Murphy Swears in Marano in Democratic Party-Dominant Somerset

In Somerset, Murphy prepares to swear-in Marano.
The Somerset County Freeholder Board.
The Somerset County Freeholder Board.

SOMERVILLE – The political trick is to arrive as late as possible to avoid looking like one has been kept waiting, an entrance made all the more dramatic given the surroundings and the fact that on this occasion, the reorganization of county government, the rotunda of the historic Somerset County Courthouse was crammed with political characters.

The operatives cluttered the floor first. Advance people. Campaign types. Cops. Deputies. Party loyalists.

Then the freeholders themselves arrived. Mingled. Projected goodwill and collegial accessibility.

Freeholder Sarah Sooy socialized with Freeholder Brian Levine.

Sooy, Gallagher, and Robinson.
Sooy, Gallagher, and Robinson.

Freeholder Shanel Robinson, who would take the gavel as the governing body’s leader, occupied the front of the room early.

Freeholder Brian Gallagher wandered.

He and Levine are up for reelection next year as the last two Republicans left on the board.

Resplendent in a new sheriff’s officer’s uniform, Darrin Russo worked the room.


Then his 2019 running mate arrived: soon-to-be Freeholder Melonie Marano, whom Governor Phil Murphy would swear into office.

Around that time, Somerset County Democratic Chair Peg Schaffer alighted in the historic room, on the heels of inner circle allies like law partner Joel Shain and Vice Chair Zenon Christodoulou.

It was a moment for Schaffer, who for years toiled with her nose pressed against the walls of power occupied since the Lyndon Johnson administration by Republicans. Now, with Marano assuming the oath of office and the 3-2 board voting to make Robinson captain, Schaffer could exult in a transition of power

The state lawmakers started trickling in.

Gallagher: Vulnerable.
Gallagher: Vulnerable.

First it was the Democratic Party crew from the 16th Legislative District: Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) and Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-16).

Soon, their district leader materialized: Senator Kip Bateman (R-16), seen as possibly the most vulnerable Republican right now in Somerset, the consequence of new registereds and trends putting the GOP either out of power or on extremely shaky legs.

Then again, Levine and Gallagher were still there, too.

Somerset GOP Chairman Al Gaburo could be seen in the vicinity of Bateman, and soon Levine hovered nearby as Gallagher continued to roam the big room.

Gaburo and Schaffer exchanged words, or pleasantries, actually.

Gaburo said Schaffer didn’t have to show up fo the ten years that the GOP wielded power while he was chair, but she did, and now, the Republican chair confessed, he felt obligated to populate the throne room, with Schaffer empowered.

“It was actually 11 years,” the long-suffering Schaffer cracked in response.

Then LD21 arrived: Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21).

Then senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.

Assemblywoman Linda Carter (D-22) put in an appearance.

This group absorbed one another’s proximity for an extended period of time.

Gaburo and Schaffer hugged. Bramnick strolled beaming among Democrats.

Robinson to lead the Somerset County Freeholder Board.
Robinson to lead the Somerset County Freeholder Board.

Then the doors flung open and U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) came in, followed by Senate Majority Loretta Weinberg (D-37).

They went to the front of the room.

Soon, other political types could be glimpsed: Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie and Essex County Democratic chairman (and future Democratic Party Chairman) LeRoy Jones.

Jones could be seen talking animatedly with the young Kean.

Then Kean’s nemesis came down on an aisle: U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7), trailing a brace of aides.

Malinowski settled beside Watson Coleman, who occupied a chair next to Weinberg interfacing a box crammed with mostly male insiders, among them Currie, Jones, Kean, Freiman, Zwicker, Christodoulou and Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter.

“It felt like the penalty box,” cracked Gaburo, who was in there, too.

Murphy appeared, almost at the same time that Malinowski made his entrance.

Ebullient. Sunny. Grinning in a way that could only be described as diabolically but for the mood that suggested absolutely otherwise. Arm intermittently stretched and retracted in a gesture of recognition to faces in the crowd, many of them the upbeat remnants of a once downbeat party, bucked now by the torch of political favor.

The governor emerged from the cloakrooms, amid a brace of attendants. He wandered.

Murphy works the room ahead of swearing-in Marano (foreground)

“I am very proud of these wonderful Democratic women taking over the leadership of the Somerset County Freeholder Board, and for Sheriff Darrin Russo to oversee county law enforcement,” said Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair Peg Schaffer. “Shanel, Sara, Melonie and Darrin bring vast personal, professional and governmental experience that will demonstrate that our county government can, and will, do better by putting people first.” At far right, attorney Joe DeMarco would assume the oath of office as county counsel.

Malinowski crossed the room in front of the assembling freeholders and worked the line down that box of power, his and Kean’s hands touching long enough for them to withdraw them as though they had mutually simultaneously experienced the sensation of a hot stove.

Kean’s running against Malinowski.

Murphy experienced a similarly hot stove-like moment when he exchanged greetings with Weinberg.

The senate majority leader yesterday swatted at Murphy for embracing with what she thought was less than sustained vociferous applause her ad hoc committee formed to probe “a toxic climate for women in New Jersey politics.”

The greeting – for both  – was less than vociferous and sustained.

Sooy and Levine.
Sooy and Levine.

Thus the room settled and, the theater of arrival at an end, the show began.

Later, Murphy – this his third swearing-in here going back to when he made Peter’s reorganization meeting – in his brief remarks would take a special moment to recognize Schaffer, and note the energy and bipartisanship in the room. The Republicans might have felt too euphoric an encroachment, but for now, Somerset was happening.

“I am thrilled to swear in a Democratic majority on the Somerset County Freeholder Board for the first time since 1965,” said Murphy. “This change didn’t happen by accident — it’s due to incredible leadership from Chairwoman Peg Schaffer, dynamic candidates like Melonie Marano and Darrin Russo, key investments by our state Democratic Party that helped strengthen their campaigns, grassroots leaders who devoted their time and effort to turning Somerset County blue, and the committed message of building a stronger and fairer New Jersey that is resonating here and throughout our state.”

The first African-American Freeholder Director in Somerset, Robinson said, “After a year of service on this board, I know how fortunate we are to have the team that’s in place. While our priorities will change our commitment to the people of Somerset County will not. I have been given the awesome responsibility of leading the county as the director and I am required to not only take an oath but to live by and uphold the oath along with my Air Force core values— integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all I do.”

Albeit (somewhat) sharing the stage with the GOP, Somerset Democrats had arrived.

Murphy swears in Marano in Somerset.
Murphy swears in Marano in Somerset.
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