Clerk candidates go toe-to-toe in Warren County

by MAX PIZARRO
PoliticsNJ.com

The Republican Primary for Warren County Clerk is shaping into one of the harder fought battles in the state, as Acting Clerk Patricia Kolb hopes to fend off the son of a Warren County Freeholder.

Efforts by Chad Chamberlain to win the backing of the Warren County Republican Party Committee backfired late last year when County Chairman Douglas Steinhardt expressed an interest in submitting Chamberlain’s name to the Governor as a replacement for Terrance Lee, who retired last December after 29 years in office.

Steinhardt and Chamberlain are old friends. They played football together.

"We even dated the same girl at one point," the party leader recalled.

Some Republicans, including Chamberlain's foe, Kolb, say they didn’t like the appearance of the young Chamberlain getting the job based on his father’s political connections in the county or his friendship with Steinhardt, and prevailed on the chairman to back off and let the people decide in a primary election whether or not Chamberlain is the best choice for clerk.

"We followed the provisions of our bylaws to a T," said Steinhardt, who admits that if he had submitted Chamberlain's name, Gov. Jon Corzine wouldn't have acted on it anyway, and consequently told Chamberlain his chances would be better in an open contest.
As Lee's Deputy for the last seven years, Kolb became Acting Clerk when the governor declined to make an appointment. Both she and Chamberlain had vied for the party's executive committee support before they filed to face off in the primary, though Kolb says Steinhardt was angling for his old friend from the beginning.

Chamberlain, who has run eight countywide political campaigns and ardently supported GOP candidates at all levels of government, said there was nothing improper in the way he sought to show interest in the office of clerk.

"The Republican Party recognized me as a good candidate for that position," he said. "I don’t know how long she’s (Patricia Kolb’s) been in the Republican Party. The only time she’s been active is when she decided to run for office."

Chamberlain says Lee tactically resigned at the time he did so his deputy could glide into the spot without a challenge.

But Kolb, who served fourteen years as municipal clerk of Blairstown before becoming deputy county clerk, says her old boss knew she was the best person to succeed him.

"This is not a job where you can just come in, sit down and you’re the clerk," said Kolb, who is back-scanning office records from 1825 to 1966 as part of her professional duties, and running on a platform of providing comfort to all voters come election time.

Chamberlain, the Freeholder's 36-year-old son, is a retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy who works as an operations manager for a healthcare company. He said the clerk’s office under Kolb’s watch is hardly high tech.

"I look at the clerk’s office as a great opportunity to bring in technology to make access easier for individuals and to improve customer service," Chamberlain said of the 10-employee office that oversees elections.

Kolb maintains that Chamberlain’s campaign is little more than the expression of the will of a powerful handful of people.

"He underestimated Republicans," Kolb of the younger Chamberlain. "He thought he could get his way, but it should be up to the voters, and so it will be. My feeling all along has been a campaign shouldn’t be decided by a few people in a parlor."

Chamberlain said the charge of undue influence is "complete nonsense."

"My father wasn’t involved in it at all," he said. "I wouldn’t change a thing. The media has twisted the nomination process."

And he agreed, "The voters will decide."

"My son is highly educated and has a tremendous amount of experience," the Freeholder said of his son.

As for Kolb and her work as clerk, the freeholder said, "Basically, I don’t have much negative to say about her. But she was politically appointed to that position. If you look at Sussex County’s website and compare it with ours, you’ll see we’ve got a lot of work to do."

"Let the most qualified person win," the elder Chamberlain added. "With my son there are some opportunities for real advancement."

Assemblyman Michael Doherty is staying out of the race. He likes both candidates, and the freeholder, and says he favors the people’s decision rendered at the ballot box come Election Day on June 5th.

But he admitted the younger Chamberlain shouldn’t have attempted to acquire the acting clerk’s job through the party’s intervention, even though Steinhardt maintains he gave Kolb the same hearing he gave Chamberlain.

"I thought it was a political miscalculation to go after the executive committee endorsement, because it had the appearance of people in the back room pulling strings," said Doherty. "It was a real mistake to try to go down that route." Clerk candidates go toe-to-toe in Warren County