Bloody GOP Primary Devolves into Morris County Mayhem

Evan Weiss, an expert in public finance and economic development, has been hired by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority as Senior Advisor for Public Finance.

Politics in this country is a “blood sport,”  an observation that suggests, similar to actual warfare, anything goes. And in Morris County, Republicans seem to be proving it.

The “blood sport” comment appeared in a recent court filing by Morristown lawyer Karl Fenske stemming from last June’s Republican freeholder primary.  Fenske represents the three losing primary candidates against a legal action launched by Tom Mastrangelo, one of the winners.

The fact that a guy who won is threatening to sue those who lost – as opposed to the other way around – aptly sums up the peculiar state of affairs here.

The filings on behalf of losing freeholder candidates Donald Dinsmore (pictured, above), William Felegi

Three incumbent Morris County freeholders appear well on their way to victory in what has been a particularly nasty 2019 election.
Tom Mastrangelo.

and Cathy Winterfield also call Mastrangelo a “political thug” and include a transcript of a phone message filled with profanity that Mastrangelo allegedly left for Parsippany Republican Lou Valori back in 2016.

Mastrangelo said Monday that the recent filings could simply mean further litigation against the losing candidates.

Let’s do some unpacking.

The 2019 freeholder primary pitted Dinsmore, Felegi and Winterfield against three incumbents – Mastrangelo, Doug Cabana and Kathy DeFillippo. The Mastrangelo team won and will face off in two weeks against three Democrats.

One primary issue was the challengers’ political consultant, Checkmate Action Group, of Sheridan, Wyoming. Problem was there was no record of their existence and Dinsmore never explained who they were. And then, a week or so before primary day, a mailer appeared that referenced a now-expunged arrest report of Mastrangelo out of Randolph.

That prompted Mastrangelo to seek redress in court. His runningmates, Cabana and DeFillippo, are not involved in the case.

In late July, Judge William McGovern in state Superior Court, Morristown, agreed with Mastrangelo’s initial position. After expressing some reluctance, the judge ordered the defendants to produce all records related to the Wyoming group and the mailing in question.

Fenske’s filing in response made two points that are certainly germane to the case – the expunged record already was made public in a previous campaign and the three challengers had nothing to do with the mailing. That leaves open, of course, an obvious question – where did the mailing come from? Finding that out, however, may not be the purview of the court in this case.

Not surprisingly, Alan Zakin, Mastrangelo’s lawyer, is not impressed with Fenske’s filing. In a letter to the judge. Zakin said there is no dispute that Mastrangelo was put in a “false light.”

It added, “We believe that (Mastrangelo’s) primary opponents and Checkmate, for the multiple reasons described in our initial submission, have relevant information as to the source of the libelous mailer.”

Far more interesting – at least to political observers – than the legal arguments are a number of filings by Fenske broadly attacking Mastrangelo.

“I think I have effectively proven through a pattern of behavior on the part of Thomas Mastrangelo that he is using this case to harass the defendants ….” the filing said.

Just what type of behavior are we talking about?

The filing includes copies of police reports from Montville Township (Mastrangelo’s home town) that allege the freeholder harassed his opponents’ campaign workers in the run-up to the June primary.

And then, there was the phone call.

The filings include a partial transcript of a phone message Mastrangelo left for Valori in 2016. No exact date given.

In a message filled with multiple use of the so-called f-bomb and occasional labeling of opponents as “jerk-offs,” Mastrangelo complains and condemns a number of fellow Republicans, including fellow freeholders John Krickus, David Scapicchio and  John Cesaro. Krickus is the only one still on the board. Also being criticized are John Sette, who was then the county’s GOP chair, and Rob Zwigard, who ran unsuccessfully for party chair last year.

All this has prurient interest to be sure, but one has to question its relevancy, It’s no crime to colorfully criticize your opponents and the call in question was three years ago.

Fenske suggests that the call, the police reports and other material he submitted establish Mastrangelo as an unsavory character.

The question here is whether the judge agrees, and even if he does, if he thinks it has any bearing on something that happened this year. A hearing before McGovern had been scheduled for Friday, but it’s unclear if it will take place.

As for the “blood,” Fenske’s letter in defense of his plaintiff’s position explained that, “The First Amendment requires unrestrained dialogue especially in the context of an election. In this country, elections are not run by the Marques of Queensberry’s rules. It is a blood sport that exposes a candidate’s entire life to the public.”

Fenske uses this observation to seemingly suggest that rather than complain about the challengers’ campaign tactics, Mastrangelo needs a tougher skin.

It also can be argued that those criticized or allegedly harassed by Mastrangelo need tough skins too.

One supposes it has to do with whose blood is being spilled.

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