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SPARTA – Katie Rotondi, the new chair of the Sussex County Democrats, sees things as a “bottoms-up” proposition. “Trickle-down,” she notes, doesn’t work.
That’s a clever swipe at so-called Reaganomics, but the 32-year-old Rotondi is thinking practically as well.
She says the best way – perhaps the only way – to build the Democratic party in “red” Sussex County is by making progress town-by-town. With that in mind, she hopes local Democratic municipal candidates can make inroads in a handful of towns this fall. Asked where she was most optimistic, she answered, Fredon, Hopatcong and Ogdensburg. These, Rotondi suggested, have potential to be “purple” towns.
Sussex, of course, has no “blue” towns and that is Rotondi’s challenge.
New Jersey is a pretty friendly place for Democrats, but the state’s northernmost outpost deviates from the norm. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 2-1.
For that reason, Sussex Democrats are not running candidates this year for freeholder and sheriff, leaving Republicans unopposed. Rotondi says a countywide race is unattractive at this time because candidates would need to spend much energy and presumably money with scant chance of success.
There is a small ray of sunlight for Dems if you go up the political ladder, but it comes with a caveat. The two House members representing Sussex – Josh Gottheimer (5th District) and Mikie Sherrill (11th) are Democrats. But neither carried the Sussex part of their districts, although Sherrill came close.
Overall Democratic success last year in New Jersey was triggered by Donald Trump’s unpopularity, But again, Sussex may be different.
“Just from living here, (I see) he’s quite popular,” said Rotondi, who lives in Hampton. But she added, “I also know a lot of Republicans who are not happy with Donald Trump.”
But will they vote Democratic?
In canvassing Sussex, Rotondi says she asks voters, “What has improved for you in the last five years, 10 years?”
Property taxes – obviously – are a major municipal issue all over the state. Sussex is also grappling with a declining population that can eventually lead to closing schools, which is often unpopular.
If voters don’t see things improving, Rotondi asks them, “Why vote the party (GOP) line?”
Rotondi says she’s been an activist all her life, a useful trait if you’re bucking the status quo. To prove it. she talks about a fifth grade assignment to write an essay about a “disease.” While the assignment certainly seems odd, Rotondi’s point is that she decided to write about AIDS, a politically-controversial disease at the time.
The overall political landscape in Sussex this summer has been dominated by a series of homophobic and misogynistic tweets by Jerry Scanlan, the county’s GOP chair. Scanlan is also vice-president of the Sussex County Community College board of trustees, which has scheduled a special meeting on Aug. 20 to discuss the tweets. You can be sure it will be well attended.
It’s debatable how much impact these tweets will have on the electorate, but you have to figure Sussex Democrats will try to get as much political mileage out of them as possible. It would be foolish for them not to.
Of course, social media is a very equal opportunity type of thing. In the face of Democratic criticism of Scanlan’s tweets, Republicans have pointed to an earlier Rotondi tweet calling Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw a “pirate.” Crenshaw wears an eye patch after being wounded in combat.
Rotondi, who says she was unaware of Crenshaw at the time of her tweet, has apologized. She also says that it’s a “false equivalency” to see parallels between one insensitive tweet and a series of offensive postings.
That’s a reasonable point.
Then again, politics is not always reasonable.