It’s hard to get Democrats to run and win in the affluent Morris County burgh of Chatham Township. But in 2004, party leadership managed to dredge up candidates for two seats, one of which was being vacated by former Mayor Abigail Fair, a fiercely independent Democrat and township legend as one of the key protectors of the Great Swamp Watershed for over two decades in local office.
There was no great public stirring created by Fair’s would-be successors in the Democratic Party.
Jack Hartford was a computers expert and an Ivy League-educated literature major with an abiding desire to make a difference. A single man in his mid-50s living in a town built for family life, he earnestly tried to connect and did where he could – as a volunteer auxiliary fireman, drummer in the church band and, he hoped, as a politician.
His running mate, Nicole Hagner, was more pragmatic. She had grown up in Chatham Township in a Republican family, worked as an athletic trainer for a professional football team, and advanced as a powerhouse employee at a pharmaceutical company. Devoid of any identifiable ideology, her political aspirations were very simple. She wanted her dream house built in her hometown on a steep slope. The trouble was she was up against an aggressive planning board that had long been shamed then schooled by Fair into an imposing roadblock of local volunteers intent on environmental protection in the backyard of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. They’d had Hagner and her fiancé stalled for months, mired in a costly review process and on the verge of a meltdown.
Coming to local politics from their respective corners, Hartford and Hagner made the rounds leading up to the general election, happily riding the endorsements of former Republican mayors who wanted to punish the formidably right-wing Councilman Bailey Brower and his handpicked GOP candidates. That backlash against Brower and some sentimentality in the town for the departed Fair, coupled with a creaking pendulum that seemed to be swinging away from Bush in the presidential election, allowed Hartford and Hagner to squeak out a recount victory over Brower’s candidates in a town where Republicans outnumber the Democrats by more than 3-1.
The Democrats promptly went to work on the township committee – and the planning board.
Hagner kept her head down at the beginning and steadily earned the respect of her colleagues with her polish and her work ethic. This wasn’t an easy task, especially as she sat next to the caustic Brower, a retired family swim club owner and scion of town fathers, who had in his late 70s exhausted and hurled several GOP moderates back into private life. Of course, he had little use for Democrats.
But post election he was more subdued than usual, in part owing to the actions of then-Mayor William O’Connor, who brokered a deal to make the proud Brower deputy mayor.
It is said that a kid from the streets of Jersey City can grow up and regardless of his own professional success at least be assured of being able to become the mayor of any other town in America. Holding together a committee that was always in danger of being riven by Brower, the moderate O’Connor, a Jersey City native – liked what he observed in Hagner from the other side of the aisle. Everyone knew she was angling to get that house built, but she did her homework and ran the drudgery circuit of small town events with smiling aplomb and seeing star-power written all over her, O’Connor went to work – at first kidding then more sternly, “You’ve got to become a Republican.”
Hagner was coy.
Then there was Hartford. After an uneventful first year on the committee in which he tried to be the Bobby Kennedy of potholes and rumble strips much to the dismay of his colleagues and township employees, he announced his intentions to run for U.S. Congress against Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.
“It shows some chutzpah,” O’Connor said at the time.
Faced with the prospect of Hartford and newcomer Tom Wyka of Parsippany, who also expressed an interest in running for Congress on a specifically anti-war platform, Morris County Democratic Party Chairman Lew Candura and other party leaders opted for the latter, quickly dashing Hartford’s Congressional hopes. As a consolation prize they backed the Chatham Township Committeeman for the office of Morris County Freeholder, and while Hartford was out networking at the county level, Hagner was back on terra firma in Chatham, doing the dull work of a citizen legislator and steadily building political capital as the darling of the township committee. Her competence particularly delighted the usually crusty Brower.
Another political season played itself out in Morris County, and on a no-surprise Tuesday in November, Hartford lost the race for freeholder in heavily Republican Morris.
Hagner in time finally received the nod from the planning board to build her somewhat modified dream house. The end camedespite theenvironmental nitpicks of her old ally Hartford, who sat on the boardand was shouted down at one point in an expletive-laden tirade by Hagner’s exasperated fiance.
Nearly a year later and still charmed by her skills, O’Connor, Brower and the Republicans prevailed on the newly settled Hagner to switch parties, and now Hagner and Hartford are running for re-election to the Chatham Township Committee, this time against each other with new running mates – and even his fellow Democrats say Hartford can’t win.