Republicans, who have not won a Freeholder race in Camden, Gloucester, Mercer, Middlesex and Union counties since the 1990’s, missed an opportunity to change the playing field when they failed to act on a proposal to create district Freeholder seats in those five counties.
In 2000, then-Assemblyman Richard Bagger (R-Westfield) introduced legislation that would require those Democratic-controlled counties to move from electing At-Large Freeholders to an all-district format beginning in 2001. At the time, New Jersey had a GOP Governor and Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature.
Bagger’s bill was carefully crafted to include three restrictions: it applied only to the state’s nine counties classified as second class, and to those that either had more than seven Freeholders or seven Freeholders and a geographical area of between 200 and 400 square miles. Union County was the only second-class county with nine Freeholders. Republican-controlled Burlington County, with five Freeholders, was not included in the bill, nor was GOP-dominated Morris and Somerset.
Passaic County, which is 192 square miles, was left off the Bagger bill at the urging of then-Republican County Chairman Peter Murphy, who opposed the District Freeholder Plan even though Republicans had lost Freeholder races in 1997, 1998 and 2000. Any reasonable carving up of Passaic would have given Democrats three solid seats in Paterson and Passaic, and control of the Board of Freeholders might have rested with a Clifton-based seat. Murphy, prior to his criminal conviction, believed he could put his winning machine back together and wasn’t willing to look at a best case scenario of a 4-3 Republican majority.
The bill was approved by the Assembly State Government Committee in May 2000, and talk that it would gain approval during the 2001 lame duck session, when Republicans were still in charge, never happened. With a Democratic Governor, a Democratic State Assembly, and an evenly split State Senate, Bagger (who moved up the Senate in January 2002) didn’t even both to reintroduce his bill.
According to sources who were Republican legislative staffers at the time, the person who killed the bill was Somerset GOP Chairman Dale Florio. Florio was afraid that a future Democratic Legislature could do the same thing in Somerset County, where Freeholders elected by district could — and likely would — endanger the 5-0 GOP control they’ve held since Christine Todd Whitman unseated Michael Ceponis in 1982.
It’s possible that bi-partisan redistricting commissions in Camden, Gloucester, Mercer, Middlesex and Union counties would have drawn districts that would have assured some level of two-party government.