MORRIS TOWNSHIP – Once a Republican stronghold, this mostly suburban community surrounding Morristown is now controlled by Democrats. Changing demographics may be one reason; the rejection of a Donald Trump-led GOP by unaffiliated voters another.
Whatever the cause, only one Republican remains on the five-person township committee.
That’s Peter Mancuso, a longstanding, if not venerable, public official.
Mancuso has served more than 20 years in local government, although not consecutively. But that’s only part of the story. A retired Wall Street executive, Mancuso has been active in an array of organizations and causes, including the Morris Museum, First Night Morris (a New Year’s Eve celebration), the Market Street Mission, County College of Morris and St. Elizabeth University.
Now in his mid-80’s, Mancuso’s term is up and he wants another one.
But in what seems surprising to some, Mancuso has a primary challenger.
That would be Paul Johnson, a 55-year-old insurance consultant.
When I spoke to Johnson today about his challenge to Mancuso, he quipped that Mancuso is running against him.
By that, Johnson meant he filed his nominating petition first.
“I was under the impression he (Mancuso) wasn’t going to run again,” Johnson said.
When he discovered Mancuso was seeking another term, Johnson said he considered dropping out, but stayed in because of the support he said he was getting from fellow Republicans.
In fact, he said supporters have been encouraging him to run for some time. Now he is.
As mentioned, this is the only seat up this year. So no matter who wins the primary, a Republican needs to win in November to prevent a total Democratic control of the committee.
The Democratic candidate is a familiar face – Jeff Grayzel, a former committee member who gave up his seat to run for the state Senate last year. Of more relevance, it was Grayzel’s persistence as a candidate dating back more than a decade that resulted in Democrats winning a seat on town government in 2009 for the first time since the Watergate era.
Mancuso is no ideologue, so it’s not surprising that the committee, which tilts 4-1 Democratic, is a collegial bunch.
“We seem to have an ability to promote unity,” Mancuso said. He says he’d like, of course, to have more Republicans on the committee, but “It is what it is.”
Cooperation between the majority and minority parties is a rarity these days. And to extremists on both sides, not a good thing. Whether that view surfaces in the primary campaign is an open question.
Generally speaking, Morris Township doesn’t appear to be a place with all that many problems.
A perennial concern is to prevent what some see as the problems of more urban Morristown from seeping across the border.
Johnson mentioned his desire to control development, or perhaps redevelopment, along Route 124, the township’s main corridor.
He said he was also concerned about crime, noting an increase in car thefts and a recent, alleged sexual assault on a local walking trail.
As for Mancuso, he said, more broadly, that he wants another stint on the governing body to continue promoting the township and its people.
He said his years in civic life have not dulled his desire to continue serving.
“I’m really enthusiastic,” he said.