The state's first Hispanic legislator, Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez, will not run for reelection in November after representing South Jersey for 14 years.
The official announcement will come today in a written statement, Cruz-Perez said. But the news already has triggered speculation about how the Democratic Party will fill her seat, and accusations that she had been forced out.
Cruz-Perez, 48, a former Camden mayoral candidate who now lives in Barrington, said yesterday that she was leaving the Legislature to "give an opportunity for someone else to serve."
"I'm sure whatever I decide to do in the future will be serving the people I love the most, the people in New Jersey," said the former Army soldier who works part-time as a community liaison for the Camden County Improvement Authority.
"I'm probably going to be serving them in another capacity. I was born to serve."
Cruz-Perez, a Democrat, did not say exactly what she would do in the future, and she denied assertions by the Camden County GOP that she was told to step down by party leaders.
"It is 100 percent my choice," she said. "There's a lot of speculation: 'They're taking you out, putting in this.' But this is my choice."
Tim Saler, executive director of the county Republican Committee, said yesterday that Democratic candidates for office are virtual appointees of George Norcross, former Camden County Democratic chairman, and his brother, Donald Norcross, the party's current cochairman.
"Regular Democrats, the average people who happen to be members of the Democratic Party, have no choice, have no say in the matter, are left out in the cold," he said.
Cruz-Perez, who was picked by the Democrats in 1995 to replace Assemblyman Wayne Bryant when he moved to the state Senate, thanked party leaders yesterday.
"I want to thank Mr. George Norcross 3d, who gave me the opportunity to serve, and the support I have from [Assembly Speaker] Joe Roberts and State Sen. Dana Redd," she said.
George Norcross was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment. A person who answered the phone at Donald Norcross' office referred a reporter's call to the county Democratic headquarters. A message there was not returned.
Saler said that if speculation were true and the party choose Camden City Council President Angel Fuentes as its nominee for Cruz-Perez's seat, Fuentes' lack of name recognition would help the GOP candidate, Michael Root of Runnemede.
Fuentes, once considered his party's pick to replace retiring Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison, decided not to run in December after scheduling at least one fund-raiser.
He has endorsed Redd, who is also a city councilwoman, in the mayoral race. At the time, he denied that he had been offered a conciliation prize for bowing out.
Fuentes did not return a call for comment yesterday.
Cruz-Perez said there would be an "open process" to pick the Democratic nominee for her seat, but she said she "would like to see that the Latino community has representation in the Fifth District."
The Fifth District, which covers 15 towns in Camden County and four in Gloucester County, is notably diverse. Fuentes is Latino.
City activist Angel Cordero said he would gather people outside Cruz-Perez's office today to tell her that "she will always have a spot in our hearts."
He said Cruz-Perez was being pushed out of office, just as Faison was pushed out. Faison has said that the party did not give her time to make her own decision about running again.
"These are two great women who fought the best they could," said Cordero, who is running for mayor as an independent. "We know they are controlled like all our politicians are, by the machine, but they did go out of their way when they could to help the people."
Cruz-Perez was an executive assistant to Camden Mayor Arnold Webster in 1995 before she joined the Assembly. In 2005, she won a plurality of votes for mayor against Faison, but lost in a run-off.
The departure of Faison and Cruz-Perez from politics presents opportunities for others. If Fuentes were to win Cruz-Perez's seat, the council president spot would open.
For more than a decade, the racial balance in city politics has dictated that the mayor and council president be of different ethnicities.
If Redd, who is African American, becomes mayor in November, than a Hispanic council person could become council president.
Councilman Frank Moran is currently council's only other Hispanic member. He did not return a call for comment.