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SOMERVILLE – Democrat Melonie Marano of Green Brook Twp. this afternoon prevailed over
incumbent Republican Pat Walsh in her bid for a freeholder seat in her home county of Somerset. Marano’s victory (by 856 votes at last tally, see above) shifted the freeholder board to 3-2 control by Democrats led by Chair Peg Schaffer (who’s also vice chair of the Democratic State Committee).
“It’s official,” Schaffer said shortly before 2 p.m. “We won.”
The win represented a changing of the guard in a county run by Republicans for over 50 years, and a crowning political jewel for Schaffer (and Vice-Chair Zenon Christodoulou), who toiled for almost a decade without success prior to the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
After a VBM tally this morning, Marano widened her Election Night lead of 322 to 581, according to the Somerset County Clerk’s Office. At 1:30 p.m., they were about midway through a provisional ballot count.
Although Somerset County Republican Committee Chairman Al Gaburo had not yet phoned Schaffer, it looked increasingly grim for the GOP.
Then this came in: a machine provisional vote tally showed the Democrat building on her VBM-fueled lead:
Only a hand count of provisionals remained. Mathematically, there was no chance for Walsh to overtake Marano and change the outcome of the race.
A party-like atmosphere prevailed among Democrats awaiting today’s VBM and provisionals count. Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-17), a key Schaffer ally whose home town of Franklin Twp. helped Marano’s cause, happily monitored results at the courthouse with a euphoric Marano.
It was a hard-fought win, as tough-out veteran Walsh stretched Democrats past the Nov. 5th finish line.
The retirement announcement of Republican Sheriff Frank Provenzano left her as the single-standing incumbent running for countywide office this year for the GOP. Having lost to Walsh in their first race over a decade ago, Marano today notched a victory over her longtime local rival and fellow former Green Brook Mayor Walsh, while giving Schaffer allies and Murphy Democrats bragging rights in a bad year for several other battleground Democrats, most notably incumbent Senator Bob Andrzejczak (D-1) and his team in South Jersey.
Andrzejczak lost to Republican challenger Mike Testa (co-chair of Trump’s NJ relection campaign) in part owin to Trump’s popularity in the 1st District.
The dynamic was decidedly different in Somerset.
Suburban voters here were never big fans of Trump, and the president’s unpopularity among members of his own party (among them former Governor [and former Somerset Freeholder] Christie Todd Whitman, state Senator Kip Bateman, among others, set the scene for Schaffer and her party to begin to take territory. The countywide trend started with Democrat Steve Peter’s 2017 victory in the clerk’s race, and continued last year when Democrats Shanel Robinson (now set to become the freeholder director) and Sarah Sooy scored two freeholder seats.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker’s (D-16) hanging chad win in 2015 gave traction to the effort, augmented by running mate Assemblyman Roy Freiman’s (D-16) 2017 win. Last week, the two Democrats occupying a district toped by Republican icon Bateman stared down their Republican challengers from Montgomery Twp.
If Trump doesn’t play well in Somerset, Governor Phil Murphy could rejoice in having put an exclamation point on democrats’ efforts in the county.
Even as he appears ragged within his own party’s establishment, his choice to lead the Democratic State Committee denied by Essex Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones, Murphy could credibly celebrate the victory in Somerset, which he held up as a key battleground throughout the 2019 cycle.
There were backroom implications in this race.
When Murphy needed a chair to step up and back his choice for state party chair, Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair Schaffer – the long-serving steward of the hopes of a party bullied for decades by the GOP here – donned a “Murphy wing of the party” jersey in support of sitting Democratic State Party Chair John Currie.
The governor’s fundraising network supplied $100,000 to Democrats here, and today it officially paid off.
“I love being in a place like this because it’s a county that used to be red, red, red and now it’s very purply leaning on blue,” Murphy told InsiderNJ on the Sunday before Election Day as he campaign for Marano in Bridgewater. “It’s a big deal I don’t think we would have thought that five or six years ago.
“Places change over time,” the governor said, but found himself deprived of an all-out endzone dance in Somerville on Election Night with the freeholder contest too close to call prior to a VBM and provisional vote tally.
Marano’s running mate, sheriff’s candidate Darrin Russo, won on the machines on Nov. 5th, defeating North Plainfield Police Chief Bill Parenti, who supplanted Provenzano on the Republicans’ countywide ticket.
Now Marano joined running mate Russo as a 2019 winner, less than a year removed from the last two Republicans on the freeholder board – Brian Levine and Brian Gallagher – saddled with what some insiders dimissed as the ultimate political suicide mission: mild-mannered Somerset County Republicans on a ticket with a reelection-seeking President Trump.
- Andrew Zwicker
- Bill Parenti
- Bob Andrzejczak
- Brian Gallagher
- Brian Levine
- Christie Todd Whitman
- Darrin Russo
- Donald Trump
- Essex County Democrats
- Frank Provenzano
- Green Brook
- John Currie
- Kip Bateman
- Leroy Jones
- Melonie Marano
- Mike Testa
- NJ Democrats
- Pat Walsh
- Peg Schaffer
- Phil Murphy
- Roy Freiman
- Sarah Sooy
- Shanel Robinson
- Somerset County
- Somerset County Democrats
- Somerset County GOP
- Zenon Christodoulou
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