Hank Lyon: Awaiting the Inevitable Return of the Comeback ‘Kid’

It’s hard for anyone who was at the Morris County Republican Party’s 2011 primary election night gathering to forget about it. 

It really wasn’t supposed to be that big of a deal. Only one freeholder seat was up and the incumbent, Margaret Nordstrom, of Washington Township, was expected to win easily. After all, her only challenger was a 23-year-old from Montville.

A 23-year old? Really? And he is to be taken seriously?  How does a 23-year-old even know what a freeholder is? That was the mood of loyal Morris Republicans awaiting results at the Zeris Inn in Mountain Lakes. 

But then votes were counted.

And they showed that the young man from Montville, Hank Lyon, was making it a real race. And ultimately, he did more than that, topping Nordstrom by virtually a handful of votes. His path to victory apparently was fueled by campaign signs proclaiming Lyon as “the conservative” in the race and Nordstrom’s refusal to take his challenge seriously. 

But things didn’t end there, Nordstrom put up a major stink, a common practice when a race is that close.

A lengthy court fight followed the election and at one time, Nordstrom was actually declared the primary winner. She ran – and won – in that year’s general election and stayed on the board, But a state appeals court in 2012 overturned the lower court ruling and declared the seat vacant. In a concession to common sense, not to mention fair play, the county’s Republican committee gave the seat to Lyon, about a year after he seemed to have won it. 

Still, his new colleagues on the board were a bit wary of Lyon, a man some of them derisively called “the kid.” He was, you see, an outsider.

But over time, he won most of them over. As an outsider, Lyon was able to look at issues objectively and without the preconceived views that are common for politicians who have been around for 20 years. 

He spoke out against a county solar energy plan that dissolved among corporate infighting and helped draft budgets that avoided tax increases. He easily won reelection in 2014.

Lyon’s political philosophy was solidly in the Republican Party’s right wing. Given the fact, county government does such routine tasks as pave roads and oversee a park system, a freeholder board is not necessarily the ideal place to espouse ideological purity.  

But Lyon still tried, sometimes with poor results.

For some reason, he proposed that the county stop giving grants to churches and houses of worship. This is a classic separation of church and state issue that appeals not only to conservatives, but to liberals as well. The county has done this for years on the premise that the money goes not to further religious teachings, but only to repair and renovate buildings that are historic. This, of course, can be a difficult argument, What makes a church or temple historic? Is something historic simply because it is old?  Or, does a truly memorable  event need to have taken place in a locale for a house of worship to be historic?  

This makes great constitutional debate, but as Lyon should have known, it’s lousy politics. Call it a rookie mistake. 

There was no way the freeholders were going to stop giving grants to churches and run the risk of being labeled “anti-religion.” Lyon eventually came to that realization, and he certainly counted votes on the board, and gave up the fight.

Last spring,  Lyon made another move that seems ill-advised in retrospect. 

Rather than seek reelection to the freeholder board, he ran for the state Assembly in the 26th District. Each district has two Assembly members, so technically Lyon was challenging incumbents Betty Lou DeCroce and Jay Webber, But in reality, he was targeting DeCroce.

It is never easy running against an incumbent, but Lyon thought he had a winning issue – DeCroce’s vote in favor of raising the state gasoline tax. Of course, DeCroce had some cover; this is something Gov, Chris Christie supported.

Beyond the gas tax, Lyon’s platform was a litany of right wing ideas – support school vouchers, fight for the Second Amendment and repeal the Highlands Act, which has preserved acres of watershed land in northwestern New Jersey. The state Highlands Council also has given a home to Lyon’s onetime opponent, Nordstrom, who is the council executive director. 

Lyon’s campaign never gained traction and he lost to DeCroce by about 2,000 votes.

Having given up his freeholder seat, Lyon’s time in office is winding down. He will be out of an elected job come January. 

At a freeholder meeting last week, Lyon said he planned to go to law school and that he didn’t think his career as a freeholder was all that much to talk about.  

Many would disagree.

Young people getting involved in politics is just about always a good thing. Lyon brought a valuable perspective to the freeholder board. 

And one gets the feeling he’s not through with politics.

At 29, he still could be considered, affectionately speaking this time, a kid. 

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