By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
The hard work Andrew P. Zwicker put in to running for state Assembly appeared to go for naught on election night as the Associated Press declared he and his running mate had lost to their Republican opponents.
Mr. Zwicker even made a concession speech, except those would not be his final words on the contest. Far from it, in fact. He would go on to stun one of the incumbents in a race that would not be decided until all the provisional ballots were counted. In an upset, he had upended Assemblywoman Donna Simon by 76 votes.
“It was some surprises along the way,” said the Assemblyman-elect in an interview Tuesday with The Princeton Packet.
For roughly an hour, Mr. Zwicker recalled that momentous night, the uncertainty that followed and how he plans to work with fellow Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli to represent the 16th District, despite their political differences. He and Mr. Ciattarelli might not quite be the equivalent of an Oscar Madison-Felix Unger pairing, but the two men — one a Democrat and the other a Republican — will be part of the same legislative delegation representing parts of four counties made up of suburban communities that include Princeton.
Mr. Zwicker, 51, is originally from Englewood, in Bergen County. He cites his mother, Brina, a retired school teacher, with influencing his political leanings. An early memory of politics involves his now deceased father, Al, who was active in local municipal races.
The details are hazy all these years later about the particular campaign, but “I just remember coming into the kitchen, and there were all these people around there,” he said. “And it was political, and it was important.”
He earned degrees from Bard College and Johns Hopkins University, where he received his doctorate. He works as a scientist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in Plainsboro. He and his wife, Barbara Golden, have three children and live in South Brunswick.
Away from work, he stays active by playing lunchtime soccer and surfing. He enjoys the peace that comes with being on the water past the break.
“I’m very good at falling, I’m less good at surfing,” he said. “It is the most humbling, wonderful experience. And when I’m fortunate enough to catch a wave, it’s just magic.”
Mr. Zwicker ran for political office before as a candidate for Congress but lost in the Democratic primary last year. The experience was an introduction to putting together a campaign team and creating a field organization — all tools that would come in handy.
Mr. Zwicker and his running mate Maureen Vella went into the Assembly contest thinking it would be a close race. Their opponents would be Mr. Ciattarrelli and Ms. Simon, both of whom enjoyed the benefits of incumbency.But a once safe Republican district that had never elected a Democrat had changed, thanks to redistricting that add more Democratic towns in Central Jersey. Now a swing district was in play for the Democrats seeking to build on their majority in the Assembly.
“There was no doubt it was going to be close, but we felt like we had momentum on our side,” he said. “And we had a very, very good chance of winning, and winning both seats is what we legitimately thought.”
In the campaign, Mr. Zwicker styled himself as someone who would use an evidence-based, scientific approach to decision making. In doing so, he hoped to peel off moderate Republicans and independents.
“We knew we could not win this election if it was a Democratic base versus a Republican base,” he said.
On election night, Ms. Simon led by 300 votes — with even the Associated Press calling the contest sometime between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.. Others confirmed the outcome for him, leading him to concede at a post-election gathering at Conte’s Pizza restaurant in Princeton.
“Everything we had said, we were going to fall just a little bit short,” he said.
But the election was far from over, as the contest swung in the early morning hours of Nov.4. His deficit turned into a lead, albeit a small one.
“I don’t know the answer, still to this day, of what changed, but the numbers flipped. And all of a sudden, I was 29 votes up,” he said.
Phone calls were made to the clerks of the four counties comprising the district, Mercer, Somerset, Hunterdon and Middlesex, to check their final vote totals. He was ahead, but 200 provisional votes still needed to be counted. He did not feel “in the slightest” like he was safe at that point.
Meanwhile, his phone would not stop ringing from all the people calling to speak with him to get the latest. He got to bed sometime before 3 a.m.
After the provisional ballots were counted, Mr. Zwicker expanded his lead to 76 votes. There would be no recount, as Ms. Simon called to congratulate him on Nov.16. The two actually never spoke, as they traded phone messages.
In assessing why he won, Mr. Zwicker pointed to a strong ground game that saw him resort to “good old-fashioned retail politicking.” The grass roots campaign involved knocking on 22,000 doors and making 78,000 phone calls to voters in the district.
“There is a narrative that is out there that this was about voter dissatisfaction, low voter turnout, big money special interests and gerrymandering. And none of that narrative is true,” he said. “So we won by working our tails off.”
Mr. Zwicker takes office in January. He listed growing the state’s economy as a priority, as New Jersey has lagged behind its neighboring states. He talked of wanting to grow the high-tech sector, making college affordable and protecting the environment.
Starting next year, Democrats will hold 52 out of the 80 Assembly seats. The margin is not great enough to override vetoes of Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Mr. Zwicker said the governor and the Legislature will have to compromise.
“He needs to budge,” Mr. Zwicker said of the governor. Yet in the same breath, he said the citizens of the state would not be served if Democrats put up legislation they know he will veto.
“That makes no sense either,” he said.
As for how he and Mr. Ciattarelli will get along, the two men recently had a face-to-face breakfast meeting. Mr.Ciattarelli said this week that the two had discussed “how best to coordinate our efforts and district offices.
“I’m confident our mutual constituents will be well-served,” he said.
“We are not going to agree on everything, but we were elected to represent the people of the 16th (district) and try to improve New Jersey,” Mr. Zwicker said. “And in that, we have clear, common ground.”
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer