have implored supporters to “vote column A all the way,” a phrase that became synonymous with loyalty to the party machine. Column A on New Jersey ballots is reserved for candidates running as a slate, from the president down to the freeholder, a county legislative position.

Typically, it is only the machine that is able to put together that sort of slate, as progressives rarely have a Senate candidate fielded, and even more rarely a body in the presidential primary. But this time, Sanders supporters recruited veteran activist Larry Hamm to run for Senate against Cory Booker, enabling a slate to be formed with Hamm and down-ballot insurgents. (They had wanted Sanders to sit at the top of their slate; his campaign, however, never filed the paperwork needed to join it.) The machine, meanwhile, was torn between various presidential candidates — including Booker — and so declined to make any endorsement. That meant that the progressive slate in Hudson and Union counties, the population centers of the 8th District, was eligible for the A column. Because there was more than one slate, the A spot was decided in an April 9 drawing — which the insurgents won. Voters accustomed to casting their ballots “A all the way” will wind up supporting Oseguera.

“There’s going to be a set of voters that show up and do their regular Democratic duty of ‘vote A all the way,’ and they might swing this election,” said Oseguera, who was raised in the district by a mother who taught and a father who held a variety of jobs, from handyman to cashier to driver. Oseguera said that when his phone bankers end the call by reminding voters to “vote column A,” they often reply with a version of “Of course, we always vote line A.”

Ron Bautista is one of the six freeholder candidates running under the Sanders-inspired slogan of “Not Me. Us.,” in a district that largely covers Hoboken. “[Oseguera’s] campaign has brought together grassroots progressives like it has never been done before,” said Bautista, who last year challenged a 16-year city council incumbent, picking up a third of the vote without a slate or developer money, which the New Jersey establishment tends to rely on. “We are at the heart of machine politics in New Jersey, and sometimes progressives have run individually against the machine. For the first time, we have a progressive slate of candidates from Senate to county government.”

Three of the slate’s nine freeholder candidates failed to qualify for the ballot, coming short on signatures, while a number of those who qualified did so by collecting electronic signatures amid the pandemic. Roger Quesada was one of them, drawing on his professional experience in e-commerce and marketing. “There’s no slate in recent memory that has ever been this organized and with a strong digital infrastructure,” he said.

Behind the scenes, the machine had been plotting a coup, which could undercut the insurgents’ column A advantage. New Jersey Democrats, including Menendez and Hudson Democratic County Chair Amy DeGise, had been publicly calling for an “open primary,” which would mean that presidential candidates would not be bracketed with any of the competing slates. “The Biden and Sanders camps accepted an open primary,” DeGise said in a New Jersey Globe article. “We’re proud to support having an open primary. Democrats will reunite once the nomination is made.” 

But on April 23, the Oseguera campaign learned that the machine, contrary to its public statements, had applied to be bracketed with Joe Biden, whose campaign had also applied to be bracketed with Hudson County Democrats. The Hudson County Clerk’s office granted the request, which means that Biden will appear at the top of Column B, along with Sires. This may counteract some of Oseguera’s “vote A” advantage. The deadline to submit bracketing letters was April 1, meaning that the machine had been planning the move long before Sanders announced on April 8 that he would be suspending his campaign.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 14: Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., listens to Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, testify during the House Budget Committee hearing titled The Economic Outlook: The View from the Federal Reserve, in Cannon Building on Thursday, November 14, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., listens to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testify during a House Budget Committee hearing on Nov. 14, 2019.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

Whether Sires snagging a bracket with Biden will undercut the insurgents’ slate depends on just how well the latter group can communicate the straight-ticket issue to supporters, said John Farmer, New Jersey’s former attorney general and current director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. 

“The effect is really gonna depend on the strength of the parties in any given location,” Farmer said, pointing to the intense competition between the local Democratic machine and insurgent groups in deeply blue New Jersey. “Depending on where you are in the state, the party could be really rock solid, or there could be a lot of upheaval and competition going on.” 

Perhaps ironically, it’s now in Oseguera’s interest to encourage voters to split their ticket if they choose to support Biden after Sanders suspended his campaign. Though he was removed from the New York primary ballot, Sanders will still appear on the ballot in New Jersey and most other states. Since Sires is now bracketed with Biden, voters will have to pay special attention if they want to support other primary challengers. 

Oseguera’s race against Sires presents intriguing parallels to Ocasio-Cortez’s, as well as divergences. Where Crowley was a local machine boss with national ambitions, on his way to becoming speaker of the House, Sires is merely a local machine boss. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Oseguera has raised precious little money, relying instead on a network of volunteers and local activist groups to power him to victory in what is likely to be an extremely low-turnout election against an incumbent with little name recognition in a community that has changed underneath him. (Crowley was far better known in Washington than in his home district, which cost him dearly in the primary.) 

The Oseguera-Sires contest will be fought out digitally and over the phone. Oseguera managed to buy Sires’s domain name — AlbioSires.com — and redirect it to his own fundraising page.

Oseguera, unlike Ocasio-Cortez, does not label himself a democratic socialist; given the number of refugees of the Cuban Revolution in the district, the term remains deeply toxic. But he supports the gamut of policies that tend to define more progressive Democrats: a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a wealth tax, $ 15 minimum wage, and so on. He does not, however, have the support of Justice Democrats, the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez’s challenge and has been conservative in handing out endorsements since then. He said that when he appealed to the group for an endorsement, they told him that Sires’s voting record wasn’t egregious enough to merit the group’s scarce resources. (The group recently launched a Super PAC.) Unlike the incumbents whose challengers Justice Democrats has backed this cycle, like Dan Lipinski and Henry Cuellar, Sires is a reliable Democratic vote and has such a low profile that ousting him would barely make a ripple. 

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Oseguera’s campaign, two months out from the primary, is broke, with $ 22,731 raised and less than $ 4,000 cash on hand, according to the latest filing. For Ocasio-Cortez, a viral campaign ad, combined with national coverage, helped elevate her profile and raise last-minute money, which she pumped into canvassing, phone and text banks, and digital ads. But Osegeura is campaigning amid a pandemic, with effective shelter-in-place orders, so there’s likely to be very little canvassing between now and the July 7 primary. The Oseguera-Sires contest will be fought out digitally and over the phone, a disadvantage for Sires, who has virtually no virtual presence and doesn’t even have a campaign website. Oseguera managed to buy Sires’s domain name — AlbioSires.com — and redirect it to his own fundraising page.

For a machine boss, Sires has little to show in the way of money, though he’s well ahead of Oseguera. This cycle, Sires has raised just $ 340,000 and had $ 237,000 cash on hand as of March 31. His biggest donors are the local trade unions and the Desert Caucus, an extremist, pro-Israel group that endorses settlements and the annexation of Palestinian territory. 

Former Navy SEAL Will Sheehan is also in the race, though has yet to file fundraising numbers with the Federal Election Commission. 

Oseguera’s campaign is using its limited funds to target Democrats likely to vote by mail ahead of the primary, which was postponed from June. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has been pushing for an all-mail primary, but backtracked after pushback from machine leaders across the state. Because of their lack of cash, Oseguera said, his campaign narrowed its voter data purchase to 75,000 Democrats in the district who regularly vote in general elections but don’t show up for primaries. Vote-by-mail, he hopes, will make those people more likely to return a ballot if volunteers can get texts and calls in front of them enough. He expects 50,000 votes will be enough to win. 

The postponement of the primary and the expansion of vote-by-mail add to the uncertainty around how the election will go, said Farmer of Rutgers University. While the changes could hamper the machine’s overall advantage, the insurgents’ fundraising barriers could also make it difficult to reach voters. “The burden of getting the information to the voters is greater because of the restrictions that we’re all operating under now,” he said. 

Partial vote-by-mail “does put an additional burden on the parties if they want to maintain their encouragement of straight-ticket voting that they really have to be sort of out there and more aggressive in encouraging that then probably they have been in the past,” he said, noting that campaigns’ inability to do in-person canvassing is another complicating factor. 

The shift toward vote-by-mail has made the machine nervous. DeGise told the New Jersey Globe that she opposes mail-in voting and was pushing for an all in-person vote because loyal machine voters are more likely to turn out to the polls, whereas making mail an option would bring more voters in. Mail-in voting, she said, is “just not in the culture here. … Our strongest voting blocks are not going to vote by mail,” adding that voting by mail is more popular among Democrats who don’t typically vote.

Eleana Little, a Hudson County freeholder candidate, cited the machine’s machinations as evidence that they’re nervous about insurgents harnessing that strength. “We’ve got people,” she said. “We’re building a grassroots movement and have over 100 volunteers. We’re phone-banking every day and hearing from people that they’re excited about what we’re doing. Hector comes from a working-class background and has mountains of student loan debt, like so many millennials. He didn’t have $ 50,000 to drop on his own campaign like some candidates do, and he doesn’t have wealthy family connections. So the war chest is small, but there are a lot of people involved. I think the fact that the machine is so nervous shows that we’ve built substantial momentum, and it’s not just all in our heads.”

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