Three Somerset County Democrats hope to succeed outgoing Chairman Elia Pelios tomorrow.
Peg Schaffer, Mike Ceponis and Rebecca Perkins all hope to reinvigorate the party, which has struggled over the last couple decades to overcome complete Republican domination.
Schaffer, who’s backed by Pelios, appears to be the favorite, with state Democratic sources saying they expect her to be the next chairwoman. But her opponents have used that against her, saying that electing her to the top position will essentially be a continuation of the last 10 years under Pelios.
Ceponis was the county’s last Democratic freeholder. He served two terms before being unseated by future Gov. Christie Whitman in 1982.
“I’m the only one who beat the Republicans at their game,” he said.
According to Ceponis, Schaffer’s backers are largely the same as Pelios’s – those who have received what few plum government positions the party has to offer.
“Some of these people who are hanging in there in the cozy nests of complacency with their little nests and little titles have not done their jobs,” he said. “The same group that’s been in there year and year out and has produced no victories. I just don’t understand their tenacious hold on the positions.. This party, in order to be successful, has to open its doors.”
Ceponis said that the party needs to begin building on the municipal level before it can look to realistically unseat Republicans at the county level. But he sees the failure of Democrats to capitalize on the Somerset County Parks Commission scandal last year as evidence that the old ways are outdated.
Ceponis said that Pelios should have resigned after the party was fined $28,000 for improperly reporting campaign contributions.
“If they want to continue with the same old same old they can continue. They can wake up and remember how closet hey came every Wednesday morning after the election,” he said.
Perkins, who ran a close race for freeholder in 1999, and has been active in Somerset County politics for two decades, is running on essentially the same platform as Ceponis. Like him, she’s tired of losing.
“The Republicans don’t win elections in Somerset County. We lose them. We’re not organized on a municipal level, county level – we’ve done nothing to raise funds. We recruit excellent candidates and hang them out to dry,” she said.
Perkins said that she doesn’t think Pelios has done a bad job, but that the party hasn’t done enough to capitalize on the county’s demographic shifts, which should work in Democrats’ favor.
Perkins also wants to improve the party’s internet presence, noting that the Web site hasn’t been updated since last year’s freeholder races. As the founder of a public policy firm that concentrates on strategic communications, she argued that she’s in a unique position to do that.
“That’s Communications 101 — that you have a functioning web site. I would hope to use YouTube. I think the Obama campaign is a real model for how to use the internet for campaigns,” she said.
Schaffer, the municipal chairwoman for Bedminster Township, argues that she’s been in the county committee for 10 years – longer than Ceponis, who she said disappeared from the political scene for a long time, and Perkins.
“I like to stress the positive of what Elia has done. It is Somerset County after all. I think at this point we’ve built an organization,” she said.
Schaffer pointed to her own work in Bedminster Township, where she helped elect a Democrat Sally Rubin to the Township Committee – even if she switched to become a Republican a year and a half later.
Schaffer said that her primary focus will be on improving the organization’s fundraising, and noted that she served on Hillary Clinton’s National Finance Committee and was successful in raising money for Bedminster candidates.
One thing she’d do differently than Pelios is fill five vacant slots for regional vice-chairs.
“If I could fault Elia for anything, it was that he was trying to be all things to all people,” she said. “It would be easier if he had more people working to help him.”