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Opinion: Democratic primary candidates for N.J.'s 12th Congressional District ran an unusual race

The primary race to replace Rush Holt in the 12th Congressional District was highly unusual. It featured four Democratic candidates — Upendra Chivukula, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Linda Greenstein and Andrew Zwicker — all of whom ran as unabashed progressives (the preferred term to “liberals” nowadays).

Typically, in Democratic congressional primaries, we get a range of candidates from the various wings of the party. Democrats usually agree that government has an important role to play, that investing in education and job training is a must and that all Americans should have access to health care coverage. There is frequently disagreement over the role of unions and the future of public education. But not in this race.

All of the Democratic candidates committed to maintaining the safety net, enacting stronger gun control, tackling immigration reform, expanding gay rights and preserving Medicare, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). They all strongly opposed the Tea Party’s anti-government philosophy and none of them embraced the anti-public employee message that has been the mantra of the Christie years.

Whether we agreed or disagreed with Rep. Holt on a particular issue, it was hard to label him a liberal wacko. He was the embodiment of a reasonable progressive who would marshal data and facts to bolster his case and support his position. While his views and voting record, which emphasized our nation’s historical commitment to leaving nobody behind, is probably a little more liberal than many of the state’s voters’, his temperament and demeanor are in sync with the majority of New Jersey voters. He’d make a great governor, and the Watson Coleman strategy has provided him with a template for mounting a campaign for that office.

Watson Coleman ran a terrific targeted campaign. She identified where her votes were and concentrated her resources and efforts on getting her voters out. Even though she represented West Windsor in the Assembly for a few years in the past, she recognized that Greenstein had served on the local school board and that Chivukula had a natural constituency among the town’s considerable Indian population. The result was no literature mailed to West Windsor by her campaign, no robocalls and no appearance at the Democratic Club’s candidate question-and-answer session. This is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgment of the realities of targeted modern-day political campaigning.

The race between Watson Coleman and Greenstein was devoid of personal recrimination. The one blip on the screen was a video released by the Blue America PAC, an outside group, that showed Linda Greenstein justifiably angry at the way she was treated by some party insiders.

The Watson Coleman campaign was able to very astutely navigate the entangling alliances that are Trenton local politics. In the end, the camps for then-mayoral hopefuls Eric Jackson and Walker Worthy, along with Trenton’s African-American churches, produced a 4,300-vote plurality for Watson Coleman in Trenton. Her Trenton success, coupled with her enormous 14-to-1 victory in Plainfield (2,512 for Watson Coleman and 174 for Greenstein) and her strength in all of Mercer County’s suburban communities other than East and West Windsor, were the keys to her victory.

Greenstein ran a decent campaign and did well, given the mix of candidates. Her ability, as a Jewish candidate, to secure considerable support from the Muslim community was impressive. After watching her in this campaign, I have a better sense of why she had never previously lost a race for office.

Upendra Chivukula is an impressive candidate with a political future if he can mend fences with the Middlesex County Democratic Party. He has a compelling story, an excellent background and a good grasp of government. His thoughtful proposal to create a countywide entity to operate the non-educational aspects of local school districts, e.g. food services, purchasing, transportation, custodial and maintenance services, shows an excellent grasp of school district operations.

The fourth candidate, Andrew Zwicker, did a very good job in his first race and should consider running in the future for a less lofty legislative office.

The voters in the 12th District will have a clear choice in the general election. The Republican candidate, Dr. Alieta Eck, is far more conservative than Watson Coleman and has already made it known that she favors repealing Obamacare. She will, no doubt, also be critical of how President Obama handled the swap of five high-ranking Taliban officials for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who may have walked away from his unit before being captured by the Taliban.

If these allegations prove to be true and his decision to leave his base put his fellow soldiers in danger and that some were killed in missions that included looking for him, the president’s decision and failure to consult with Congress could become highly controversial and a potential cleavage issue in congressional campaigns nationwide. Especially if the Army decides to pursue an investigation that could lead to desertion or other charges against Bergdahl. Watson Coleman will need to think long and hard before carving out a position on the Sgt. Bergdahl deal.

While the blowback from the Bergdahl case may not change the outcome in the race, it could make it a little closer. I hope the general election in the 12th District is as civil and issued-oriented as the primary.