ROCKAWAY – A good Morris County political trivia answer is naming the last Democrat elected to the freeholder board.
The answer is Doug Romaine, and on Monday night, he had a two-fold mission:
Celebrate his 80th birthday and help raise campaign cash for Jonathan Sackett, who is trying to duplicate Romaine’s feat exactly 50 years later.
Fifty years is a nice, round number and that makes the golden anniversary of Romaine’s win back in 1973 more worthy of celebrating.
It also conveys how rare it was – and still is. Democratic fortunes certainly have improved in Morris. Joe Biden carried the county in 2020 and in last year’s congressional races, the two Democrats representing the county – Mikie Sherrill (CD-11) and Tom Malinowski (CD-7) – got more votes combined than their Republican opponents. (That wasn’t good enough for Malinowski who still lost in a district that covers six counties).
The Dems also have done better in municipal races, winning seats in such solidly-Republican towns of yesteryear as the Chathams, Mendham Township and Morris Township, which they completely control.
Nonetheless, this good fortune has not carried over to what is now the board of commissioners.
As he waited for his birthday cake to arrive in a local tavern, Romaine, who now lives in Warren County, recounted how he won in 1973.
That was the Watergate era and as such, a down year for Republicans.
It was also a gubernatorial year and GOP voters nominated Charles Sandman of Cape May rather than incumbent Republican governor William Cahill. Sandman was the more conservative of the two.
Interesting that the ideological battle within the GOP of 50 years ago still resonates today.
Of more relevance to 1973, Romaine says he recalls Sandman talking about “public hangings.”
At any rate, Sandman’s reward for his upset primary win was losing in a landslide to Brendan Byrne.
That, naturally, helped Romaine, who was on the same ticket as Byrne.
As a freeholder, Romaine recalls serving with two Republicans who ultimately made it to Congress – Dean Gallo and Rodney Frelinghuysen.
When 1976 rolled around, Romaine lost reelection.
“My good buddy, Brendan Bryne, signed the income tax bill,” Romaine explained.
Curiously, Bryne was reelected in 1977 despite creating a state income tax. By that time, people saw it wasn’t so awful and more relevantly, voters received what were then called “homestead rebates” a few weeks before the election. Clever fellow, that Bryne.
But in 1976 when the income tax began, “I got the negative vote,” Romaine said.
Some 50 years later, Sackett is trying to do what no Democrat has done in half a century. His opponent is Republican incumbent Tayfun Selen.
A note here about the history. It has been popular for many to write that Romaine is the only Democrat ever elected freeholder in Morris. The county’s official roster of past freeholders, however, does list some Democrats who served as freeholders in the nineteenth century.
At any rate, Sackett said that while campaigning, he’s been confronted with a very basic challenge – many people don’t know there is an election.
That’s not a surprise. All 120 seats in the Legislature are up, but no matter what the insiders like to say, or believe, average people do not care all that much about who their assembly member or senator is. Sad but true.
Things can be even worse for county government.
Changing the name from freeholder to commissioner does not appear to have raised the visibility of county office.
Sackett is undaunted. He said he is telling voters about the need for affordable housing, to strengthen the vocational high school and to try to reduce property taxes with more shared services.
The commissioners themselves are not exactly household names, but Sackett plans to change that.
“It won’t be a problem with me, I’ll be out there,” he said.
Having a Brendan Byrne topping the ticket would help, but turning back the clock is tough.