Suburban Passion: GOP Mail Stirs Anger, Standing on Murphy’s Team Could Get You Fire-Blanketed on Taxes, Trump Proximity, and Other Lurid Somerset Tales

SOMERVILLE – The Ancient Greeks wrote of mythical figures doomed to endure numerous unspeakable punishments: Tantalus, cursed to wait in hunger under a fruit tree while the branches continually evaded his grasp; Sisyphus, who rolled a rock up a hill only to have it tumble repeatedly; Prometheus, who had his liver pecked at by an eagle; a Republican in Somerset County, consigned, for what must seem like a series of agonizing eternities, to wait for the next mindless, goofball tweet from Donald J. Trump; and a Democrat, forced to live under Somerset Republican rule, which – to make matters worse – is pretty good, relative to other NJ counties, most of them – to hear it told here – mismanaged and mangled by Democrats.

Trump’s a neighbor here, which makes the impact of his thought processes that much more intimate, and Democrats would argue – relevant – as they spout mail pieces reminding voters of the President’s – and the occasionally Bernards Inn-partying lame-duck Governor Chris Christie’s – inevitable influence over the county’s dominant party. Classically, the county lacks the God forsaken feeling of New Jersey’s worst dead-end sections, and yet that bubbled affluent realm it used to protect from the outside world likewise seems scarcer and scarcer in this place (55K registered D’s to 53K registered R’s) that nonetheless still provides Trump with his favorite getaway from the White House in the form of a moon buggy-navigable golf course complete with a helicopter pad that makes GN3’s vertical take offs and landings look like remote control toy land by comparison.

Broadly, Somerset used to be thought of as that bankable county – seemingly out of step with the rest of a pretty grizzled state – that protected – with that ever so useful tool of sky-high housing prices and exclusive public schools – the rich. Now it’s the place where the President of the United States threatens the mental stability of his fellow club members, while painting a global bulls-eye on everything here from the most gorgeous Victorian mansion to a dive bar to a local paint-peeling gas station. For if there is a war with North Korea, where, the idle mind is forced to ask, are the incoming nukes most likely to end up but at ground zero of this once bucolic backyard paradise, where the biggest and maybe only problem was supposed to be proximity to Newark?

A car-boosting hoodlum with a sock over his head was once the true terror of Somerset.

Now it’s a hyperactive twitter account in the hands of a 71-year-old in-between rounds of golf.

A Dem mailer in Somerset.

Inheritor of a genteel Republican tradition that included the late Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, former Governor Christie Todd Whitman, and his late father, state Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman is the lordly political figure in these parts, a Republican with a record of tolerance, an “A” rating from the environmental community, and some significant public spats with Christie, who during last year’s presidential primary was one of the most vocal, put-the-brakes-on-Trump people in the state, throwing down in vain a late rumble strip of a fundraiser for Ohio Governor John Kasich right before Trump secured the Republican nomination for President. Now Bateman watches in horror while U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7), the congressman for much of Somerset, writhes on the spit of Trump’s budget, under threat of a 2018 primary opponent from the right, or from whatever region of the spectrum it is that Trump occupies, and tries to get back into state-level office on the strength of his own name, moderate work product and enduring congeniality.

The 16th District polling shows Bateman to be ok, sources in both parties say, in good enough to shape play havoc with the Democrats’ down-ballot efforts. Any countywide Democratic Party hopes of an anti-Trump avalanche that would engulf the Somerset scion seem drained by the common suburban perception everywhere that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy’s perceived unforced errors of promising $1.3 billion in new taxes and turning the state into a sanctuary city to protect immigrants from Trump veered into overkill. Somerset is sedate, or supposed to be. But that’s why the ostentatious proximity of Trump doesn’t fit the narrative either, or so argue Democrats.

As part of their countywide effort this year they have put up Franklin Twp. Councilwoman Shanel Robinson, an Air Force veteran and hospital IT specialist, who makes the case for herself as someone who is used to dealing in facts not emotions, has the discipline of a military background, where she worked with missile systems as an avionics expert, and a problem solver trained to see all sides of an issue.

The GOP occupies all five seats on the freeholder board. Robinson says she can be independent option. “I’m not here to persuade anyone to come to my side necessarily, but to ask thoughtful questions that maybe they hadn’t otherwise thought of,” said the Democrat, first elected to the local governing body in 2015.

Republicans have hit hard with mailers in defense of the incumbents, and Robinson says they’ve hit low. In one piece they slapped her with the charge that she didn’t file her ELEC reports. “The fact is I filed on time and I did file,” she said. “I don’t know where they’re getting the research from, but Brian [incumbent Freeholder Brian Levine] has filed late in a past election, like 42 days late. I think for them to use a word like ‘unethical’ is wrong in my case, and if you look at their own filing history, how they have behaved, by that definition, would be considered unethical.”

Then there is a mail piece that features a Sherlock Holmes-like character with a magnifying glass and the entreaty for Somerset voters to take a “closer look” at the Democratic candidates, which Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair Peg Schaffer, U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) and others see as racism,

“They should be ashamed of the mail,” Robinson, who is black, told InsiderNJ. “I was only two or three years old when Richard Nixon took race-baiting to another level in politics. But looking at that definition, I think they’re leading with innuendos and undertones, and my question is ‘what seeds are you planting when you say things ‘the quality of life is in jeopardy?’ They have been in control for 38 years. Why can’t they run on their record? I haven’t said too much about this, because I deal with facts. I have known Brian Levine for some time, and as a leader in a community I would expect someone with integrity to step up and speak out. Their names [the GOP incumbents] are attached to this. These are outright lies and don’t show leadership to move the county forward.”

Robinson said if elected she would be more responsive and visible than the sitting freeholders, not just at festivals and events. She also wants to effect greater transparency, and advocates changing the times of meetings from 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. to hours when most working people can attend.

As for the looming figure of Trump and a Republican Party increasingly beset by the folds of a Confederate Flag-waving corner of its base, Robinson said of those opposing establishment pillars on this year’s ballot, “If they’re not going to stand up and speak publicly then they’re part of the problem. A lot of Republicans are quietly not supporting Trump but not enough of them are calling him out. I do urge people to get to the polls. As Barack Obama said, the most important political position in our country is ‘citizen.'”

 

The Somerset GOP: Making it personal for Peter.

But the GOP – already gleeful over what sources say are missed local organizing efforts by their rivals, is so certain of Murphy missteps that they’ve accompanied all their conventional pinpointed attacks on individual candidates by fire-hosing a seemingly otherwise guilt-free Democratic Party clerk aspirant. In a mail piece highlighting all three of the Somerset Democrats’ countywide candidates, Republicans hit Robinson on a local property tax vote; running mate attorney Alex Avellan, a freeholder hopeful, on a personal residency issue; and Steve Peter, who’s challenging Republican Clerk Brett Radi, for running on a Democratic ticket that “supports $1.3 billion in higher taxes and turning New Jersey into a sanctuary state.” Apparently, if the piece is to be believed, Peter has a sterling, impeccable record, but squatting under a ticket topped by Murphy automatically jail houses him.

Democrats see a few dynamics in their favor.

First, Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Somerset last year by a margin of 54-42%. Subsequently, the President’s leadership over the course of the past year have propelled activists here into the streets, flooding the public plaza in front of the Somerset County Courthouse and angrily packing the town halls of U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7). So there’s some energy there, which materialized into some better than average Democratic Party candidacies. Harvard-educated Christine Lieu Chen, for example, is running through the tape in the Bridgewater-inclusive LD23, a Republican-dominant district handled by state Senator Mike Doherty (R-23). Few give her a chance against Doherty, but she’s running hard. Then there’s LD16, where Republicans want to give Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) the heave ho, and restore two Republicans to the lower house seats beneath Bateman. The GOP strategy has mostly consisted of trying to brand Zwicker as a Princeton-loving elitist who doesn’t understand – and even suffers having to represent – Somerset.

Then there’s Franklin Twp., where Robinson appears on the ballot with popular incumbent Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-17). It’s the biggest Democratic town in the county, where D’s outnumber R’s 3-1. Any Democrat with a prayer running countywide in Somerset needs to turn big numbers out of Franklin Twp. A tag-teaming Danielsen and Robinson can spike turnout, or so Dems hope. But there’s a stumbling block to that, too. In the throes of Chris Christie’s plummet from grace, Somerset GOP Chairman Al Gaburo plugged a freeholder vacancy with former Franklin Twp. Mayor Brian Levine, who for years had defined himself locally as that person most skilled at bringing together the resource-bedeviled residents of a town where the meetings sometimes take on the tenor of baseball versus football versus cricket. Mild-mannered, mannerly to a fault, with the only public flaw of perhaps being too tolerant, Levine immediately staunched any potential Christie bleeding when he ran on 2014 and snagged a Republican win.

From left to right: Radi, Levine and Gallagher.

Now it’s Levine again on that countywide ticket, the most un-Trump-like person in the county, and maybe in the country, forced to bear the stain of the president’s association by virtue of his party affiliation.

“I’m always running like I’m ten points down,” Levine told InsiderNJ. “My background of finance and accounting gives me the ability to look at the budget. In Somerset I think we’re pretty well run. We have a triple a bond rating, and I think most people believe we are providing the services and holding the line on taxes. As a liaison for human services, I am concerned with veterans and youth issues and making sure we provide services for people.”

The Trump and Christie mail has hit him and failed to penetrate, he said.

“I’ve seen some of what they’ve written and it just rolls off my back,” said the Republican freeholder. “I haven’t taken anything to heart. None of it is quite accurate. Going back to my Franklin days I have always gotten around to different groups and different organizations.”

But what about the pieces his opponent says should shame him?

“The pieces that came directly from the county, those I saw before they came out, but I didn’t see the ones mentioning the opponents,” Levine said. “I didn’t get the innuendo.”

As for running with Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno, who’s running 14 points behind Murphy statewide, the freeholder said, “I like her and agree with most of her policies. I don’t know how his [Murphy’s] tax policies are going to resonate with people. People want to see an alternative to taxes because New Jersey is such a high taxed state. I’d like to see Kim in Drumthwacket.”

Sources in both parties make him a tough out, especially with Guadagno mostly exceeding expectations as a suburban party standard-bearer.

There are several issues for the challengers, most notably it’s not stable for Democrats, starting with a lack of focus on winning locally and building up town by town. The Democrats have more registered voters in Somerset but the unaffiliateds swing right. The only candidates to win Somerset were Bob Menendez, Barack Obama and Clinton. Even U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who has campaign avidly here over the years, lost Somerset twice. Even those Democrats who dig Murphy acknowledge that he lacks the appeal of an Obama, and game a Somerset Guadagno win in the neighborhood of 55-45%. Democrats have not won Countywide here since the late Mike Ceponis won a Freeholder seat during the Carter Administration.

Prior to his death, Ceponis unsuccessfully challenged Somerset County Democratic Chair Schaffer in 2008.

A Murphy soft side mailer in time for Halloween.

Whatever they think about him, however much they seethe when his name comes up, Democrats respect Gaburo, who consistently makes strategic moves, such as opting to go with Mark Caliguire in LD16 as former Assemblywoman Donna Simon’s running mate, to shore up Montgomery where Simon lost to Zwicker by 60 votes. Seeking a running mate for Levine (and for enduring incumbent Clerk Brett Radi), Gaburo also chose Somerville Mayor Brian Gallagher over Bernards Township rising star Carol Bianchi for Freeholder. Again, Zwicker won Somerville last time. Local races in town plus Gallagher running for Freeholder will bring Republicans out there.

The GOP in Somerset don’t fear the Democrats because they’re not convinced the rival organization is there, and because they believe most of the residents, conservative arguably in the truest sense of that word, to the core – care exclusively about property taxes and keeping spending low. Murphy touched the third rail in his statewide campaign when he mentioned jacking taxes. If anything, the GOP establishment in Somerset as classically defined by the moderate likes of Lance and Bateman, fears the Tea Party wing or, to put it in more localized terms, the Trump wing. The wigged-out wing, to hear some of the establishment on background, in the aftermath of moderate Republicans Jweff Flake and Bob Corker announcing their retirements from the U.S. Senate. Bateman didn’t have to worry about retribution at the state level, especially with Christie on his way out and weak. It’s not the same in Somerset as it is in, say, Hunterdon, but it bubbles, just below the surface of the sedate atmosphere, just around the corner, behind the entranceway to a certain local world famous getaway, where Trump’s allies appear ready to run ferociously against Lance if he doesn’t back the President’s budget.

Bateman ducked it.

Will Lance?

Gaburo refuses to look past this cycle. His long-serving assemblyman (and freeholder before that), Jack Ciattarelli, this year took a noble but unsuccessful shot at governor, putting forward what went down as a sensible alternative to Guadagno in the GOP Primary and getting pancaked statewide; and after that heartbreak, the GOP Chairman immediately set about shoring up a countywide and LD16-wide apparatus depleted by the loss of one of his stars, who may yet prove to have another big run in him. Bulked now by a bench of similarly well-fitted players – all of them un-Trump-like to a T – Gaburo feels confident to resist – in six days time – yet another Democratic salvo. But a 2018 federal election year will mean a reckoning for the Somerset Republicans, and even with outraged Dems lining up on the other side, it likely won’t be them who force that confrontation, but a Trojan horse disgorging enemy soldiers in, of all places, a leafy Somerset golf course.

 

 

 

 

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