The Crux of Somerset County in the Aftermath of Ida, and the Era of Bateman

Sara Sooy and Shanel Robinson
Bateman and Doherty campaigning in the final days of Election 2017 with Guv nominee Kim Guadagno.
Bateman and Doherty campaigning in the final days of Election 2017 with Guv nominee Kim Guadagno.

 

Unaffected, approachable, gracefully silver-haired and sedately affable, state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16) went table to table in the Time to Eat Diner in Bridgewater at the side of then-Republican nominee for Governor Kim Guadagno and, at one point, grasped the hand of a fiercely grinning voter.

“Somerset County’s Republican,” the voter barked at the senator.

He meant the remark as a compliment, and as an observation of something politically inevitable.

Bateman’s a Somerset Republican.

He’ll win.

But Bateman – maintaining a smile of civility and friendly acknowledgement of the voter’s confidence – couldn’t help but gently correct the record.

“It has been Republican, but it’s changing,” said the senator.

After decades of GOP rule, the county, in fact, had already gone for Barack Obama 52-46%, in the 2008 presidential contest, and the GOP increasingly, incrementally found itself posta di coda longa – an old fencing term, referring to fighting out of a tail guard – as Democrats steadily stormed their leafy ramparts.

In the diner, the voter followed up his statement about Somerset with a disparaging remark about the opposition.

But Bateman had already gingerly dashed to the next table.

That was 2017.

Bateman
Bateman

 

Now, four years after he campaigned with Guadagno, herself beaten 50-48% by Democrat Phil Murphy in Somerset, and having barely survived his last reelection effort by a few hundred votes, Bateman – following a long and painful gaze at reality – opted out of running again.

In the time between then and now, Democrats took over the Somerset Board of Commissioners, finally eradicating the last countywide vestiges of Republican seats last year, cycling around to present its first two commission victors back to the voters again this year for a reelection review.

Somerset Commission Director Shanel Robinson (a resident of the most overwhelmingly Democratic town in the county: 23,100 Democrats to 6,400 Republicans) and Commissioner Sara Sooy of Bernardsville each seeks another three-year term, with Murphy at the top of their ticket and Bateman gone, supplanted – or so the Democrats hope – by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16), a Princeton plasma physicist who made his own march to power over roughly the same span of time. Intent on reclaiming their territory, Republicans have put together a commissioner ticket of Bridgewater Councilman Michael Kirsh and Watchung School Board Member Amber Murad, who are running – in the LD16 portion of Somerset – with senate candidate former Congressman (and current Bridgewater business administrator ) Mike Pappas, under the auspices of former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16), the GOP nominee for governor.

Somerset Republican Chairman Tim Howes likes the fact that Ciattarelli hails from Hillsborough, now home to one of his successors, Democratic Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-16), a Zwicker slate-mate. “I’m very proud of this ticket,” Howes said of his countywide candidates. “They came into an uncertain situation and have worked ceaselessly, campaigning in more or less every town. The hard work’s going to pay off. For the first time since 2015 the wind is at our backs. The issues and the energy are on our side.

“It’s still a center right county,” the chairman insisted. “Thirteen of Somerset’s 21 towns enjoy Republican governance. Our local campaigns are crushing it, and the coattails are coming down from our favorite son [Ciattarelli]. His campaign has great synergy with ours. I look forward to introducing Somerset as the home county of the governor.”

Like Ciattarelli, Howes hopes Democratic Party blunders – including those at the national level in time for this election cycle – will tug the county’s 92,182 unaffiliated voters in their direction, but Democrats still outnumber registered Republicans here 85,828 to 60,470; and 60,416 to 40,959 in LD16, where Zwicker wants to beat Pappas to snag Bateman’s seat.

In barstool conversations, Republicans admit their development schemes for the county might have made them money from a business standpoint, while simultaneously burying them politically, as the residential occupants of incoming voters tilted Democrat. Ultimately, unable to process the pipeline of new development projects, the Bridgewater GOP – alert overseers of a town with 10,067 Democrats and 9,571 Republicans – found themselves on a collision course with the countywide organization. Upstart Councilman Matt Moench ultimately prevailed in 2019,  as he dethroned the county party organization’s preferred candidate for the Bridgewater mayoralty. Notwithstanding Howes’ kind sentiments, the wounds between Moench and his organization and his countywide chairman of choice, Howes; and the Ciattarelli team, who are mostly the former stalwarts of the Somerset GOP, never wholly healed. It reminded anyone paying attention that Bridgewater never operated far from the main political goings-on of the county, particularly when it comes to Republican interests.

It makes sense indeed that one half of the GOP’s countywide slate this year consists of Bridgewater Councilman Kirsh, who also serves as the local Republican chairman.

Kirsh and Murad.
Kirsh and Murad.

 

The County Clash

Kirsh argues that the Democratic Party is a poor steward of government, most glaringly deficient in his view in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which ravaged the working class town of Manville. “People want the faith and confidence that government is functioning so they can focus on their own families.”

The GOP sees itself running a hardnosed campaign dedicated to serving those residents most underserved since the shift of power in the county, including its base in Bridgewater, and maybe those hardest hit by the storm.  “People are really upset about the storm cleanup efforts, and how many hiccups there were, especially in Manville,” said Kirsh. “We’re going to all 21 municipalities and we’re starting at the Manville VFW. I feel a soft spot for Manville and how they were treated.”

Earlier this week, InsiderNJ caught up with Commissioner Sooy, one of the two incumbent countywide Democrats, who objected – strenuously – to Kirsh’s version of events. “When the President came, I was out there helping the community. There was a truck going around and we were handing out cleaning supplies. The way we sought to govern was to be on the ground and pass out cleaning supplies, while the President was there. We made sure severely hit areas got the goods they needed. We gave rides to the VFW building. We coordinated with nonprofit donations. We have coordinated daily meetings with mayors and elected officials to make sure they receive the tools and information they need. Everyone got the same information.”

She noted the negative impact of COVID on Somerset businesses, and especially the business tourism industry, and her commitment to restoring the county’s competitiveness. The commissioner also emphasized the need, especially going forward, to prioritize policies to combat climate change, and suggested examining infrastructural improvements like water-permeable roadways, more clean energy investment, revitalized mature tree plantings, getting tougher on developers to make sure they are planting at required rates, and enforcing building policies that ensure sufficient stormwater runoff, and better infrastructure.

“We had five deaths in Somerset County because of the storm,” said the commissioner. “That’s something you wouldn’t think would happen, and it’s a real wakeup call. We have to be the leaders of [that] change.”

Her running mate, Commission Director Robinson, said her opponents unfortunately criticize without offering much in the way of alternative solutions. “Elections and people in politics have become divisive, and I think most people are tired of that,” Robinson said. “We have been true to our values and collaborative, and we put people before politics. Regardless of whether it is a Democrat or a Republican, we have always extended to our colleagues across the aisle. We are approachable, responsive and accessible. If they were really in it for the right reasons they would not be pointing the finger.”

To be fair, whether Democrats or Republicans served in higher office, Manville has always endured the worst torment in Somerset, and some of the most trying circumstances caused by flooding. It’s too small to have the political clout of area towns like Hillsborough, and certainly gargantuan Franklin. It also lacks the torque point implications of a town like Bridgewater.

A pro-Trump backer greets President Joe Biden n Manville.
A pro-Trump backer greets President Joe Biden in Manville.

 

Bateman’s Bridge Blown 

Bridgewater once occupied the voter core of his district, but Democrats removed it from the 16th District during 2011 apportionment, swapping in Democratic Party powerhouses South Brunswick and Princeton, a piece of deviousness that left the elder statesman somewhat squirming in no man’s land. It also separated his running mate, then-Assemblywoman Denise Coyle, from LD16. On the evening after the new map appeared on an easel at the statehouse, where Bateman stood trying to figure out how to survive with Bridgewater gone and South Brunswick and Princeton newly acquired, Coyle bravely tried to reassure Republicans gathered in the local Elks Lodge about her commitment to them and to the 16th District.

It was the battle speech of one floating off into the distance on an island of ice cut from the mainland.

Then state Senator Mike Doherty (R-23), whose west New Jersey district found itself suddenly slammed into Somerset in the Democrats’ map, stood at the front of the room.

He, not Bateman, was going to be the Bridgewater senator.

“Democrats want to divide us,” Doherty told the room.

He was right.

The change represented a significant shift. Bateman was a moderate Republican, with impeccable

Moench's fortunes rose as Bateman's fell.
Moench’s fortunes rose as Bateman’s fell, in a newly forged version of the Republican Party.

environmental credentials and a record off tolerance (he attended New Jersey’s first official same-sex marriage in Elizabeth), who would see the rise of Donald Trump to lead the party of the senator’s father, Ray Bateman, the 1977 Republican candidate for governor, as a tragedy for the country. A movement conservative, Doherty would serve as Trump’s 2016 state director.

Politically, its removal from LD16 made Bridgewater irrelevant to its one Somerset-dominant district, consequently more swayed by the influence of a vastly more Trump-friendly and Hunterdon County-dominant 23rd District – and ultimately perilously susceptible to intra-party fracture.

Whitman
Former Governor Whitman

The combination of losing Bridgewater and gaining Trump – his golf course located in Somerset’s Bedminster, no less – had put Bateman on notice. Maybe he could have weathered one – in fact, he did, surviving as the Republican senator serving Princeton instead of Bridgewater for ten years –  but absorbing both of them became a war of attrition.

He couldn’t and wouldn’t defend Trump.

Maybe if 2021 apportionment gave him a favorable map he could stand and fight again, but too much had changed in his party, and in the country. The world of culture and manners and reason and restraint, fine taste, gravitas and humility; class, in short, had become – if the Jan. 6th insurrection told a significant part of the GOP story – a dangerous descent into mob rule and anarchy.

It wasn’t for Bateman. Neither was the route employed by his colleague, former Republican Governor Christie Todd Whitman, elected to the state’s highest office from the perch of the Somerset Freeholder Board, whose disgust for Trump led her to advocate a total rejection of his movement and its impact on this version of the national GOP. She publicly backed Joe Biden for president last year, and earlier this month went so far as to urge voters to elect Democrats in 2022.

Jack Ciattarelli, former State Assemblyman and 2017 Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, issues a statement questioning the competency of Governor Phil Murphy.
Jack Ciattarelli, former State Assemblyman and 2021 Republican nominee for Governor.

 

What remained of the once mighty GOP in Somerset (Biden: 61% to Trump 39% in Somerset in the 2020 presidential election) included either those candidates emboldened by the Trump message, trying to live with it, or trying to recognize its essential place within the Republican electorate. Bateman’s one-time running mate, Ciattarelli, running for governor, had to appeal to the proper way of eating pizza as a way of offsetting the more idiotic and tin-eared moments of his opposition, but far worse – felt obligated to sprinkle his campaign with Trump-GOP-wing dog whistles to keep his customers satisfied. In some cases, it was not a terrible stretch for Ciattarelli. For years, he had dutifully peppered his speeches with a reference to the hometown of one of the world’s most renowned universities, as “the People’s Republic of Princeton.” Bateman would never have been comfortable with rhetoric like that in the name of animating that part of the public irritated – or what – threatened? – by the proximity of an ivy league institution.

Bridgewater, for its part, did not have a large segment of affluent and/or highly professional voters – people who went toe-toe with developers over every detail in council meetings – because they were ignorant.

LD16 Dynamics

The overall political atmosphere of Somerset boded well for Zwicker, the Democratic nominee for Bateman’s seat, who – again – made his living as a Princeton University plasma physicist. If the contest boiled down to the will of those unaffiliated voters, the Monmouth Poll had good news for Democrats here making a case for science:

“Another way to look at partisan support is based on how voters are actually registered. Murphy is backed by 75% of registered Democrats and Ciattarelli is backed by 75% of registered Republicans. Pundits tend to point to New Jersey’s large group of ‘unaffiliated’ voters – those who are not registered with any political party – as a key to winning New Jersey elections. This year, those voters tilt toward the incumbent (46% to 40%).”

Other telling points emerged.

In the same strip mall-centric town where Ciattarelli lives, the sitting Republican mayor recently said her constituents want a more livable walkable downtown – like Princeton. “What she’s really saying is, yes, Princeton has the university right there, but like Somerville and Flemington and other great towns in the district, Princeton has a vibrant downtown,” Zwicker told InsiderNJ. “There’s no reason why Hillsborough can’t create that.”

As for Ciattarelli’s association of the university with communist China, Zwicker somewhat wearily said, “From the first day I ever ran, they expressed negativity toward me as supposedly an academic, ivory tower elitist, as though somehow my academic background is a bad thing. This attack against education is really troubling, frankly. It’s become this stereotype, as though education equals some kind elitism of uncaring. It’s just a way for people to avoid a genuine discussion about ideas. That’s the travesty here. No one person has the right answer, but to label someone an elitist, ‘don’t vote for him’ because he has an education, it clashes with the goal here, which is to figure out the path forward for New Jersey. When all you hear is name-calling, it’s a disservice. I’m proud we have run a relentlessly positive campaign against their [the Pappas Team’s] favorite hurled adjectives: ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’.”

Senator Troy Singleton and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker respond to Governor Phil Murphy’s conditional veto of their bill that would require disclosure of lobbying groups and those who try to influence NJ elections.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16).

 

In a League of Women Voters event last month at Raritan Valley Community College, Pappas and Zwicker received a question about small modular nuclear reactors. It was happily right in Zwicker’s wheelhouse, and he fretted over giving too many details. Later, when the audience prodded the moderator to repeat an unclear question, Zwicker cracked that the question was “about small modular reactors.”

Ultimately the pandemic in New Jersey overshadows much of the rest of the discussion in this election cycle (the Monmouth Poll shows Murphy beating Ciattarelli by 11 points on the strength of his COVID-19 leadership, while more voters trust the Republican on the ages-old New Jersey issue of property taxes by a much closer margin). It’s telling that Murphy campaigned in Somerset County on the final Saturday before Election Day.

In addition, no longer that protected bastion of Mayflower descendants who burnish their favorite riding crops on the way to

Jaffer
Jaffer

the fox hunt, Somerset has incrementally become hipper. Bustling, live music saturated downtown Somerville has earned the moniker of “Hoboken west.” It’s not insignificant that both parties offer tickets occupied by history-making Muslim women – Sadaf Jaffer, the former Mayor of Montgomery, a Democrat running in LD16 and Watchung School Board Member Murad, running with Kirsh for a commission seat.

Once classically Republican Bridgewater – home to more horse farms than fast food joints – has become more competitive, and more diverse.

Literally underwater, the working class town of Manville must fight, not only for a political edge – but for

Vinny Panico and Joe Lukac
Vinny Panico and Joe Lukac

survival. “I thought it was going to be low turnout because of the storm,” said Manville Councilman Joe Lukac, who’s running on the GOP ticket with Pappas and Vinny Panico. “FEMA was here and a lot of people are still put out. I think it’s re-inspired them to get out and express their opinion at the polls, from what I’ve heard from residents, a lot of them. Some of them are living in cars. Some of them are bouncing back and forth between FEMA and insurance companies. Our code enforcement officials did their jobs. I don’t know what the disconnect is with our government. No matter who the president is – you know my background in the military, I don’t want him to fail – but I can’t put my finger on it. It’s too much red tape, and it’s sad.

“In my lifetime, I have experienced Manville getting flooded three times,” Lukac added. “We lost our first house. Water was within one inch of the ceiling on the first floor. Memories. Everything. Lost. It breaks my heart.”

Lukac had his allies known as Manville Strong had a scheduled country western music hootenanny planned for Manville to raise money for the victims of Ida on the last Saturday before Election Day, hours after Governor Murphy swung through Somerset.

The needs are real, the disconnect systemic, said Lukac.

So are the threats everywhere in an environment Bateman saw as possibly insurmountable, even if he still thought he could win had he run.

In Hillsborough, where a young student drowned in her car on the night of the storm, where the state this year completed a highway bypass that compromises the environment, but will give the mishmash of a suburban town a chance – perhaps – to refashion itself as less car-dependent – where Ciattarelli lives, local resident Assemblyman Freiman represents the LD16 ticket with his running mates Zwicker and Jaffer.

Roy Freiman

“I got into this because of the way it was going,” said Freiman, a retired Prudential executive and moderate Democrat. “People weren’t talking to one another. We wanted to bring positivity to the race, and we’re showing it’s possible. I am being accused of not supporting small business, while getting the  legislator of the year award from the state chamber of commerce. What we have seen from our opponents is not credible, and it’s disappointing that we can’t talk about what we’re doing. We want to talk thoughtfully about the challenges of the digital divide and healthcare. On the other side you see Ciattarelli saying he wants to cut taxes but identifying no specific area of the budget where he would cut.

“Look, you do have these statesmen who stand up – people like Senator Bateman,” Zwicker added. “You look toward those in the Republican Party, people who are for people, who represent the good; who are trying to help, versus advocating for personal agendas. I choose to remain optimistic.”

He would bring up Bateman, who first snagged an Assembly seat in 1993, and won his first senate election in 2007.

Ever the Republican, the retiring senator applauded Ciattarelli’s gubernatorial campaign effort. “I don’t believe the 11 point poll,” Bateman told InsiderNJ. “I talk to Jack’s allies. They think it’s neck and neck.  No matter what happens, no one worked harder for the job than Jack. His efforts will help in LD16; I’m not exactly sure of the impact on the county race, it depends on turnout.”

Zwicker hails from South Brunswick, not Somerset.

Bridgewater doesn’t occupy his district.

He expects big numbers out of Princeton, certainly, which in part supplanted Bateman’s base.

But his educational sophistication – and now legislative preparation, including his chairmanship of the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee – seems suited for much of the rest of LD16 and it challenges.

“For me, the person who embodies much of what has happened is my father in law, who died a year and a half go,” said the assemblyman hoping to replace Bateman. “He was a lifelong Republican and a small business owner. You might call him an Eisenhower Republican, but you could just as easily call him a ‘Bateman Republican.’ He didn’t think he was changing parties when he left, and he left before Trump. He thought they had left him.

“Kip and his father, Ray Bateman are principled people values and views,” Zwicker added. “We didn’t agree but we had nuanced and thoughtful conversation; not cliched, but of real concern. The problem today is that is getting harder and harder.”

Republicans have consistently tried to depict him as a out-of-touch because of his academic background.

Zwicker says it’s a strength that he trusts will serve him well with voters as he seeks Bateman’s seat on Tuesday.

“From day one, actually, people have always been intrigued by my background, among them unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans,” he said. “The other side is trying to depict me as evil, while I have found a way to talk, hopefully intelligently and with a commitment to solving problems, about issues like climate change and economic policy. Our number one priority, of course, is coming out off this pandemic, and it seems we’re getting close to the end. I will continue to focus on the health crisis and the economic devastation wrought by COVID. We have to continue to make sure funds are getting to small business owners and people.”

In addition to those crises, he said, the imperiled condition of democracy itself must spur leaders to responsive action.

“Anything we talk about – any topic – is dependent on a vibrant democracy,” Zwicker said. “Other states

Ida
Ida

are making it harder and harder to vote, while we are in the middle of New Jersey’s early voting period, and I am proud to have been a prime sponsor of that; contributing to making it so people know their vote matters. I’m very worried about where I see this country going right now; very worried about climate change, and what we just went through with Ida and what happened in Manville and along the Raritan, people losing their homes and their lives. We have to decide to do everything to protect people and make New Jersey a national leader on climate change and clean water protection, yes, and also, new voter empowerment. My first motivation to get into politics was working with young people, seeing them disadvantaged and wanting to change that.”

If he wasn’t a replica of Bateman, Princeton didn’t seem so very far removed from Somerville and Flemington, after all, as Zwicker noted in his explication of an LD16 vision, and perhaps what Hillsborough wanted to be, at least partially, in an area with more climate change challenges than it had in the past on the other side of Ida, less genteel maybe but finally no less fragile, which included parts of Mercer, Hunterdon and Middlesex, a population educated in the main, and anchored by a changed but but no less Bateman-respectful Somerset County.

The Somerset County Courthouse.
The Somerset County Courthouse.

 

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