It’s been about a year since Katie Rotondi was elected chair of the Sussex County Democrats, bringing a youthful voice to a party severely outnumbered in what probably is the most “red” county in the state.
Now, Rotondi is being challenged for chair by a group of Democrats, some of whom sought her resignation a few months ago. And to spice things up a bit, Rotondi a few days ago publicly charged a political neighbor – Warren County Democratic Chair Tom Palmieri – with making improper, sexual comments to her. Palmieri calls the accusation “false and baseless.”
The evolving imbroglio amid Democrats in the hills of northwest New Jersey is not without irony. Democrats run most of New Jersey, but not Sussex and Warren, where registered Republicans outnumber them 76,000 to 42,000 combined. The stark facts certainly limit the impact of the county chairs.
No matter, the first signs of unrest over the 33-year-old Rotondi surfaced over the winter when opponents asked her to resign. Many put their thoughts to “paper.” A letter from Hopatcong Democrats to state party chair John Currie says Rotondi has been “rude and offensive.” A Vernon Township Democrat wrote to say that Rotondi has not been effective, alleging that “she arrives late and seems unprepared for meetings.”
Others have said she has undermined Democrats running in Sussex County by not more forcefully supporting party candidates, most notably Deanna Lykins, who ran last year for state Assembly from the 24th District.
Rotondi didn’t quit, but has agreed to have an election for county chair and other offices on June 9, a year earlier than planned.
Compared to some of the accusations against her, an introductory press release by an opposition slate headed by Dawne Rowe is pretty vanilla.
Rowe is a lifelong Sussex County resident who lives in Franklin. In what seems quintissential Sussex, she lives on a farm and raises standardbred horses.
The release says that she is determined “to bring the Dem Party together and press on into a successful and exciting future for the Sussex County Democratic organization.”
But things may not be that cut and dry.
In 2018, Rowe openly supported two independents running for the local Franklin governing body. They didn’t win, but a year later, one of them ran as a Republican and did win. That was Concetto Formica.
On one hand, political affiliation in a small town is not necessarily indicative of anything. But on the other hand, the point is that someone now seeking the chairmanship of the Sussex County Democratic
Committee supported someone as an independent who a year later ran as a Republican.
Depending on your personal spin, this can raise questions about how committed Rowe is to liberal, Democratic values.
No one connected to the opposition slate, which calls itself the SCDC Forward Team, responded to a number of emails seeking comment.
Rotondi, who says she’s still recovering from contracting COVID-19, issued a statement that said she’s proud of the “growth, engagement and advocacy of Democratic ideals that the committee has achieved
under my leadership.”
She said it’s “thrilling” to see more Democrats wanting to get involved in county politics, but then she changed course, saying: “The hostile and divisive culture created by the individuals behind the defamatory petition for my removal hurt our party, and it is deeply disconcerting that our opponents are continuing to cultivate this atmosphere with negative campaigning. My number one priority has
been to unify the party despite our differences.”
She also expressed confidence she will win.
All this may be interesting enough for political junkies, but now we come to the sexy part.
Just last week, Rotondi made her accusation against Palmieri. Without a detailed elaboration, she said that the Warren County chair made an offensive comment to her when they met for a breakfast meeting
in Hampton, and sometime later, joked about spiking her drink when they were at a political gathering – at Phil Murphy’s Middletown home no less.
In fact, Rotondi said she spoke about the incidents on May 21 to a group chaired by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg investigating sexual harassment in New Jersey.
This meeting was not open to the public to allow women to relate their experiences privately.
The allegations against Palmieri have prompted dozens of women, most of whom have been involved in Sussex or Warren politics, to come to his defense and raise skepticism that he’d do such a thing. Palmieri
also released a statement denying Rotondi’s accusation.
Rotondi is undaunted, although she said that when all is said and done, her allegation will probably have a negative impact on her race to remain Sussex Democratic chair.
Some may wonder why she leveled the accusation now.
That seems simple. She is the Sussex Democratic chair, which gives her a certain amount of status. That may not be the case in a few weeks.
Editor’s Note: Rowe said her support for Formica had nothing to do with partisan politics. She said that she agreed with Formica’s stance against a proposed apartment complex in Franklin, which is still pending.
“I had gotten to know Mr. Formica by attending meetings,” Rowe said, mentioning the borough council and planning board. She said they happened to be on the same side on the apartment complex issue and that, “I did not know his party affiliation.”