Charged up by the presidential race, Democrats believe they can storm GOP freeholder strongholds in at least three counties this year: Somerset, Burlington and Monmouth.
While the Democratic Party has chopped away in sections at county freeholder seats in Monmouth and now is one win away from obtaining a majority, Somerset and Burlington remain elusive Republican bulwarks for the Democrats, who see Monmouth as a model.
The election this week of a new Democratic Party chair in Somerset brought forth fighting words from those party members long schooled in living under Republican rule, and prompted the obligatory GOP reply that for all the updates on Democratic Party registration, the county remains red.
Lifelong Democrat Peg Schaffer grew up in Union, served as assistant city attorney and municipal prosecutor in East Orange and works as municipal attorney in Monroe. The new county Democratic Party chair has a background in fund-raising and organizing that includes work most recently for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
"I know how to campaign," said the Bedminster lawyer, who won on first ballot on Tuesday night to succeed Elia Pelios.
"Elia tried to do a whole lot himself," said the new chair. "I may not be as nice a person as he, but I will put people to work. I have soldiers who work for me. Right now, I am focused on filling up the appointed vice-chair spots."
Elected on Tuesday night as the organization’s only non-appointed vice chair, Zenon Christodoulousaid changing demographics have brought the Democrats’ registration numbers to 47,000, or just 1,000 shy of the 48,000 registered Republicans in Somerset, historically one of New Jersey’s most Republican counties.
"Our biggest hurdle has been psychological," said the Branchburg resident, who has a background in organizational management and, like Schaffer, is a member of the Group, the New Jersey fund-raising arm of the Clinton presidential campaign.
"The most important thing now is a continuation of the momentum of energy in our organization," Christodoulou added.
Fund-raising will be a big part of Schaffer’s and Christodoulou’s effort, as they try to catch up to the Republicans’ considerable advantages in that area, and pull votes in Somerset not only for their freeholder candidates and Obama but for 7th Congressional District candidate Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Fanwood).
They'll also be trying to capture the attention of State Party Chairman Joseph Cryan and the statewideorganization'sfinancial apparatus as Cryan also considers the other counties where he sees opportunity.
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If Somerset County Republican Chairman Dale Florio is concerned about Schaffer and the Democrats, he doesn’t let on in a telephone interview, and said the Feb. 5 feeding frenzy of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supporters won’t translate significantly to the general election ballot box.
"People who vote Democrat anyway registered so they could participate in a primary," said Florio. "For them to say now that the numbers have evened up and they’re closing, I’m not sure it passes the laugh test."
Florio predicts large numbers of Republican and unaffiliated, Republican-leaning voters will come out in force for Sen. John McCain on Election Day. A concerted anti-Obama, anti-Stender effort in this Republican base county will doom county level Democrats, said Florio.
"The bigger voter turnout the better," the GP chairman said. "Big elections help us, that’s historically been the case. John McCain is good standard-bearer, and the people in Somerset respond very well to him."
The Somerset County freeholder contest features Republican incumbents Peter Palmer and Rob Zaborowski looking to repel Democratic challengers, Montgomery Mayor Cecilia Birge and North Plainfield Councilman Doug Singleterry.
Burnishing their anti pay-to-play reforms at the local level, Birge and Singeltary mean to make the Somerset County Park Commission scandal a scalding issue for the incumbents. Last year, three park commissioners resigned amid news they had awarded no-bid contracts and used taxpayer dollars for private trips.
"The freeholders’ attitude is ‘mission accomplished,’ but this year alone there was a no-bid contract from the park commission to the mayor of Somerville, a Republican," said Singleterry.
Florio said the attack won’t work.
"That was last year, and the freeholders took the appropriate steps to deal with the problem," the Republican Party chairman said. "If that’s all the Democrats have to talk about, we’re in pretty good shape. I’d grasp for any spin I could make if I were them."