Next month, two major Democratic county strongholds will see important internal party contests.
Mercer County is set to see a significant turnover during its March 15th county committee convention. Its Democratic Chairman, Richard McClellan, plans to step down shortly. Meanwhile, Freeholder Elizabeth Muoio will resign on March 1st, giving a number of Democratic hopefuls a chance to take over her seat. Failing to win Muoio’s seat, some of those candidates may challenge Democratic incumbents Tony Mack and Lucy Walter, whose terms expire this year.
In neighboring Middlesex County, Freeholder John Pulomena has resigned so that the board can appoint him to a position as county administrator, while Freeholder Camille Fernicola has said that she will not seek another term.
In Mercer, McClellan’s resignation after six years in the job is still a mystery to many local Democrats who credit him with Democratic control of the county – especially helping County Executive Brian Hughes win in 2002 and coast to an easy reelection last November.
Only two potential candidates’ names have surfaced so far to vie for the chairmanship: County Counsel Arthur R. Sypek, Jr. and Board of Elections Secretary/Democratic State Committeewoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson.
Sypek, Jr., whose father is a former Freeholder and was the last Democratic County Executive before Brian Hughes – serving from 1975-1979 — is undecided about whether he will run for the position. He’s taken some calls from municipal chairs, but hasn’t started reaching out to anyone.
“I haven’t even decided if I want it, so I’m not planning anything,” said Sypek, 58, whose long political experience and deep roots in Mercer County Democratic politics makes him a favorite to some powerful members of the party establishment.
“It was a long time between Democratic county executives – I know it very personally, and I think if I were to decide, it would be to help serve the Democratic Party and Brian Hughes in Mercer County and all the elected officials,” said Sypek.
But while Sypek weighs the pros and cons of the chairmanship, Caldwell-Wilson is actively working the phones to seek support, and notes that she’s already got Rep. Rush Holt behind her.
Caldwell-Wilson, a Trenton native, is no newcomer to Mercer county politics, having served as vice-chair of the party until last year. She’s the former President of the Trenton Council of Civic Associations, and once won a seat on the city council, only to have it overturned by a superior court judge after a controversy over absentee ballots.
Caldwell-Wilson burnishes her experience as the county’s co-field director of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run. With few resources, she said, she managed to help turnout Mercy County for Kerry.
“We did a pretty good job, and that was working and communicating with other activists,” she said. “If I put my mind to it, I can get the votes at the convention without a doubt.”
The field of potential Freeholder candidates is much more crowded. Five people are interested: labor leader Mike Maloney; businesswoman Alysia Welch-Chester; former Hamilton Councilman and Assembly candidate Daniel Benson; John Cimino, son of the former Assemblyman Anthony “Skip” Cimino; and Princeton Councilman Andrew Koontz.
All five candidates are likely to compete for Muoio’s seat, but many are expected to also seek the party nod over incumbents Mack and Walter. Of the two, Mack is said to be more vulnerable, having recently challenged Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, leading party insiders to feel that he devoted too much time and effort to that race and his appeals to overturn its results.
Mercer County’s towering Democratic figure, County Executive Brian Hughes, emphasized the fairness of the county’s committee structure, and said that he hopes that whoever gets the party nod for the incumbent’s seats will not have to defend it in a primary.
“It’s one thing certainly to have a very vigorous discussion of who’s going to represent the party,” said Hughes. “But when you get to a primary and start expending resources, that’s when it becomes a real problem for us.”
Maloney, 48, is the president of the Mercer County Central Labor Council and business manager of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 9. He wrote a letter to municipal chairs and elected officials saying that he would only run for a vacant seat – something that put him in good stead with party leaders.
“I’m a team player. Let the chips fall where they may. You’ve got two sitting incumbents, and that means a lot where I come from,” said Maloney. “I have no interest whatsoever in entering a primary.”
Maloney, who’s never run for elected office but considered running for the Assembly seat that his labor brethren Wayne DeAngelo wound up winning, said that Mercer County — and his hometown of Hamilton in particular — has been hit hard factory closings.
“Can I bring more plants in? I don’t know. But I’m going to try my damndest to attract work for blue collar workers. Right now it’s just bleak,” he said. “This is an opportunity for labor to have a seat in county government.”
Like Maloney, 34-year-old Alysia Welch-Chester, who has lived in Trenton since moving there from upstate New York in 2000, has never held elected office. She just started her own business in November, a personal assistant service called Welchester's Concierge. And while she doesn’t have any elected experience, she’s president of the Trenton Council of Civic Associations – the same organization that Caldwell-Wilson used to run – and is active on several local non-profit boards.
But unlike Maloney, Welch-Chester plans to challenge the two incumbent freeholders if she doesn’t get the party nod to replace Muoio. She plans to officially announce her bid next week.
“It’s good that we have this very open and fair process to give any capable person the opportunity to serve in that capacity, and it’s not necessarily a reflection that the incumbents haven’t done a fantastic job,” she said.
Welch-Chester plans to base her campaign around economic development themes, and would like to hold four town hall meetings a year across the county.
Also running is Princeton Borough councilman Andrew Koontz, a 40-year-old high school teacher. Koontz is basing his campaign around traffic issues, open space and shared services at the county level.
Koontz, who’s been a councilman since 2004, said that he helped get the borough’s police chief to focus on community policing and has a strong record with improving local parks.
Koontz won’t guarantee that he’ll challenge the incumbents, but would like to keep the option open.
“Mercer County has a very open process, and I think that the most fair and open way to handle it is for the vacant seat to be considered first, and then all the candidates would have the opportunity to make a decision whether or not they’re going to continue to contest,” he said.
Cimino just made his bid official today, issuing a press release saying that his experience as a Vice President at PNC Corporate Bank, in which he provides financial services county and local governments, gives him good experience for the job. He’s also chairman of the Mercer County Planning Board and a member of the county’s open space preservation committee.
"Having grown up in Mercer County and enjoyed all that it has to offer, I know that we need to protect and cultivate our local resources so that young families like mine can continue to grow and prosper here," said Cimino in the release.
Benson could not be reached for comment.
Although four names have popped to run for freeholder in Middlesex County, a deal is said to already have been struck amongst county party officials and politicians from its legislative districts. Within the next couple years another seat is likely to open up — that of Freeholder Director David Crabiel, who many say will probably not serve a full term.
If the County Committee votes the way the leaders want it to, Carteret Council President Ronald Rios appears poised to fill the vacancy left by Pulomena’s resignation, while Piscataway Councilwoman Millie Scott is likely to get the nod to replace retiring Freeholder Camille Fernicola.
State Sen. Barbara Buono, whose district is made up entirely of Middlesex County towns, said that she was not part of any deal, and noted that she was first elected to the legislature, despite not getting the endorsement of then-county chairman John Lynch.
“I think for me to interfere with the committee process would just not be appropriate, and for me to try to sway committee peoples’ votes with endorsements is just antithetical for the way I was nominated for the Assembly when I ran,” she said.
Putting Scott on the party line would make her the county’s first African-American freeholder, and would keep the seat in Fernicola’s home town of Piscataway.
Edison Councilman Charles Tomaro is said to be interested in one of the seats. He could not be reached for comment.
Although Jamesburg Councilman and labor leader Joseph Jennings's name initially surfaced, he's not running for one of the two current open seats. Rather, he'll wait until something else opens up.
“I let the people in the party know that I am interested in a freeholder’s position, so at this time I’m not challenging the two that are going to represent the party," he said.