A special Union County Democratic Convention at the Gran Centurions in Clark ousted Acting Chair Colleen Mahr from the perch she gained as vice-chair when former party boss Jerry Green suddenly announced his resignation.
Mahr, who is the Fanwood Mayor, became acting chair of the Union County Democratic Committee (UCDC) after Assemblyman Jerry Green resigned from the post, but she could not fend off state Senator Nick Scutari (D-22).
Of 844 county committee members eligible to vote, 753 attended the meeting to install Scutari as the successor to Green, who remains an assemblyman representing the 22nd District, by a vote of 412-341.
Mahr scored a victory heading into the convention as another contender, Hillside Chairman Anthony Salters, dropped out of the race and endorsed her, but his votes were not enough to tilt the race.
The chairs of Democratic and Republican parties in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties wield significant power, leading organizations that essentially control candidate selection in areas where nominations by the prevailing faction are tantamount to election.
Linden voted 50 to 20 for Scutari, inflicting a blow to Mayor Derek Armstead, who joined Mahr’s campaign as a candidate for vice-chair.
Armstead’s action puts his own future in peril, as he must win the Democratic nomination to stay in office.
Scutari could return the favor by awarding the vaunted party line to Councilwoman Rashonna Cosby Hurling, who was selected as the organization candidate four years ago when Freeholder Chris Hudak was the chairman of the Linden Democratic Committee
Armstead defeated Cosby Hurling, by a vote of 1,649 to 1,509, but a third contender, Michael Puzio, took 689 ballots, or almost five times the margin of victory.
The contest for county leadership was viewed as a proxy war between Scutari and newly elected District 20 state Senator Joseph Cryan, who returned to his $140,000 job as undersheriff after three years as sheriff.
While serving as a member of the General Assembly, Cryan held the administrative post for eleven years before Sheriff Ralph Froehlich died in July 2014.
Cryan began political infighting with former state Senator Raymond Lesniak, whose retirement made it possible for his return to the Legislature, because he resented the senior statesman’s alliance with Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney is a minion of South Jersey political boss George Norcross, who stymied efforts to resist Republican Governor Chris Christie.
“Nick and I will have peace,” Armstead told InsiderNJ. “We will have peace out of our sheer abilities to fight each other.
“Nick and I are in equal footing,” said Armstead. “He may be the senator and local chair, but I’m the mayor, and I certainly feel I have the support I need to deal with him. I could’ve had an easy run as mayor, but I don’t feel the chairman of Linden has done a good job.”
Now head of both the city and county party organization, Scutari also chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee in addition to holding a $75,000 job as Linden municipal prosecutor.
Scutari’s chief of staff, Ed Oatman, appears slated to become the county manager and with the voting lines now known, the political establishment will have a chance to consolidate power as well as moving to isolate those who threatened to upset their plans.
Councilwoman Michele Yamakaitis, who is slated to join Armstead’s ticket as a contender for council president, also endorsed the loser in the county chair battle.
Before the balloting, Superior Court Judge Katherine Dupuis ruled for Scutari, who argued that the party by-laws required a roll call vote by town.
Democrats supporting Scutari — Louisa Bianco, of Scotch Plains; the Rev. Reginald Atkins, of Roselle; Lourdes Leon, of Elizabeth; Freeholder Bruce Bergen, of Springfield; and Kimberly Palmieri-Mouded of Westfield — filed a lawsuit to prevent Mahr from using voting machines instead.
Ultimately, a secret ballot was conducted by members writing their vote choices on paper ballots tallied by each municipal leader as a compromise agreed upon by both sides.
Roselle Park, Cranford, Westfield, Union, Hillside, and other suburban towns tended to back Mahr while Scutari clearly dominated in the cities of Elizabeth, Linden, Rahway, and Plainfield.
Attorneys for Scutari asked County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi, a Democrat, to rule on challenges over the eligibility of some committee members who wanted to vote in the special election.
They said elected Roselle Park Committeeman Martin Kiernan was illegally removed for failure to attend local party meetings, and that Heath Lamont Stephen in Union and Natalie Exum in Hillside no longer reside at the addresses from which they were elected.
Scutari team also challenged appointed county committee members from Westfield and Clark who were named to fill vacancies in violation of procedures in the party bylaws.
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