BRIDGEWATER – If New Jersey by definition occupies a special nook among those who appreciate corruption, Somerset has a small band of dedicated followers who like to look the other way at the mention of Nick Bissell and other pieces of evidence that the leafy, seemingly counterintuitive space is anything other than more of the same.
It’s what the GOP this year is using as its chief argument against a takeover of the freeholder board by Democrats.
Do you really want Somerset to be like the rest of New Jersey?
The implication is clear in one Republican ad featuring a flyover of seemingly endless stretches of pristine horse country, as though saddles – not engines – are the organizing principle of life here, somehow preserved at the edges of a dystopian nightmare run by the opposition party.
For Governor Phil Murphy, embroiled in a fight with the Democratic establishment (the latest plotline of which involves his choice for state party chair), Somerset is probably indeed what Republicans say it is: God’s country.
When Murphy needed a chair to step up and back his choice for state party chair, Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair Peg 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 (opposed by the anti-Murphy wing of the party’s choice Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones). Now Schaffer stands on the verge of taking control of the Somerset County Freeholder Board, and if Murphy has to force a grin in other political climes, here his ebullience must come naturally.
“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 said. “It’s a big deal I dont think we would have thought that five or six years ago.
“Places change over time,” the governor said.
The comfort level was obvious in Somerset, even organic and – if the term can be gently employed in New Jersey politics – authentic, but the larger story beyond county lines – the Democratic governor contributing earnestly to the task of equipping a shark with an extra set of teeth, for what else could be the implications of a super-majority under the auspices of a Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee contolled by the same instintive intelligence intent on mangling Currie- continued to intrude on the image of a party leader kicking down new doors of executive power.
“I love John Currie, he’s my guy, period,” Murphy admitted, just before climbing into the SUV that would ferry him to another Central Jersey venue. He wouldn’t indulge the in-the-weeds-notion that he’s in effect underming himself by pretending that the next stop – a battleground appearancce in LD21 – would ultimately merely supply two more votes in opposition to his millionaire’s tax.
“We’re Democrats,” declared the sunny-dispositioned governor. “We’ve signed over 450 bills. You don’t get that done unless you find common ground. I know we’re on the right side of history. The state party is in the best shape it’s ever been. We wouldn’t be competitive in Somerset or Morris unles we had a strong party.”
Augmented in the final week by multiple pieces of attack mailers mostly targeting Democratic Sheriff’s candidate Darrin Russo by a group called Somerset Strong, Republicans used the occasion of Murphy’s visit here to a room crammed with party faithful, including Russo (mingling at one point with PBA Prez Pat Colligan, who attended the rally) and Freeholder candidate Melonie Marano, Manville mayoral candidate Phil Petrone, and Bridgewater mayoral candidate Jeffrey Brookner – to drum the old argument against intruders to a 40-year-run Republican realm.
“In two short years, Phil Murphy is well on his way to turning New Jersey into California. Murphy’s raised taxes 20 times by a total of $4 billion, he’s pushing to make New Jersey a sanctuary state, and he’s condescendingly dismissing voters who are concerned with the tax and spend culture rampant in state government,”said Freeholder Pat Walsh and Chief Bill Parenti. “Now, Murphy’s pushing to elect his handpicked Democrats in Somerset County – Marano and Russo – so they can raise taxes and threaten our quality of life on the local level. But Somerset County voters won’t let Murphy get his way.”
Schaffer, however, has overseen a run of success in the era of President Donald J. Trump that gave
Sunday Democrats here considerable confidence heading into Tuesday. Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter (who knocked off a GOP incumbent in 2017) and Freeholder Shanel Robinson (who alon with her running mate Sara Sooy) stood in the packed room in support of the Democratic ticket: human building blocks of an organization on the threshold.
The governor didn’t have to get into nuances of party fracture.
Even if the GOP runs the county well, they must pay a price by association, or so ran the underlying mood, bigger than Democrats warring with Democrats. Trump in the White House – and, painfully close at hand at the Trump National Gof Club Bedminster, keeps Schaffer’s party on offense in this place that once nursed into public view the moderate Republican career of U.S. Rep. Millicent Fenwick and gave the state its only woman governor in former Somerset County Freeholder Christie Todd Whitman, one of Trump’s most fervent critics. Standing hip deep in bodies, Murphy ticked off his party’s favorite issues: women’s health, environment, gun sfaety laws, LGBTQ rights, sensible immigration laws, and here was a big one in a changing county unnerved by the president’s nativism – “diversity.”
“The other side doesn’t have the facts,” Murphy declared.
If the decorum of politics requires a show of support elsewhere, even in those rooms where Democrast persist in stabbingg their own governor in the back, the love was mutual for Murphy in Somerset, which has not yet become mechanized to the point of forging an establishment sufficiently connected to South Jersey and its allies to defy the governor. “We are thrilled to have a partner in the progressive movement, and he’s done great things for Somerset County,” Schaffer said of Murphy.
“This is our trifecta year,” she added.
It was a horse reference; appropriate, of course, not far from stretches of regal Whitman ponderosa, although mostly only as a ghostly nod to another era (“I’m not a horse betting person,” Schaffer acknowledged) submerged now beneath office parks, overdevelopment, Trump golf course drift, and human populations straining to see over steering wheels into the eyes of other dominant four-legged denizens, otherwise known as zombie deer.
The late surge of scorched earth attacks by a GOP-connected PAC had Democrats – for months enjoying almost an atmosphere of inevitability – cautioning against overconfidence but also acknowledging a “two-year plan” to take over the county, down-playing any desperation for a Marano win by pointing out that two Republican seats are in play next year with Trump at the top of the 2020 ticket.
- Bill Parenti
- Chris Christie
- Christie Todd Whitman
- Darrin Russo
- Donald Trump
- Essex County Democrats
- Jeff Brookner
- John Currie
- Leroy Jones
- Melanie Marano
- Mike Delamater
- Nick Bissell
- NJ Democrats
- Pat Colligan
- Pat Walsh
- Peg Schaffer
- Phil Murphy
- Phil Petrone
- Sarah Sooy
- Shanel Robinson
- Somerset County
- Somerset County Democrats
- Somerset Strong
- Steve Peter
Click here for the full Insider Index