Four candidates vying for 29th District Legislative seat

29th Legislative District candidates (counterclockwise from top left) Tai Cooper, Safanya Searcy, Pat Council, Shanique Speight.

The Democratic chairmen of Newark's five wards and Belleville are scheduled to meet tonight in West Orange to pick from among four candidates to fill the 29th Legislative District state Assembly seat.

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Blonnie Watson, a former Essex County freeholder who stepped into the seat vacated in 2016 by L. Grace Spencer after Spencer resigned to become a New Jersey Superior Court judge, is not expected to run for a full two-year term. 

Watson's departure creates a vacancy and four candidates are vying for the spot: Shanique Speight, the Central Ward Democratic chairwoman; Tai Cooper, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's chief policy adviser; Safanya Searcy, a national labor organizer and veteran New Jersey Democratic strategist; and Pat Council, Newark's director of recreation, cultural affairs and senior services.

The meeting is scheduled to take place at the West Orange office of Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones Jr.

The 29th District, which includes Belleville, is a Newark-dominated seat that comprises all of the city's East, North and Central Wards, as well as a few neighborhoods in both the South and West Wards. The seat has traditionally been the mayor's pick.

Council, a longtime Baraka ally and loyalist and chairman of Newark's South Ward Democratic party, is seen by many as the favorite in the candidate selection process. Sources indicate that he has the support of Lionel Leach, president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1039, and Kevin Brown, New Jersey State Director for SEIU 32B. 

"I've been always pleased with the fact that we have had strong women leading the district and supporting the agenda of Newark and Essex County down at the State House. But ultimately, I think it's about putting forth the best candidate who will continue to fight for the 29th District and to get the resources that Newark needs," said Council.

"However the situation works itself out, my allegiance and relationship with the mayor is important to me bar none, and I would want the best possible thing for everyone in Newark and Essex County," Council said. "I'm always going to be in partnership with the mayor, because Newark, the largest city in the state of New Jersey, does matter." 

Searcy, a longtime union advocate, said the district needs a strong advocate for labor and public education.

"I would love an opportunity to fight and advocate for the issues that I already do naturally: equal pay for equal work, protecting women's health care and standing up and defending public education," said Searcy, who lives in the Central Ward. 

"As a child who grew up in a struggling household, raised by my grandmother who raised me and my brother, I had gotten in trouble myself, and I thought that was going to be the end of the road for me." Searcy said. "But people helped me, mentored me and gave me a second chance. Now, I want to give back in a greater way. And I would love this seat to go to a woman. But I am respectful of the process." 

Searcy's possible candidacy and the potential entry of Speight into the race underscores a critical factor in Newark politics: location, location, location.

Four of the city's five wards have a clear representative in Newark's state Legislature. Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29) is from the North Ward, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29) is from the East Ward, Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-28) is from the South Ward and Senator Ron L. Rice (D-28) is from the West Ward.

Speight, an Essex County sheriff's officer, has deep connections to the Central Ward through her husband and her own efforts. Speight also operates the Happy Hands Day Care Learning Center, which was closed by city officials Feb. 6, citing unsafe conditions.

Some see Speight's potential candidacy suspiciously. 

"I don't understand why she thinks it's a good idea to run," said a source involved in Newark politics. "This does absolutely no good for party unity."

Speight, who is also the Central Ward chairwoman, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Speight first won election to the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board in 2007 running on a ticket supported by the North Ward Democratic machine. She resigned from the board in 2012, when she was tapped for an appointment to an at-large seat on the Newark City Council to replace Donald Payne Jr., who was appointed to the seat in Congress vacated by his father.

But Speight's appointment caused a near riot in Council Chambers in City Hall and led to a legal challenge that resulted in her appointment being overturned. The seat went unfilled until a special election in November 2013, when John Sharpe James, son of former Mayor Sharpe James, was elected.

Some longtime observers of Essex County politics look at Speight's dive into the 29th District candidate as being created by a wave of support from Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo in an attempt to ensure that Baraka does not generate too much county-wide power from his Newark base.

But another source inside Newark political circles saw DiVincenzo's influence as being more subtle. 

"Don't discount Leroy. He's more important is this pick that Joe D," the source said. "But because of where the 29th District is, including the part in the [longtime DiVincenzo stronghold] North Ward, a candidate that Joe D can live with will get through by default." 

The potential inclusion of Cooper into the mix of 29th District candidates adds an unforeseen layer of intrigue into the selection process. 

A graduate of Montclair Kimberley Academy, Rutgers University's Douglass College and New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Cooper gained her political experience in the office of the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, serving as a senior projects specialist. 

The governmental skill set acquired by Cooper working for both Baraka and Lautenberg could make a strong case for her move to the Legislature 

Cooper told TAPintoNewark that it is "an honor" that her name is being reportedly put forward as a candidate and offered her take on her potential Assembly candidacy. 

"I have lived in the district for over 25 years and have over a decade of experience in multiple levels of government. The 29th District has become a force to be reckoned with based on the dynamic women who have set the standard for public service," Cooper said. "I respect the process that the Essex County Democratic Committee has put in place and look forward to taking the next steps." 

The selection process that Cooper referenced does not take place in Essex County Democratic politics at a party nominating convention as it does in other New Jersey county party organizations. Rather, it takes place in a more behind-the-scenes fashion that underscores the often sub rosa nature of Essex County and Newark politics. 

Another source, a longtime Essex County Democratic player with knowledge of the party's process, directed by Jones and influenced by DiVincenzo, took a wait-and-see approach to the outcome of the 29th District candidate pick guided by perspective rather that reaction. 

"Up to this point, Joe D is unengaged. He wants to see how this plays out. However, Essex Democrats could be looking to a candidate based in the Central Ward, which is now underrepresented on the state level. That's compelling," the source said. "Baraka is definitely not as unengaged as Joe D. And all of the folks in this mix await the result with bated breath." 

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