On Tuesday, voters in Central New Jersey will choose among four Democrats vying for the nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, a Princeton physicist and five-time “Jeopardy!” winner who is retiring after 16 years.
Lawn signs are everywhere in the left-leaning district, which stretches from Mercer up to Union County.
The four candidates in Tuesday’s primary all identify as progressive Democrats, but they are running a tactical war just to get voters to remember their names, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
“It’s about their biographies, but it’s much more about their regional bases,” Murray said. “This is coming down to who can get out the people who normally vote for them in bigger numbers.”
In the fight for votes, one of them is at a significant disadvantage.
Andrew Zwicker, 49, has never been on the ballot in New Jersey before. However, he does have one thing over his opponents: like Holt, he is also a physicist.
In fact, Zwicker now leads the Science Education Department at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory that Holt started in 1990. Zwicker says Holt inspired him to run by serving as a voice of reason amid the noise of partisan gridlock in Washington.
“We have got to send critical thinkers down there,” Zwicker said in an interview at his home in Kingston. “We have got to send people who are going to use the facts … the American people are not dumb. They are just hearing a very loud, one-sided argument.”
Zwicker says a scientist’s approach to public policy from climate change to civil rights is something voters in the 12th District have come to value in their congressional representative.
While he may be the only physicist in the race, Zwicker is not the only trained scientist. Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, 63, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and has worked in the private sector for 35 years.
However, that is not the part of his story Chivukula has played up in two TV ads that directly address the facts he is an immigrant and speaks English with an accent.
He emigrated to the United States from Chennai, India, when he was 24 and now lives in Franklin Township. As the first Indian-American in the New Jersey Legislature who speaks four languages, Chivukula says he has a better understanding of foreign affairs, as well as the issues facing immigrants and workers. He says that is why he is running for Congress.
“At the state level, you cannot do anything about the immigration policy,” he said. “You cannot do anything about increasing access to health care and protecting Social Security, Medicare, and also addressing the issue of international policy and how we can use the peaceful means of trying to address some of the complex, geopolitical situations around the world.”
Chivukula has solid support in his home base of Somerset County. But the most recent Monmouth University poll shows most voters are split between the two women in the race – Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman and state Sen. Linda Greenstein – who each have the Democratic Party’s support in the two biggest counties in the district.
Watson Coleman, 69, has a strong hold on Mercer County, which includes Trenton. She comes from a political family, her father having served as an influential member of the state Assembly.
In her own right, Watson Coleman was the first African-American woman to head up New Jersey’s Democratic Party and is a former Assembly majority leader.
With a lot of undecided voters, particularly in Union County, Watson Coleman is touting herself as an experienced leader who is not afraid to speak her mind.
“People believe and know that I do not hesitate to take a position and to stand up, whether or not it’s marriage equality or voting rights or women’s rights, or being a leader on issues such as outlawing police profiling,” she said in an interview in her home in Ewing.
Watson Coleman is facing a tough fight from Greenstein, 63, who has consistently won competitive elections in a swing district. As a result, Greenstein has a reputation for getting people out to the polls and has locked down support in Middlesex County.
“I’ve seen it all. I’ve heard it all,” she said.
A former prosecutor and specialist in disability law living in Plainsboro, Greenstein says she’s already got her sleeves rolled up to fight Republicans in Congress over the minimum wage, funding for Social Security and Medicare, and women’s rights issues.
“I want to bring the qualities that I’ve been able to use here in New Jersey to Washington because the tea party is about to unravel 80 years of progressive change that we’ve had in the state of New Jersey, and I don’t want to let them do that,” Greenstein said.
The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will face Republican Dr. Alieta Eck in November. Eck ran unsuccessfully in last year’s special election for the U.S. Senate.
While the days of bumper stickers reading “My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist!” may be over for New Jersey’s 12th District, Murray believes one thing is already clear: “For the first time in 12 years, New Jersey will have a woman among its congressional delegation.”