By John Celock
One of New Jersey’s longest serving state legislators has officially entered the race to be the Garden State’s next governor.
State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) released a video Tuesday saying that he would be seeking the governorship in order to continue his almost four decades of work in the Legislature, including on environmental, government reform, criminal justice and equality issues. Lesniak joins a field dominated by frontrunner Phil Murphy and also includes Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville).
“I am running for the Democratic nomination for governor to make New Jersey affordable,” Lesniak said. “To give the public a voice and a vote in government and to improve the quality of life for our residents.”
Lesniak spent much of the video focused on his work on environmental issues, including writing environmental protection and cleanup legislation, noting that his inspiration came from watching a toxic waste explosion 35 years ago in his hometown of Elizabeth. He also cited his work on sponsoring the state’s clean air and drinking water laws.
Lesniak reiterated his opposition to Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) settlement with ExxonMobil over cleanup costs related to refineries in eastern Union County, including in Lesniak’s district. Christie’s settlement has been panned by Democrats, who have argued that the governor has shortchanged the state out of funds for the cleanup.
“I am in court challenging Governor Christie’s sell out to Exxon,” Lesniak said. “After more than 100 years of damage to our streams, our waterways, wetlands and washlands that protect us from storm surges, the governor settled a $900 million claim for pennies on the dollar. I will take them to the Supreme Court if necessary.”
Lesniak also touched on his work on criminal justice reform and being an original sponsor of same sex marriage in New Jersey. Calling himself “a fighter” he said that he would work to grow jobs, protect the environment and reform criminal justice as governor.
On his website, Lesniak outlines a platform that touches on many of the issues that he has made among his top in the state Senate. This includes a plan to save several billion in government spending including directing the state comptroller to focus on saving money at the county and local level to reduce property taxes and appointing a new comptroller of education, to focus on spending in the public schools. He also called for an increase in state spending on higher education, having the state attorney general investigate all police shootings, tax credits to spur housing development in low income areas and increasing the minimum wage.
Lesniak was first elected to the state Assembly in 1977 and has served in the state Senate since 1983. A former chairman of the state Democratic Party, Lesniak has long been viewed as one of the most powerful Democrats in Union County and a key leader of the liberal wing of New Jersey Democrats. Lesniak currently is chairman of the Senate Economic Growth Committee, which handles economic development and agriculture issues.
Lesniak has spent the last several years locked in a feud with a faction of the Democratic Party that controlled the Elizabeth Board of Education. The feud led to Lesniak having to fend off several Democratic primary challenges, along with Elizabeth Democrats tied to Lesniak having to fend off challenges from the other faction. Lesniak allies have regained control of the Elizabeth Board of Education.
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs banker and ambassador to Germany, has been viewed as the Democratic frontrunner since party leaders lined up behind his candidacy last year. Earlier this month, Monmouth County Democrats formally voted to award Murphy the county party line in the June primary, which will give Murphy official support from the county party. The decision by Democratic Party leaders to line up behind Murphy caused Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Senate President Steve Sweeney to give up their respective campaigns for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Wisniewski had been viewed as a likely gubernatorial contender before Murphy received party backing and has continued his campaign, positioning himself largely as the heir to the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party in New Jersey. Lesniak has long toyed with a gubernatorial run but has not entered the race until now.
On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciaterelli have both launched campaigns for the gubernatorial nomination. Christie is term-limited this year.
In order to make the race for governor, Lesniak will not seek reelection to his Senate seat. Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan, a former state Assembly majority leader, has gained the backing of Democratic leaders in Union County to seek Lesniak’s Senate seat.
In the video, Lesniak said that while he has accomplished a lot in 40 years in the Legislature, he believes the governorship would offer him a larger platform to accomplish some goals.
“Only a governor can restructure and reform government to make New Jersey affordable for our residents,” he said.