SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - More than 250 New Jersey residents packed the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) auditorium Thursday evening to hear Democratic gubernatorial candidates John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson at the first Meet the Governor Candidates Forum organized by SOMADEMS.

Johnson is a Montclair resident.

The forum, which was live-streamed on Facebook and lasted for two and a half hours, featured enthusiastic applause, standing ovations and long lines of New Jerseyans eager to ask questions.

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“This is an opportunity for you to select a governor who stands for what you believe in, not for you to be told this is who you gotta select because it’s inevitable. Nothing is inevitable,” said Wisniewski, a longtime state assemblyman from Sayreville.

Topics ranged from concerns about environmental protections, funding for women’s health, improving NJ Transit, the inequity of state funding for public education, affordable housing for the disabled, inadequate funding of public pensions, how to implement a single payer health care system in the state, and ways to protect New Jersey’s immigrant community.

“If we take this moment, we take this energy, we take this level of concern and we actually start to envision things that are different, we can move this state, and by moving this state, move this country,” said Johnson, a former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary from Montclair.

Antony Bugg-Levine, a South Orange resident and CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, moderated the event.

SOMADEMS, which stands for South Orange and Maplewood Democrats, is a grassroots political group that was started to support Democratic candidates and progressive issues important to the sister towns of South Orange and Maplewood on the local, state and federal level. The group, which now includes more than 1,300 politically active residents, is one of a growing number of local political groups that have sprung up in the last year to harness a sharp increase in political activism.

“SOMADEMS is delighted to produce this and future events designed to educate, engage and empower New Jersey voters as we decide which progressive candidates should represent our interests at the national, state and local levels. We want to help our communities get involved with advocacy efforts promoting democratic and social justice principles and push back against efforts to perpetuate hate and discrimination. We know that we must unify and protect one another because if you’re not at the table, chances are that you’re on the menu,” said Michael L. Minor, a South Orange resident, president and co-founder of SOMADEMS.

South Orange resident and SOMADEMS co-founder Ritu Pancholy said it’s important for residents to be able to meet all of the Democratic candidates for governor.

“Now, more than ever, voters have to meet the candidates who are running for office and make their own determination as to who is the best person to lead New Jersey in the future,” Pancholy said.

Thursday night’s forum is the first in a series of events that the group has planned to give South Orange and Maplewood residents a chance to meet the Democratic candidates for governor. Former U.S. ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy and retired firefighter Bill Brennan have agreed to participate in SOMADEMS’ next Meet the Governor Candidates Forum, scheduled for April 25. Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna and small business owner Lisa McCormick will be featured at another Meet the Governor Candidates Forum.