Sanders-Inspired Progressives Aim to Secure Democratic Nod in the 17th District

State Senate hopeful William Irwin (left) and aspiring state Assembly candidates Heather Fenyk and Ralph Johnson Credits: Central Jersey Progressive Democrats

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Three aspiring state politicians hope their progressive bent will help them lock the Democratic nominations for state Senate and Assembly today, June 6, in the primary elections.

New Jersey’s 40-member Senate and 80-member General Assembly combine to make up the state Legislature. Its members work to enact laws, serving all Garden State residents and constituents in their individual districts.

The 17th legislative district is comprised of portions of Middlesex and Somerset counties. The area covers New Brunswick, Piscataway, North Brunswick, Milltown and Franklin.

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William Irwin aims to become the Democratic candidate for state senator in the 17th legislative district. His running mates, Heather Fenyk and Ralph Johnson, hope to represent the district’s blue team for two Assembly seats in the general election.

The challengers are running on behalf of the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats, a faction founded last year on the ideals and policy goals of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

They’re facing incumbents from the Middlesex County Democratic Organization and the Somerset County Regular Democratic Organization.

Today’s winning candidates will square off against Republican opponents in the fall.

Primary elections offer partisans the chance to choose their candidates in the November general election. Registered Democrats may vote in their party’s primaries, and Republicans may do the same for their party.

Unaffiliated voters may ask for a ballot from either party at their polling stations. By doing so, however, voters become registered with the party in whose primary they voted.

Polls are open until 8 p.m. For information on where to vote, click here.

TAPinto New Brunswick sent questions to each Senate and Assembly candidate from the 17th legislative district. Below are answers from the three Central Jersey Progressive Democrats. Their responses may have been edited for grammar, style or brevity.

William Irwin, Piscataway resident running for state Senate

Describe your background and why you are qualified for the office.

I am honored to be leading a slate of candidates to take back our party and our government.

A former resident of New Brunswick and Franklin, I’ve been a homeowner in Piscataway for 19 years with my wife and sons. A volunteer Little League manager, I have served as president of Piscataway’s Board of Education since 2014, when I was first elected. I ran in response to growing class sizes in our schools. As a former teacher (master’s and bachelor’s degrees, both from Rutgers University), I thought I could help be part of the solution. I am proud of our board’s work, including adopting the state’s first policy to protect immigrants in our school community, to defend the rights of our transgender students, to ensure a strong food justice policy and securing academic excellence and national recognition for our work. I have worked to ensure that our students and staff have an exceptional learning environment by reducing standardized testing in our schools.

I am a Progressive Democrat who deeply believes in an agenda for social, political and economic justice for all. I will bring these values and my experience of grassroots advocacy and policy change to the Legislature. 

What do you consider the most pressing issue facing the state, and how would you address it?

Our slate of candidates believes resistance to the Trump administration and the fight to secure economic, political and social justice are the most pressing issues facing our residents.

On Nov. 8, I felt despair like so many, but on Nov. 9, I got to work. I was heartened by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to begin the process of rebuilding our party. I looked to the Democratic leaders we have representing us in Piscataway and at the state level, and only heard silence from them. I did not see champions of working people. Instead, I saw leaders who are collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to implement Trump's immoral and illegal immigration plans. I saw elected officials withholding support for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and doing little to stop the Williams Transco pipeline from coming into our community. Our Democrats helped Chris Christie cut the estate tax for 3,500 wealthy families by raising the gas tax on everyone else. I asked myself, “Whose side are they really on?” They certainly don’t seem to be on the same side as the people I know in my community.

Unlike my opponents, I will actually stand up to Trump and represent my constituents.

If you are elected, what would you do to specifically help the constituents of the 17th legislative district?

I believe deeply in the policy objective outlined by Sen. Sanders and am glad our slate has adopted them as our own.

We are working to advance an agenda for social, political and economic justice for Middlesex County residents. I believe in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, in ensuring equal pay for equal work and investing in community facilities that benefit us all.

Our slate is opposed tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires that are paid for by increasing the tax burden on the working and middle class. Last year’s Transportation Trust Fund deal is one example of this; our Democratic leaders supported a regressive tax on gas, which everyone pays, but cut the estate tax for 3,500 wealthy families. That’s wrong for residents of LD-17, who often have long commutes, and limited public transportation choices.

I will work to stop the Williams Transco pipeline and end collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. I will be a member of the NJ Resistance Caucus in the Legislature, and stand up for working families. Our entire platform is available on our website at www.centraljerseyprogressivedemocrats.org.

Heather Fenyk, New Brunswick resident running for state Assembly

Describe your background and why you are qualified for the office.

I am a nonprofit director, working mother, small business owner and community organizer who has lived in New Brunswick with her family for almost two decades.

I have a proven track record of running successful social services and environmental organizing, including as a founding member of both the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance and New Brunswick Green Team, and as founder of New Jersey’s newest watershed association, the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership. I have never run for political office before, but I have a strong understanding of policy and of how government can work to help solve our common concerns.

In the state Assembly, I will fight to let residents have a voice in how we build our communities in deep and meaningful ways that include: fair and welcoming immigration status, school funding reform, environmental restoration, business incubation and creative economies. I am encouraged by the enthusiastic grassroots effort we have organized in a very short time, making clear that the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats’ platform speaks to the core values of our communities. We are proving that the best way to win is to talk about our core values, and to talk about restoring democracy to local decision-making.

What do you consider the most pressing issue facing the state, and how would you address it?

I am very concerned about restoring American democracy, which requires a shift from “business as usual” politics to direct and active engagement by the Democratic Party’s progressive base.

I see the opportunities that have made prior generations of residents proud to call New Jersey home--great public schools, good local jobs and neighborhoods with a sense of place--slipping away from too many people. I am running, as part of an amazing slate of candidates, because I see career politicians working on behalf of land developers and entities that have no sense of the true character of the towns we call home.

If you are elected, what would you do to specifically help the constituents of the 17th legislative district?

I believe our leaders must resist the Trump Agenda, including opposing his immoral and illegal executive orders.

Like my running mates, I was disappointed last fall year when our Democratic representatives worked with Governor Christie to shift the tax burden of paying for roads and bridges from the top 3,500 wealthiest New Jersey families and onto to the middle and working classes by raising the gas tax on the rest of us.

I oppose the creation of the proposed Williams Transco Gas Pipeline, which is slated to bring unneeded fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania underneath large sections of Central Jersey, under Raritan Bay and utilize a compressor station that would have to be built on the South Brunswick/Franklin border. This pipeline serves no public interest and will needlessly put people in danger while undermining efforts to reverse global warming and wean our country from fossil fuels.

I believe that New Jersey should be aggressively pursuing a clean and renewable energy future, not capitulating to the fossil fuel. I support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour to make sure all our residents and communities thrive.

Ralph Johnson, Piscataway resident running for state Assembly

Describe your background and why you are qualified for the office.

I am a Progressive Democrat who believes in social, economic and political justice and answering the call to take back the Democratic Party.

Since 2014, I have served on the Piscataway Board of Education, the only three time Magna award recipient in America by the National School Board Association. I am a current Lieutenant and a 20-year veteran of law enforcement, a two-term Piscataway school board member, a Pop Warner Football and Little League Baseball coach, the chair of the board’s School Culture and Climate Committee, delegate to the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey and former educator.

Unlike my opponents, who are both white men, I can represent my community’s diversity and increase the representation of African-Americans in New Jersey’s General Assembly. I have lived with my wife and four children in Piscataway since 2001.

I have a master’s degree in education from Saint Peter’s College, a bachelor’s degree in political science from West Virginia University and a certification of administration and supervision in education and a standard teaching license. I am an active member of the Men’s of Christ Fellowship Ministry, and worshiping and serving the Lord with Zion Hill Baptist Church of Piscataway.

What do you consider the most pressing issue facing the state, and how would you address it?

After the election, I was disappointed and worried about what a Trump presidency would mean for my community, my friends and my family.

Sen. Sanders’ call to run progressives for local office really resonated with me; I know that we need to stand up for ourselves, and to be the change we wish to see. I believe it is time for the American people to make a fundamental decision to get actively involved in the Democratic process or be a bystander.

Our current representatives are corporate Democrats and do not fight for working families. They voted for the Transportation Trust Fund, which raised the gas tax--one of the most regressive taxes--for millions of working people and seniors in the state, but cut the estate tax for 3,500 wealthy families. They have done nothing to protect our immigrant neighbors, and they are vigorously not opposing the Williams Transco pipeline.

The people of the 17th legislative district deserve better, and I look forward to the opportunity to represent our shared beliefs in the state Assembly. I encourage people to review our position statements at www.centraljerseyprogressivedemocrats.org.

If you are elected, what would you do to specifically help the constituents of the 17th legislative district?

As a member of the state Assembly, I would stand up to Donald Trump at every opportunity and stand up for working families, not millionaires and billionaires.

Our current representatives are not part of the NJ Resistance, which is fighting the Trump agenda by passing progressive state legislation. I won’t sit on the sidelines; I will be in the fight for $15 and work to make sure that New Jersey is a safe and welcoming community for all of our neighbors. I’ll use my service to ensure that everyone benefits, not just the wealthy few.

I will fight for the school funding formula to be fully funded, so residents of LD-17 get the state support they pay for and deserve. I believe we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and oppose the Williams Transco pipeline and gas compressor station slated to be built in Franklin.

Voters in our communities want leaders who will listen and respond to them. Voters I have talked to say that our current representatives do not respond to their calls or concerns. Our communities are tired of being taken for granted. I will listen and I will advocate for the needs of all of my constituents.

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