Incumbent U.S. congressional representatives with money and party resources don’t lose in New Jersey, so the theory goes. And historically it’s very accurate.
By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View
But confluent factors have made this primary election cycle one of the most unique in recent memory: an unprecedented pandemic turning the primary election into an almost entirely vote-by-mail affair, coupled with a wave of civil rights protests and political activism over the murder of George Floyd that could translate into higher voter turnout.
This makes the race for New Jersey’s 8th congressional district an interesting one — one that has, seemingly overnight, turned into a slug fest that the state’s top political gadflies are watching with bated breath.
Challenging the 16-year incumbent congressman, Albio Sires, is Hector Oseguera, who is bringing the progressive wave catalyzed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), (both of whom Oseguera has volunteered for in one form or another) into Hudson County.
“Incumbents sure do look powerful until you really take it to them,” he said Tuesday morning in an interview with Hudson County View.
“If you’re there on the issues and what matters most to the people, and you have a strong presence on the ground, that goes a much longer way than the traditional metrics of, well, how much do they have in the bank, and how long have they been in office.”
This is the first spirited challenger Sires has faced since he was elected to the House in 2006.
He had almost completely ignored Oseguera for months until about a week ago, when he hired Vision Media Marketing, a prominent public relations firm for Hudson County politicians, who released opposition research that showed Oseguera was a registered Republican from 2006 to 2009.
Then, three days later, they released a statement calling out Oseguera for taking a $1,000 donation in January from Robert Verrone, who donated to a super PAC for President Donald Trump in 2015.
This came in response to the challenger lauding an over 3-to-1 fundraising advantage against Sires in the 2nd quarter of 2020.
Since then, Sires has received numerous endorsements from the state’s top Democratic officials, from Gov. Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, to Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez — as well as local politicos including Jersey City Councilman-at-Large Daniel Rivera and Freeholder Bill O’Dea.
Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise on Tuesday released a video endorsing the column B ticket, which includes Sires and Presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla and the entire Hoboken council endorsed Sires for reelection.
All of this has prompted some curious takes over whether Sires could be unseated. There have been no public or internal polls released by either campaign.
Oseguera, for his part, has been hammering away at Sires on social media for months. And on Tuesday, he likened him to an absentee representative and a “right-wing Democrat” who’s “greatest legislative accomplishment in 14 years is renaming a post office.”
“One of the reasons I’m running this race is because my opponent is horribly inaccessible,” the 32-year-old also said.
“The stories of people who have reached out and never heard back from him are numerous and they’re all exactly the same. I find that horrifying.”
He’s pushed back against Vision Media’s attacks, calling them “poor research on their part and a very desperate attack.”
“Sires is not sure whether I’m a far left wing radical or a secret Republican: he doesn’t know which one I am and he doesn’t have a clear message on that,” he said.
“Had my opponents PR team done a better job, they might have noticed that this donor donated to such right wing radicals as Chuck Schumer, as Andrew Cuomo … and also recently donated to my opponent’s endorser Cory Booker — all things they could have found out with a very simple search. It shows the sloppiness, the real low-level of effort that is being given to their attempts to defend my opponent’s history, as a real former Republican.”
In a statement, Sires’ campaign doubled down on their attacks on Oseguera, claiming he “continues desperately [to try and] change the subject away from the fact that his campaign is being funded by a major Trump donor because he knows that it totally undercuts his core message and proves that he’s a fraud.”
“Oseguera says that he’ll hold big developers accountable, but he takes money from a man who is so entangled in real estate deals that he earned the nickname ‘Large Loan Verrone,” Sires’ campaign spokesperson JP Escobar said.
FEC filings show that while Verrone certainly donated more than $10,000 to the Make America Great Again Super PAC in September 2015, he has been a contributor to top tier politicians from both sides of the aisle for years.
The filings also show he donated more than $5,000 to Cory Booker in 2013 (as well as a $2,800 donation in August); $5,000 to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — as well as money towards U.S. Senator Mitt Romney’s (R-UT) 2011 bid for President, and former NJ Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) brief run for president in 2015.
Highly regarded political science professor Matthew Halle said Monday that Oseguera’s odds are “really, really long, but they aren’t zero.”
Oseguera, naturally, exudes confidence. But he acknowledges the possibility of losing. Yet that hasn’t stopped him from energizing a base of voters who don’t see their politics aligned with the county’s Democratic party.
” … I would say that Congressman Sires should hope that I win, because if I lose this election, we are going to be hammering the machine for an infinite amount of time,” he said.
“I’m not going away. I’ve done work on the ground to bring together people of different organizations working on similar issues … and I’ve tried to make this a big tent. That base is energized, and those issues don’t go away if I win or lose. We’re on a path to victory.”
“We’re on a path to victory”
Oseguera’s policy platforms, if enacted at the federal level, would equate to dramatic expansion in government oversight not seen in decades.
He supports expanding Medicare to citizens of every age; the Green New Deal; as well as calling for a massive expansion of government social housing and a bolstering of federal housing legislation; he wants to increase the minimum wage and peg it to the consumer price index “to prevent us from having to repeat the debate about raising the minimum wage”; increase the tax rate on high income earners; and empower the IRS to repatriate money hidden in offshore tax havens, among many other detailed proposals.
But, notably, he wants to cut the country’s defense budget by at least “20 to 30%” and direct all of those funds “towards funding things that this country needs like health care, affordable housing, like drinkable water in Newark, like breathable air in Kearny…”
“People always ask, ‘Medicare for All, Green New Deal, how are you going to pay for it?’ But during COVID-19, we gave trillions of dollars to the banks for nothing… The money is there, it exists; we spend more money on our military than the rest of the world combined,” he said.
“My opponent has been voting for war budgets his whole time through congress, he’s only giving military contractors more and more money… We need to fight for a world with less violence, less conflict and less people being bombed, because these million dollar bombs could be fixing our schools.”
Nonetheless, Sires has his own record of co-sponsoring progressive legislation. He’s been a co-sponsor on the Climate Action Now Act, the Raise the Wage Act, the Assault Weapons Ban Act, and the Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act, among others.
“Albio Sires is endorsed by progressive leaders like Governor Murphy and Senator Booker and by leading progressive labor organizations that fight for hard working people every day for a reason,” Escobar said.
“They’re standing with Congressman Sires because he has always stood with his constituents. He’s fighting hard every day in Washington to expand access to affordable health care, take guns off our streets with a new assault weapons ban, pass comprehensive immigration reform with a real path to citizenship and much more. That record of public service is why Congressman Sires will continue to represent the people of Hudson County and the 8th District.”
Oseguera’s proposals are aimed at the local level as well — some of which are specifically directed at the Hudson County Democratic Organization, which historically has been an efficient and well-oiled machine keeping Democrats in office for decades.
“There’s a lot of patronage that goes on around here,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are in this club and they grease the wheel.”
If he wins, he said he would actively work with the politicos in the county, but said he “would want to reform how insular this whole process is and how opaque and how unresponsive this system is to so many people who live here.”
“I think it would be to their benefit to not be seen as this insular corrupt machine,” he added. “They have a vested interested in being seen as part of the community and not part of this very small clique of people who all wash each other’s hands.”
In the post COVID-19 world, Oseguera’s path to victory is through the mail, which he sees as an advantage for his campaign.
The “younger more progressive voters,” he said, “not only like vote-by-mail, but might even prefer it, so my base is much more comfortable with vote-by-mail then the oppositions base and they recognize it.”
The only disadvantage, he says, is the extra leg work “to make sure that people actually return those ballots, so we’re heavy in the digital and phone and text banking operation to make sure and tell people ‘Make sure you turn in your ballot.’”
Meanwhile, Oseguera has also accumulated his own endorsements, including from Jersey City Councilman James Solomon, the Hudson County branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and New Jersey Working Families.
Upsetting Sires would be no easy task. Sources have said that a good showing, garnering 20 to 30 percentage of the vote, would be a good sign for Oseguera and a sign of weakness for Sires – and by proxy – the HCDO.
But regardless of the outcome, Oseguera said he has gone this far not for political aspirations but because “our community has needs that are not being addressed.”
“Affordable housing, poverty, healthcare, funding our public schools — all will be a problem here whether I win or lose,” the Union City resident said.
“So this is a life long fight for me.”
Chief news correspondent John Heinis contributed to this report.
Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald