A Cresitello referendum in Morristown

MORRISTOWN –Three challengers in the Morristown municipal race tell a story about how they walk halfway up a voter’s driveway, eager to make their pitch, when the homeowner waves them off and says, “I don’t care who you are, I’m voting for you. Just make sure you get him the hell out of there.”

The "him"in question is Mayor Donald Cresitello, running for his second straight term in a row in the June 2nd Democratic Primary with a team of incumbents that includes At-Large Council President Anthony Cattano and At-Large Councilman John Cryan (cousin of Democratic State Chairman Joe Cryan).

Whatever other dynamics exist – the bad overall economy, a general voter dissatisfaction with incumbents, or new pay-to-play reforms regulating the way candidates can raise money – this contest comes down to a referendum on Cresitello, that sometimes lovable, sometimes irascible creature of politics.

“Tax increases in Morristown have been zero, zero and 1.7% over the course of the last three years – that’s two percent less than any other Morris County town in 16 years,” says the mayor, 63, sitting in his campaign headquarters cattycorner to a fenced-off condo project, where the sounds of hardhat labor spill into the plaza.

But while that ratable-generating development project and others give the mayor’s town the impressive appearance of forging ahead even in the midst of an economic downturn, count At-Large Councilwoman Michelle Harris-King among those who came to see Cresitello as hopelessly incorrigible and a proponent of building that doesn’t often mesh with Morristown.

“He doesn’t work the community,” she says as she walks on Elm Street in the 1st Ward with mayoral candidate Tim Dougherty and council candidate Kevin Gsell. “He’s a dictator. He’s yelled at me in public just as he has others. He doesn’t care about being disrespectful to people, and he’s given the town away to developers.”

A 12-year veteran of the council, Harris-King abandoned the Cresitello line to join forces with Dougherty and Gsell – a local restaurant owner, or cabaret owner, in Cresitello’s words. “I’ve won off the line before,” she says. “I would lose if I stayed on the line this time with Donald.”

The three challengers crowd onto the porch of yet another home and when the door swings open, Harris-King tells the homeowner, “We need to get Kevin elected to form that fourth vote on the Council to give us a majority, and we need a new mayor.”

The 50-year old Dougherty affably shakes hands. A chief engineer at the Prudential Center in Newark, confidante of Assemblyman/labor leader Thomas Giblin (D-Montclair) and former city councilman who’s married to the local Democratic Party chairwoman here, he had a rough couple of opening weeks as he tried to launch his campaign, floundered as he lost some good infrastructure early, did some soul-searching to determine if he truly wanted to go toe-to-toe with a mongoose like Cresitello, then joined with Harris-King and decided finally to go full-bore.

“We don’t want eight to ten-story buildings in town,” Dougherty says. “Residents are not in favor of that kind of development.”

“Donald doesn’t follow a process,” concurs Harris-King, who notably opposed Cresitello’s initial efforts to site a public works garage in the 2nd Ward, which the mayor has subsequently said he wants to locate in neighboring Hanover Twp.

She tells stories about how Cresitello will regularly drop projects into her lap and expect her to vote “aye” that same night. When she won’t do it, he lashes out. “Donald said it all when he was quoted as saying, ‘You’re either with me or you’re against me,’” says Dougherty, who promises to be a mayor who listens to the residents.

Cresitello’s headquarters stands at one corner of the Morristown Green in a $2,500-a month rented storefront that Dougherty sought for his own digs, only to get outbid by the mayor and left to settle for a space across the street farther removed from the green.

“This guy Dougherty’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t have the courage to finish what I started. I have certain business acumen, and he doesn’t,” says Cresitello, who nonetheless projects the nervous intensity of someone convinced he faces a serious threat.

“If Timmy’s so worried about process, he ought to consider the fact that he’s the chair of the zoning board and his wife is the chair of the planning board,” he says.

But his arguments against Dougherty aside – and these include Cresitello’s chief broadside to date, a story about how his opponent made multiple improvements to his property without obtaining the required permits from City Hall – Cresitello’s controversial in a Democratic Primary, and he knows it. There was the rally two years ago when he denounced some counter protesters as Marxists and communists when they questioned his advocacy of federal agents cracking down on undocumented workers (the Latino population here forms about 27% of the population). There was his doomed candidacy for the U.S. Senate last year in which he collected ten percent of the vote and still broods on higher office. And there is the counter argument to Cresitello that former Mayor Jay Delaney championed most of the revenue-generating development in Morristown.

Cresitello sits amid the bunting and finery under a giant American Flag flanked by two pictures of President Barack Obama. He knows what’s out there in the African-American community, which forms about 17% of the population in Morristown: the story about how he ordered a picture of Obama removed from a public building, a non-story, he points out, as he was simply following the law.

“Obama was a candidate at the time and a woman wanted to put his picture up within 100 ft. of a polling place,” he says. “I removed it and she put it up again.”

He shrugs.

“Look, I had an Obama sign on my lawn, a sticker on my car, a sticker my wife’s car, I spoke for him on the green, I prevailed on people I know to vote for him and I voted for him, but I’m the mayor, and a picture of Obama wasn’t going on the wall in violation of a municipal ordinance,” says Cresitello, who as of the 4th of this month had raised $37,100 for his campaign, spent 23,061, and has $14,038 in the bank, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Contributors include attorney Al DeCotiis, who has the municipal attorney’s contract in Morristown, and local businessmen Ben and Anthony Scotto, who gave $2,600 apiece, and local union support.

According to ELEC, Dougherty did not file his latest report.

“If he can’t file his ELEC report, how can he run a town as complex as Morristown?” cracks Cresitello.

As for those who say he’s taking undue credit for the building surge in his town, Cresitello, a contractor himself going back to when he started his own business as a teenager, says as mayor he has contributed numerous changes in negotiations to projects on behalf of the town. “I don’t steal other people’s ideas and take credit for them,” says Cresitello. “I take their ideas and implement them.”

A Cresitello referendum in Morristown