Chiaravalloti, McKnight, fight to hold 31st District

Rookie legislators campaign for second term

The race is on to represent the 31st Legislative Districtin the NJ State Assembly as Democratic incumbents Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight defend their seats against new challengers in the June 6 primary. Both were newcomers in Trenton when they took office in 2016.

The 31st District covers all of Bayonne and part of Jersey City.

Chiaravalloti and McKnight are backed by the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), which has endorsed Phil Murphy for governor over other Democratic hopefuls like Assemblyman John Wisniewski or State Senator Ray Lesniak.The entire NJ State Assembly, governor, and various municipal workers and mayors will be up for election on November 7, 2017.

The NJ General Assembly, the lower house of the state’s bicameral congress, carries two-year terms. As soon as Chiaravalloti and McKnight got their legislative footing, they were back on the campaign trail. Not quite seasoned legislators, they’re hoping to continue what they started.

“I think we’ve had short-term success,” Chiaravalloti said. “Many of these issues the state is going to be dealing with for a long time and has been dealing with for a long time.”

The issues

Issues like pension reform, public safety, mass transit, economic development, and education have been central to Chiaravalloti’s and McKnight’s legislative agenda.

One of the many issues vitally important to Bayonne and Jersey City is school funding.Chiaravalloti introduced legislation earlier this year that would mandate five percent of payments in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) to go to local school districts, whereas municipalities were previously not required to allocate anything to school districts. He was instrumental in collaborating with local government in his native Bayonne to help pass an ordinance that reflects his legislation – five percent of PILOTs to the Bayonne School District. And recently, Jersey City passed its own version, allocating 10 percent as opposed to five. 

“It’s steamrolling,”said Chiaravalloti. “The key here for the state legislature is to require at least a minimum and then allow them, as a municipality, to be flexible.”

“There is so much development happening, and we need to make sure quality education is being paid for,” McKnight said. “It’s a great start.”

The PILOT legislation in some ways seems like a short-term solution to support public schools until the school funding formula can be truly reformed. 

“Education is a long-term issue,” Chiaravalloti said. “The school funding formula hasn’t been funded in the past eight years. We have to get it fully funded. The reality is that movement isn’t going to happen under this governor. It’s going to happen under the next governor.”

Chiaravalloti also sponsored legislation to end PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing as a major criterion for graduation. “Teachers end up being test monitors rather than teachers,” he said.

Police, pensions, projects

McKnight, for her part, has advocated for after-school program funding, which she hopes will help reduce violence in her native Jersey City. She also introduced legislation to facilitate cooperation between police and witnesses and victims of violence, another issue facing her constituents on the southside of Jersey City. The legislation would conceal witness and victim information from court records until a decision is made, which McKnight said would save lives by making those witnesses less fearful of retaliation.

Chiaravalloti and McKnight supportadding an amendment to the NJ State Constitution to require the state to fully fund public pensions. Now, New Jersey, like many states, is struggling to fund its pension system. Employee contributions have been declining for decades as a percentage of pension revenue, thus starving pensions of employee contributions. Asking employers to contribute more remains a significant political challenge. According to a Bloomberg report in November, NJ’s public pension system is the worst funded in the country. 

Also on top of Chiaravalloti’s legislative agenda is mass transit. He has been working to facilitate a ferry terminal in Bayonne, which seems to be nearing reality. One of the assembly’s biggest accomplishments was funding the Transportation Trust Fund. “That was so difficult. That was a problem that lasted for 20 years,” Chiaravalloti said.“I’m proud to be a part of getting that done.” He also cited the ARC Tunnel and Gateway Project as necessary infrastructure projects. “As we continue to grow, we need to continue to move people. Otherwise we’ll choke,” he said. “People won’t be able to move in. People won’t be able to move on our roadways.” Chiaravalloti is critical of the Port Authority, calling for greater transparency.

The opposition

The HCDO is backing every sitting assemblyperson, state senator, congressperson, senator, and mayor in Hudson County (except for Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli, who is independent). But that does not deter challengers, both Democratic and Republican.

Bayonne Board of Education Trustee and Hoboken High School teacher, Christopher Munoz, and Kristen Zadroga Hart, coordinator for athletics in the Jersey City School district and former campaign manager and spokesperson for the Bayonne Board of Education, are vying to unseat the HCDO incumbents. Their main issue is school funding, a passionate one in Bayonne, a perpetually underfunded district, which is currently experiencing a significant structural deficit. 

Michael Alonso, who has run in many local elections in the past, is running unopposed in the Republican primary after his opponent was disqualified this week for falsifying a petition.

Looking ahead

“At the end of the day, elections are the lifeblood of the republic,” Chiaravalloti said. “I think a lot of people have been turned off by the pettiness of some politics. Whether we have an opponent or don’t, whether they’re well-funded or not, I would run the same kind of campaign that I ran last time – a positive, issue-based campaign.”

“I’m looking forward to running again,” McKnight said. “There’s still more work that needs to be done, and there’s legislation I still need to work on to get passed. You can’t do everything in one term. I’m hoping people support me again in the second term.”

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