Dining hall manager DeZarn runs for N.J. State Senate on platform of legalizing medical marijuana
Senior Operations Manager for Butler/Wilson Dining Services Donald DeZarn’s bid for state senator will come to a close tomorrow when voters of the 14th Legislative District head to the polls. While his opponents haveprimarily focused their campaigns on economic issues, DeZarn has distinguished himself from the other candidates by making the legalization of medical marijuana a centerpiece of his platform.
DeZarn was nominated as a third-party candidate at a statewide Libertarian convention last March. His name will appear on the ballot with incumbent Democratic Senator Linda Greenstein and former state senator Peter Inverso, who won the Republican nomination in the spring.
Unlike Greenstein and Inverso, who have each had at least a dozen years of experience in political office, DeZarn is running in his first political campaign after working for University Dining Services for 17 years and taking a year-long military leave in 2005 to serve in the Iraq War.
While DeZarn’s name will appear on the ballot on Election Day, his campaign has been largely overshadowed by those of his two opponents, who have together spent nearly $2 million on campaign advertising, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
In September, DeZarn was not invited by the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce to participate in the race's only debate. DeZarn, who had hoped to engage in an open debate with his opponents, confronted Greenstein’s Chief of Staff Jim Hooker in a YouTube video uploaded by Assembly candidate Sean O’Connor, in which he asks to appear in a public debate with the senator. In another video, O’Connor appeals with the same request to a member of Inverso’s campaign staff.
While Inverso noted that the campaign as a whole has been “devoid of debate,” he explained that he does not view DeZarn as his primary opponent.
“I view my race as against [Greenstein] rather than against [DeZarn],” he said. “Clearly the distinction should be between me and [Greenstein]. I don’t view [DeZarn] as a person that I am vying against, quite honestly.”
Greenstein did not respond to multiple requests for comment, although she told The Daily Princetonian in March that DeZarn’s candidacy would have no impact on her campaign schedule.
But DeZarn’s campaign nonetheless began to draw significant attention in the media when he was arrested in May for smoking marijuana at the Smoke Down Prohibition V rally in Philadelphia, an event which he attends every month. He was again arrested in late August, after delivering a speech and smoking marijuana at the People’s Plaza in front of Independence Mall, a designated free speech zone. DeZarn will respond to the charges of his most recent arrest in federal court in December, where he could be sentenced for up to one year in federal prison and fined $1,000 for possession of marijuana.
Far from being worried about his case's impact on the election, DeZarn stated that he will continue attending these rallies in the future even if elected and believes his arrests may have even helped promote his campaign’s message to a wider audience.
“It’s a strong issue for me, especially the veteran’s issue with medical marijuana,” DeZarn said. “It is a very benign substance that has medical benefits.”
DeZarn explained that in order to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder, he was prescribed “piles of synthetic pharmaceuticals” through the Department of Veteran Affairs. He noted that these drugs induced “suicidal thoughts [and] depression, things I’d never had before.”
Inverso explained that his campaign platform does not focus on marijuana legalization since he feels it is not a pressing issue among voters, although he added, “Decriminalization is something that we should certainly look at. Our prisons are overcrowded now, and the cost of keeping someone in prison is outrageous.”
In addition to supporting the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, DeZarn intends to focus his efforts on addressing New Jersey’s debt if elected, as the state’s spending and taxation policies were one of his key motivations for running for public office.
“The thing that bothers me the most is that New Jersey is [...] in debt, and neither of my opponents are even addressing that. They’re just airing defamatory ads against each other’s characters," DeZarn said.
At the same time, the financial component of Inverso’s platform focuses on providing opportunities for younger residents.
“The only way we’re going to encourage job growth is going to be by controlling taxes and [regulating] businesses that are burdensome and unnecessary, so young people can look to their future with more optimism than they can look now,” Inverso explained.
When DeZarn first declared his candidacy, he told The Daily Princetonian that he was interested in reaching out to student groups at Princeton, although he has since found “there hasn’t been much support there.” He explained that he wished he had put more time into gauging student interest, as he had originally planned.
On the other hand, DeZarn noted that the University has been “very accommodating” in allowing him to run his campaign without repercussions. Brad Ortega, operations chef manager of Butler/Wilson College Dining Hall, did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’m sure I’ve done a lot of things and said things the University bristles at and doesn’t agree with,” DeZarn said. “But I’m very extremely thankful to work for a place that allows their employees to go out on their own time and seek office.”
In Tuesday’s election, DeZarn stated that his chances of winning are low and that the campaign has been “an uphill battle.”
“It would take literally a miracle to win.” DeZarn said. “I’ve been running like I want to win, [and] I’ve been out every night putting a tremendous amount of effort into it. But realistically, it’s more about advancing the issues that are important to me.”