Fissures Appear in the Morris County GOP Monolith – Starting in Parsippany

Morris County remains a fairly dependable Republican redoubt, but there are cracks in the wall.

Growing ethnic diversity and transplants from Hudson and Essex counties are reducing the GOP’s traditional election advantage. Both Donald Trump and Kim Guadagno carried the county by about 11,000 and 12,000 votes in the last two major elections. Time was when Republican candidates for president and governor routinely won the county by upwards of 50,000 votes. This change can be a major problem for New Jersey Republicans going forward. The party needs a strong base in Morris to be competitive statewide.

One need only look at Parsippany, the county’s most populous town, to grasp the new reality. Come January, the mayor will be a 50-year-old man of Puerto Rican descent who grew up in Flushing, Queens.

Michael Soriano, an electrician by trade, moved to Parsippany 16 years ago this coming January. Despite not having the type of family history that often is crucial in town elections, Soriano ousted Republican Mayor James Barberio on Nov. 7 and carried two Democratic council candidates to victory with him.

Democrats have won the mayor’s seat in recent years – generally because of Republican infighting –  but not any council seats, making the party’s win on that level an eye-opener.

Parsippany long has dominated Morris Republican politics thanks to size alone. Such recent party leaders as Rep. Dean A. Gallo, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce and one-time county party chair Joan Bramhall all had roots in the sprawling township.

Barberio said that outside trends (the unpopularity of President Trump and Governor Christie) certainly didn’t help Republicans.

While there are 3,000 more registered Republicans in town than Democrats, Soriano contends that the township is very much a toss-up politically.

“Parsippany is a very purple community,” Soriano said.

In viewing Parsippany from afar, one is tempted to recall Gertrude Stein’s famous put down of Oakland as a locale where there is “no there, there.”

Parsippany is about 25 square miles and is crossed by multiple state and interstate highways, but amid all that, there is no genuine downtown. In reality, Parsippany is very much a collection of sections, including Glacier Hills, Powder Mill, Mt. Tabor, Lake Hiawatha (where there is no actual lake) and Lake Parsippany (where there is one).

Melding all this together as a single community is a challenge for any mayor. Soriano, who lives in Lake Hiawatha and who has a transition office in the Powder Mill section, contends that recreation can help. He notes that the township has many youth sport leagues that bring people together and foster a semblance of township unity. Hoping to fully explore this avenue, Soriano plans a comprehensive study of township recreation services and parks.

Diversity also can be a challenge.

The township of 53,000 is about 62 percent white, according to the 2010 Census. Asians are the largest minority

Both the outgoing Barberio and the incoming Soriano played down any problems stemming from the township’s growing diversity.

Soriano says he’s encouraged – again – by youth sport leagues, noting that he has seen no problems among kids of different backgrounds getting along. He also talked about getting the township’s houses of worship to work together to produce unity.

This sounds good. But the problem, of course, is that ethnic divisions can surface in neighborhoods far removed from the noble intentions of township hall. Coping with a slowly-changing population is a challenge for elected officials in all of Morris County. Those who recognize the changing landscape will be the ones who succeed.

Traffic is a headache for just about every elected official in the state. It also is a headache that a mayor can do virtually nothing about. Still, Soriano plans to try.

“It’s not only the congestion, it’s the speeding,” he said, adding that he will explore ways to make neighborhood streets safer for motorists and pedestrians.

Soriano, who will be sworn in on Jan. 1 by governor-elect Phil Murphy, says he’s determined to reduce township legal fees, which he says have been more than $1 million a year.

Needless to say, John Inglesino, the township attorney, will be replaced. Inglesino, a former county freeholder and close friend of Christie, long has been criticized – sometimes even by Republicans – for having too much power over Barberio. But Inglesino also has extensive government experience, which is something Soriano lacks. It will be interesting to see how Soriano performs when he actually is holding the reins. Democrats won two council seats, but the five-member council will still  have a Republican majority.

Barberio, for his part, says that Soriano “overpromised” during the campaign.

Soriano was not only an Eagle Scout, he worked for four years as District Executive for the Boy Scouts of America in New York City.

He says that it was scouting that gave him his first opportunity to lead. Like many, but not all, former scouts, Soriano still can recite the Scout Law, a 12-step guide to proper living.

One plank refers to kindness, which is something Soriano wants to show – to animals.

Animal shelters are not usually campaign issues, but Soriano criticized the municipal shelter for euthanizing close to 1,000 animals over the last eight years, He wants a no-kill shelter for Parsippany, Besides showing empathy, Soriano contends that it likely would be cheaper to find homes for animals than it is to administer fatal doses of medication and dispose of the remains.

It may be an odd priority, but nobody should discount its significance.

After all, cats and dogs have a constituency that crosses party lines.

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