SOMERVILLE – Somerset GOP Chair Al Gaburo and Somerset Democratic Committee Chair Peg Schaffer. You can almost hear the spaghetti western soundtrack here where the county seat contains the boot prints of the late movie actor Lee Van Cleef, who like the Leonardo DiCaprio character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, enjoyed late professional success in Italy.
“I remember him standing right there,” Lil Tarentino told InsiderNJ in her music store downtown, reflecting on the day the door swung wide and Somerville native Van Cleef filled the frame.
Was it before or after he went to Italy?
You almost wonder if that’s where either Gaburo or Schaffer will head next after this; if the once mild
Central Jersey, Christie Todd Whitman-Millicent Fenwick English saddle Doris Duke touring country turned Donald Trump golf playground dotted with Dunkin Donuts franchises and indigenous nothingness is big enough to contain the zigzagging automobile routes of the two party chairs.
It begs the question, in this the biggest election for both party chairs.
What’s at stake?
This was – not too long ago – virtual lock down territory for the GOP.
Before Governor Chris Christie nosedived in Bridgegate.
Before Trump – frantically opposed by the county’s elder statesmen and women in the 2016 GOP Primary – landed in the White House.
Before 2011 redistricting, when the Democrats removed Bridgewater from the 16th Legislative District, essentially dislocating state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16), scion of a proud area political family, from the heart of his kingdom.
When former Somerset County GOP Chair Dale Florio retired after 18 years leading the party, he took with him a perfect record.
Florio never lost a county race.
It all changed dramatically in nearly ten years.
“It’s a Republican county,” a voter told Bateman on the 2017 campaign trail.
Bateman reacted as though it was someone telling me what he wants to hear.
But not reality.
“It’s changing,” he politely told the falling face in the diner booth.
To Bateman’s point, here’s what it looked like on paper last year, as new Democratic Party
registrants outnumbered Republicans by almost 4-1:
Since taking over from Florio in 2010, Gaburo has lost three times countywide – in 2017, when Democrat Steve Peter took the clerkship from Republican Brett Radi; and just last year, when Democrats Shanel Robinson and Sarah Sooy defeated incumbent Freeholders Mark Caliguire and Pat Scaglione to alter the composition of the freeholder board from 0-5 Republican to 2-3 Republican. But he’s also had to endure the last wrenching four years of LD16, where incumbent Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman have gained from Democratic-friendly atmospherics.
Now Schaffer, on the clock as Democratic Party chair since 2008 faces the prospect of taking the reins of countywide power away from Gaburo, if her charge Melonie Marano of Green Brook can beat veteran incumbent Republican Freeholder Pat Walsh also of Green Brook, and change the freeholder board to 3-2 Democrat.
Countywide dynamics contain the additional intrigue of a sheriff’s contest between Democrat Darrin Russo, a former Franklin Twp. Police Lieutenant; and North Plainfield Police Chief Bill Parenti. Russo hails from that township Somerset Democrats always require when they want to create their best results.
In addition to the external evidence tilting the cycle in their direction, Republicans are staggering into the general election on the heels of a bloody primary for sheriff. Parenti beat primary contender Tim Pino, but just barely, prompting Pino to challenge the result and extend a bitter feud with the party in charge.
Gaburo’s trying to hold everyone together, assuring party members that June ugliness need not continually scare the party when it looks at itself in the mirror.
He’s not the only one trying to straddle a fragged party.
Schaffer earlier this year assumed the vice chairmanship of the Democratic State Committee led by Chairman John Currie, in the cross-hairs of a South Jersey Democratic Party-connected effort to supplant him with a less Governor Phil Murphy-friendly establishment ally. If South Jersey, George Norcross III Democrats get their way, Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones will become the new chairman. That could leave Schaffer on the losing team within the statewide structure of party politics.
Not that it matters much if the endgame is Somerset.
Machine politics according to the rules that dictate counties long in establishment Democrat hands don’t equate to Somerset politics. Grassroots suburban energy summoned by independents and independent Democrats catapulted Tom Malinowski into office last year over incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7), a mild-mannered centrist eliminated by Trump. Somerset voted for Barack Obama twice, went big for Clinton over Trump in 2016 (55-42%), and produced a win for Murphy here over Kim Guadagno (albeit not by much) – 50-48%.
Mindful of those voters, Schaffer this year formally threw in with Currie, perceived – owing to his connection with Murphy – as the more progressive-friendly option in the fight for the chairmanship even as Jones, in casual conversation insists, “I’m a progressive.”
The chair also knows it pays to be close to the NJ governor, technically still the most powerful in the country.
But even if Schaffer’s only political play is for her home county, in the two-fold assessment of voters and gubernatorial power, a win this November could augment a case by her allies to make her a consensus choice for state party chair.
When Passaic County Chairman Currie emerged as the compromise between the South Jersey-backed Ray Lesniak and then-Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31) in 2013, he had the 2012 narrative of helping to reelect Passaic’s own U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) in a primary over U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9).
Currie had clout as the victor in a vicious intra-party fight.
If Marano beats Walsh and Schaffer’s Democrats take control of the freeholder board, she will have a story to tell, about how it took years – some of them depressing and seemingly pointless – to finally depose the GOP and take charge of county government.
Now, maybe the consensus among Democrats at war with one another, at war with the governor, is that those kinds of stories don’t play anymore.
Not only do people lack the attention span, but there are so many Democrats (a million more than Republicans) in the Garden State right now that no one wants to hear a particular story about how the party invested with Nebuchadnezzar-like self-indulgent power right now, toiled over a particular freeholder seat.
Trump ruined the GOP by the reckoning of Somerset GOP sources who speak on background.
It wasn’t any loquacious Democrat’s elbow grease.
They’re always quick to point that out.
It wasn’t Somerset Democrats who beat them, it was Trump.
So maybe that story in this environment doesn’t punch the wallop Currie’s narrative did in 2013.
Or maybe Schaffer affixing herself to the Currie-Murphy wing of the party dooms her chances to make a consensus case.
In any event, a Marano win would at least bulk Schaffer up at the county level, and probably arguably give her the flicker of a statewide shot at leadership, if not as a consensus choice, maybe as a substitute for the Currie team if Currie doesn’t (ultimately) run. Northern Democrats loyal to Currie, however, bristle at that suggestion. At least one of them said he would sooner see “Leroy as chair than distribute the center of the power out of North Jersey.”
So there’s play in Schaffer’s political world. Significant play.
A loss – irritating to those rank and file members eager to bust the door down – could be rationalized as low turnout election year blues.
Still, Schaffer would have next year to take another shot at control.
But what of Gaburo?
If Walsh wins – and by acclimation insiders say the nurse by trade is working as hard as any incumbent Republican they have seen in recent years – the GOP chairman will have staunched the worst case of GOP bleeding in decades.
It’s a party that countywide appears to be in constant pushing and shoving mode, with Trump adherents angry over establishment players intent on distancing themselves from the president, a gulf deepened, for example, by the fact that elder statesman Bateman has to play to progressives in his district given the configuration of the existing legislative map.
But then again, that environmental foundation, that core of moderation, was there long before the map changed, and before Trump became a local golf course owner who also occupied the White House.
Florio had learned politics from Congresswoman Fenwick, a genteel diplomat.
It was the worst possible collision at the core of the soul of the party to have the Bedminster Golf Course-local Trump playing to a nativist red state base, while the party tried to appear hip to educated New Jersey suburbanites.
A Walsh-Gaburo loss could be rationalized as, “Well, it’s Trump, what the hell did anyone expect?”
Get ’em next year.
But barring a total implosion, Trump’s at the top of the ticket next year.
And anyway, if Marano beats Walsh, the 2020 reelection of Freeholders Brian Levine and Brian G. Gallagher wouldn’t give the GOP a chance to make gains, or reverse the majority trigger of a 2019 Democratic victory.
Schaffer could lose this year then put everything on next year with Trump actually on the ticket, (and presumably less strong than when a less than ideal candidate beat him by double digits in 2016, Walsh just edged Democratic challenger Doug Singleterry 52-48%, and Russo came up short in his first bid for sheriff by only 1,300 votes [incumbent Sheriff Frank Provenzano retired rather than face him again]) and – given the trend lines in a high turnout year – still win control of the county.
Gaburo loses this year, he can’t change the game next year.
And even if he wins, he still faces another control year election with two (not one) freeholder seats on the ballot.
He can pray Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, or so say GOP sources here looking for ways to ease the pain.
Or – even if they lose – pray Trump loses next year to stop the truly stem the tide of loss, and go into rebuild mode.
The county is one ex-prez and one redistricting map away from restoring order, or so argue the old school Republicans bothered by the sudden culture change created by politics.
In the meantime, the GOP chairman will try to make the 2019 race about countywide issues, county personalities, and Murphy overreach (at some point, Republican source say, voters will look at the dysfunction around them and blame the governor) where Somerset’s been big enough to date for Gaburo and Schaffer, but won’t be for long.
It will get bloody.
Walsh won in part in 2016 because of opposition research the GOP used to hobble a candidate and force a late replacement.
The Dems were organizationally discombobulated with two months to go.
An ugly late bomb could be the only way out for Gaburo.
“They’ve got to vet their candidates,” a Republican source told Insider, in reference to the Democrats, on the heels of their first freeholder candidate’s implosion. The same source also decried his rivals’ seeming failure to run on issues, and, maybe painfully, stuck around long to find a political atmosphere the Democrats are (almost) content to let Trump define.
Schaffer versus Gaburo.
There’s a Sergio Leone sunset for every political career, even in a place that looks, on the surface, as sedate as Somerset.
- Al Gaburo
- Bill Parenti
- Bill Pascrell
- Brett Radi
- Brian Gallagher
- Brian Levine
- Chris Christie
- Christie Todd Whitman
- Dale Florio
- Darrin Russo
- Doris Duke
- Doug Singleterry
- Frank Provenzano
- Jason O'Donnell
- John Currie
- Kip Bateman
- Lee Van Cleef
- Leonard Lance
- Leroy Jones
- Melonie Marano
- Millicent Fenwick
- Pat Walsh
- Peg Schaffer
- Phil Murphy
- Ray Lesniak
- Sarah Sooy
- Shanel Robinson
- Somerset County
- Somerset County Democrats
- Somerset County GOP
- Steve Peter
- Tim Pino
- Tom Malinowski
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