Morris County long has held forth as one of the most reliable Republican bastions in the state.
Ensuring things stay that way is the overriding issue for the two men preparing to run this year for chair of the county's Republican Committee. The election is not until mid-June, but politicos are choosing sides and the rhetoric is flowing. Some supporters already are using obscenities to refer to the other side. And now that Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, R-11th, has given up his reelection bid, a possible all-out primary battle for the district’s GOP congressional nomination is bound to raise passions among the county’s political class even higher.
The likely candidates for county chair as of now are Ronald DeFilippis, 66, and Robert Zwigard, 44.
The age difference is meaningful with Zwigard supporters stressing his youth.
“We need young people, we need generational change,” says recently-resigned county chair John Sette, who supports Zwigard.
DeFilippis, who operates an accounting firm in Randolph, doesn’t necessarily disagree. But he says the way to attract young people is to re-energize the party. DeFilippis has fond memories dating back three decades when the party brought in the likes of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp for gala and very successful fundraisers.
“Young people don’t know how things were,” he said. “They never met Ronald Reagan.” Clearly, DeFilippis believes he can make the Morris GOP meaningful and fun for millennial-oriented Republicans.
An added twist is that sources say the two state senators representing the bulk of Morris County are in different camps.
State Sen. Anthony R. Bucco, R-25th, is with Zwigard.
State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-26th, is with DeFilippis.
In initial conversations, both Zwigard and DeFilippis seemed to agree on a general theme.
“We’re not raising money, we’re not registering people,” said Zwigard, a financial and investment planner with a Parsippany firm. Most recently, he helped Sheriff James Gannon win election in 2016. Zwigard says he wants to expand the party by combining technology with old-fashion retail politics.
“You have to go out and pound the pavement,” he said.
DeFilippis also laments the current state of affairs, saying Republicans need to rejuvenate the “entire organization from the ground up.” DeFilippis was away from partisan politics for seven years while serving as chairman of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. That assignment completed, he is now involved again as the party’s finance chair.
Comments by both candidates about the need for a party make-over raise an interesting question: Are Morris County Republicans doing poorly? Is the party in trouble?
The answer depends on another question: Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
On the plus side, Republican lawmakers hold every county, state and federal office in the county with one small exception. That would be the six towns in eastern Morris County that are in the mostly Essex County and Democratic 27th state Legislative District. The GOP also holds an overwhelming majority of municipal government seats and has complete control of many towns. The patronage power this brings is enormous. Lawyers, planners, engineers and other professionals seeking government work in Morris are helped immensely if they have an “R” after their names.
But on the other hand, there may be a growing problem. Democrats won impressive victories last fall in Parsippany, the most populous town in the county, in addition to Morris Township, Mountain Lakes and Mendham Township, which through demographics alone screams Republican. Additionally, the winning margin for Republican gubernatorial and presidential candidates in the county as of late has shrunk considerably from the 40,000 to 50,000 spread that was common 20 years ago. President Trump won the county by about 11,000 votes in 2016; last year Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno won it by about 12,000.
Voter registration is also telling. Recent figures show 125,000 registered Republicans and 90,000 registered Democrats in the county. That’s a healthy advantage for the GOP, but there was a time when it was 2-1.
Then, there are finances. A recent report by the Morris County Republican Committee shows the party $10,000 in debt. But many expect that to be more than erased by a mid-February fundraiser at Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster featuring Fox-TV personality Greg Gutfeld.
Some of the party’s woes may be explained by the fact last year’s election cycle was a good one for the Democrats and Donald Trump’s unpopularity in New Jersey. Nonetheless, both candidates for chairman want to make sure things don’t get any worse.
Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, R-25th, says of Zwigard, “I think he’s got a lot of energy. He really can relate to the young Republicans (we need) in the party.”
Countering these views, Pennacchio said DeFilippis is a proven fundraiser and the type of veteran Republican the party needs.
We’re just about to enter February, so it’s more than four months until the election for party chair.
That leaves plenty of time for positions to harden and for more GOP officials to pick sides. Or maybe even get in the race. Stay tuned.