Democratic women make big strides in Mendhams, Chesters, Harding

By PHIL GARBER Observer-Tribune Managing Editor 11.13.17

Women and Democrats have long been a difficult combination when it comes to toppling dominant Republicans in area elections.

That didn’t deter Kris Grasso, Rachel Marlowe, Roni Fernandez, Rhonda Allen, Kate Barry, Amalia Duarte, Stacy Strum, Darcy Draeger, Kristin Berkinsky and Laura Montenegro who all ran for office in the Nov. 7 general election.

Only Duarte won her race for a three-year post on the Mendham Township Committee but each of the candidates had respectable vote totals and each said they made a difference in their towns. Not coincidentally, Duarte also was the only woman who did not face off against an incumbent.

They were among a record crop of women Democrats who were on the ballot for municipal offices.

“We got the door open,” said Fernandez who ran for a three-year seat in Washington Township. “Our voice is getting louder.”

The gubernatorial victory of Democrat Phil Murphy over Republican Kim Guadagno along with the election of 23 state senate seats and 56 assembly seats and the election of a Democratic governor and many state legislative posts in Virginia are considered the nation’s first major repudiations of the policies of Republican President Donald Trump. It remained unclear if the voter turnouts for Democrats in local elections was a reflection of the same anger.

The surge in Democrats in the county played out on a gubernatorial level as Republicans gave far less support to Guadagno than they did for Chris Christie in 2013. In the latest contest, 53.13 percent of Morris County voters went for Guadagno and 44.98 percent voted for Murphy.

In 2013, Republican Christie gained 70 percent of the votes in Morris County, compared with just 28.19 percent for Democrat Barbara Buono.

Grasso and Rachel Marlowe joined with fellow Democrats Matt Fink and Jim Buell to challenge for four seats on the Mount Olive Township Council.

Fernandez ran for the Township Committee in Washington Township. Allen and Kate Barry ran in the GOP stronghold of Harding Township.

Stacy Strum ran in Chester and Darcy Draeger was a candidate for the Chester Township Council. And in Mendham, Democrats Kristin Berkinsky and Laura Montenegro were on the ballot.

In all, 11 Democrats won seats this year around Morris County that were formerly held by the Republicans. The last time Democrats won in the double digits was in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Last year, the Democrats won nine seats. In 2015, they won one and in 2014, they lost a seat.

“A lot of candidates came out after Donald Trump won,” said Chip Robinson, chair of the Morris County Democratic Committee. “They were banging down the doors to get involved.”

In Mount Olive, Robinson said there was essentially no functioning Democratic Committee. That also changed with the Trump election and the work of the new township Democratic chairwoman, Shelly Morningstar.

“There has been a large shift of well-educated women away from Donald Trump. As long as Donald Trump is in the White House, it will continue to accelerate,” Robinson said.

Other Democratic women elected around the county included Kathy Wilson in Morris Township; Carmela Vitale was re-elected in Madison; Emily Peterson and Janice McCarthy were elected in Parsippany; and Edina Renfro Michel was elected in Boonton.

Mendham Township

Duarte gained 1,198 votes or 54.31 percent of the vote compared with Republican Rick Blood who got 1,008 votes or 45.69 percent.

She said she won because of the issues and because enough voters ignored party labels and voted for her. Her support was enough to overcome a last minute letter from four GOP Township Committee members backing Flood. They included Mayor Diana Orben Brown, Frank Cioppettini, Chris Baumann and Rich Diegnan Jr. Republican Committeeman Warren Gisser did not sign the letter.

“The reason I won is I spoke to local issues that resonated across the political spectrum, including recreation, shared services and open government,” Duarte said. “I worked extremely hard.”

Washington Township

Fernandez picked up 2,313 votes or 39.66 percent of the vote. Incumbent Matthew Murello won 3,517 votes or 60.31 percent.

Fernandez was the first woman Democrat to ever run for office in the township. The last women on the Township Committee were both Republicans, Kim Ball Kaiser and Margaret Nordstrom, who served at the turn

of the century. Kevin Nedd was on the committee as an independent although he ran for re-election as a Democrat in 2008 and lost.

“I absolutely wanted to win,” Fernandez said. “We had a top notch campaign and got 40 percent of the vote. I didn’t win but I don’t feel like we lost.”

Like the other women, Fernandez said she was prompted to consider running after the Trump election.

She said the Republicans told voters that a vote for the Democrats and Murphy would mean higher taxes and that Murphy would make New Jersey a sanctuary state.

“There is definitely racism here,” Fernandez said. “Some people are just ignorant.”

Fernandez doesn’t know if she’ll run again but said she wants to work against the “huge issues” of opioid abuse and bullying.

Harding Township

Observers could not remember the last time, if ever, a Democrat served on the Harding Township Committee,let alone a Democratic woman. Asked why

so many women Democrats and women ran this year, Allen had four words: “Donald Trump. One-hundred percent.”

“Someone’s got to do something,” said Allen. “I worked hard for Hillary (Clinton) and I was sickened on how they attacked her.”

Allen said her anger has been further generated by the continuing accusations of sexual assault around the country.

“We can’t stop,” Allen said.

She said she was surprised at the level of anger directed at her and her running mate in Harding.

She specifically took issue with a letter to the editor from Township Committeeman Nicholas Platt, in which he referred to the Democrats as “remarkably transparent, in fact invisible.”

At a debate between the Democrats and Republicans, one older man stood and shouted at the Democrats demanding to know how they thought they had the right to run for the Township Committee when they

had not participated on any local boards. His angry comments were met with boos from some audience members.

Meanwhile, Allen recalled, the debate moderator, ironically a woman, continually referred to them as “girls” until members of the 60-member audience objected.

“Enough is enough,” said Allen.

She said she hasn’t decided if she’ll run again but said she and Barry made a difference.

“I think we made an impact by just being on the ballot,” she said.

Allen said she hopes the energy continues through next year to defeat 12-term congressman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11.

“A lot of people are horrified at how he’s aligning to Trump,” Allen said.

Allen got 487 votes or 16.71 percent and her running mate, Kate Barry won 482 votes or 16.54 percent. Incumbent Republican Dev Modi won 973 votes or 33.38 percent and Christopher yates got 969 or 33.24 percent.


Mendham was a close contest for two, three-year seats on the Borough Council

Democrats Kristin Berkinsky got 823 votes or 22.38 percent and her running mate, Laura Montenegro collected 831 votes or 22.59 percent for two. They were edged out by incumbent Republicans John W. Andrews with 1,041 votes or 28.3 percent and Brad Badal with 979 votes or 26.62 percent.

In Chester, Democrat Stacy Strum was competitive in her race for one of two, three-year Borough Council seats. Strum got 237 votes or 26.93 percent while Republican incumbents Timothy Iversen won 296 votes or 33.64 percent and Gary W. Marshuetz had 342 votes or 38.86 percent.

In the race for two, three-year seats on the Chester Township Council, Democrat Darcy Draeger was competitive with 931 votes or 22.65 percent. Republicans Derek Moore had 1,506 votes or 36.64 percent and Michael Inganamort won 1,651 votes or 40.17 percent.

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