MANVILLE – Their high energy level indicates they believe they have a shot with a new map, but the Somerset County Democratic Organization’s sense of the passage of time is not unlike President Barack Obama’s.
Both live with the constant, nagging reminder that it’s no longer 2008.
That was the year Obama won Somerset, when Chair Peg Schaffer opened her party’s headquarters in the rarified Republican climes of the Martinsville section of Bridgewater, in the heart of enemy territory.
Then-GOP Chairman Dale Florio never appeared overly ruffled, but he was alert to Democrats on offense and undertook an aggressive counter-offensive.
While Obama won, the real objective for the Dems here in this Route 22 bifurcated county was to win a freeholder seat, and when that didn’t happen, Schaffer and company retreated and decamped in more Democrat-friendly Somerville. The 2009 objective remained the same: get a party boot hold on the freeholder board.
Running under the Jon Corzine banner, however, the freeholder candidates not only lost but were buried, a deep-six message personally delivered to the Dems by Chris Christie.
County Vice Chair Zenon Christodoulou remembers receiving that Election Night phone call from the front in Manville, supposedly a Democratic performance town.
“That’s when I knew Christie had beaten Corzine, when I heard the numbers out of Manville,” Christodoulou later told friends.
2010 carried the promise of playing on voter angst over Christie suburban school aid cuts, but that came and went with little trending the right way for Team Schaffer.
So now it’s 2011 and Thursday night the rattled but still standing party organization rallied around local mayoral candidate Angelo Corradino.
A mayor who served for 16 years before getting stunned in 2007, an upset he lost by 84 votes, Corradino’s a local legend in the party (even though he once voted for Nixon over Kennedy).
“I thought he was the better man,” he once told a reporter with a shrug.
On one level, the recalibrated goal is to just get Corradino re-elected and start the rebuilding process over again in the south-of-22. one-time asbestos factory town.
But on another level, Democrats here – and there was no discounting the high octane in the room – have the stated public objective of turning the newly redistricted 16th Legislative District into a real contest as they field a team that includes Hunterdon County art teacher Marie Corfield for an Assembly seat.
She’s the teacher who earned a cameo in Christie’s YouTube greatest hits when she scrapped with him over education cuts in Raritan.
“We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore,” said Corfield.
The candidates’ sprinkled their speeches with talking points: “Republicans chose to protect the 16k in the state that make over one million dollars at the expense of the rest of the almost 9 million (approx 8.8m) New Jersey residents.
“While Republicans espouse ‘shared sacrifice,’ they continue to protect the state’s 16,000 most wealthy residents at the expense of the middle class.
Of the nearly $50 million ($49,785,239) in funding for public safety in the Democrat’s budget that the Governor line item vetoed and Republicans failed to override, the 16th District lost over $500,000; and when the Governor did his line item vetoes on the Democrat’s budget (A-4200) and the Republican Senate failed to provide the votes to override the vetoes, the 16th District lost over $37 million ($37,134,995) in education aid.”
But this is state Sen. Kip Bateman’s (R-16) district, which for ten years had been a picture of Somerset County coherence, until the new map turned it into an octupus for the GOP and sent two wayward arms projecting southward: one into Princeton Township and another into South Brunswick, two Democratic burghs.
“Unbelieveable what they did to this district,” veteran Assemblyman Pete Biondi, (R-16), Hillsborough, told PolitickerNJ.com a few weeks ago. Complicating matters for Democrats is the popular, affable presence on the GOP ticket of Somerset Freeholder Jack Ciatterelli, who easily won the Republican Primary despite an anonyomous coordinated robocall campaign to confuse voters.
While beset with ill will in his own neighboring county for trying to craft a district that would have catapulted him into a Senate chair above two sitting Democratic senators who angrily concluded he was trying to bury at least one of them for his own benefit, state Party Chairman John Wisniewski was wecolmed here as the hero who executed a new vision for the long-embattled Somerset Democrats.
“Our state party chair created a district for us that is actually winnable,” Schaffer told the crowd packed into the office on downtown Main Street in Manville, right in front of the still-standing bowling alley and across from the diner.
“He’s there to make sure the Falstaff of Drumthwacket gets his comeuppance.”
The party chair took the mike from Schaffer and went for the local gesture, gesturing to Joe Patero standing in a crowd that also included former Orange Mayor Joel Shain.
“Years ago I worked as a driver for 17th District Assemblyman Dave Schwartz,” recalled Wisniewski. “And I remember driving to Manville to visit then Assemblyman-Patero. He looked a lot taller then.”
The chairman let go with a stem-winder.
“I voted no on pension healthcare reform,” Wisniewski yelled to applause. “Look, we’re Democrats, and we’re Democrats for a reason. Government is a tool to help other people. When you look at what the Democratic Party has done, we’ve created a middle class by creating opportunity for people to go to college.
“I don’t apologize for that vote,” he added.
Sustained cheers greeted the remarks.
“This is a district where we can pick up three legislators,” Wisniewski insisted.
In the courtyard after his speech, PolitickerNJ.com asked Wisniewski why anyone, even Democrats, would want more Democrats in office. The Legislature’s already lopsided in their favor and Christie still apparently does whatever he wants.
What’s the difference?
“Seventy percent of the Democrats in the Legislature voted against pension benefits reform,” said the state party chairman.
Back in the small, packed room, following speeches by Corfield and fellow Assembly candidate Joe Camarota of South Brunswick, state Senate challenger Maureen Vella of Hillsborough received her biggest applause line – and maybe the biggest applause line of the night – when she channeled Hillary Clinton’s opening slogan from her 2008 presidential campaign.
“I’m in it to win it,” said Vella, who’s knocked on doors for two months even as party insiders in the room muttered that there’s no way she’s beating Bateman.
The cascade of cheers were code for Obama angst.
Circulating the room before the speeches, PolitickerNJ.com threw the president’s name out there in conversation and met with off the record harassed looks and hand wringing.
In the end it was about Corradino, the veteran, who’s given the best shot to win. The Republican who beat him lost the primary.
“In this county,” Schaffer admitted, “it’s going to come from the bottom up.”