UNION COUNTY, NJ — Democrats who did not have the traditional endorsement of their own party won — or came close — in a few local primary elections, showing what some called a split in several one-party municipalities.
An endorsement from the nearly 850-member Union County Democratic Committee is a big deal in politics. Candidates who get the endorsement usually receive more financial support and appear on the same line as other recognizable names in the party.
In Roselle, for example, John Fortuna and Brandon Bernier won the nomination for two council seats against the UCDC-endorsed incumbents. Bernier, an elected member of the UCDC, said his unofficial 129-vote win over Carla Walker in the 2nd Ward shows that an endorsement can never beat good, old-fashioned door knocking.
“Regarding the UCDC specifically, only time will tell how this affects the party,” Bernier said in an email when asked about the committee. “As an elected member of the committee as well, I can only hope that they begin to understand that supporting the best candidates and candidates that have proven the community is behind them is what is best for the party.”
And for Fortuna, even his 44-vote win over Samuel Bishop showed that the county party is “isolated” from voters in some respects, he said.
“The council was out of touch with the residents and I think it became apparent that they were serving the best interest of the residents,” Fortuna said, specifically excluding Denise Wilkerson and Cynthia Johnson, last year’s newcomers to council who were not supported by the UCDC either.
Walker and Bishop did not respond to a request for comment, and UCDC Executive Director Nick Fixmer did not respond to a voicemail asking about some candidate’s characterization of a divide in the party.
The two winning Democratic incumbents for the Township of Union municipal committee — Michele Delisfort and Manuel Figueiredo — had the UCDC endorsement and were challenged in the June 5 primary. They both participated in a rally the night before the primary with political heavyweights like U.S. Senator Bob Menendez and Tom Malinowski, who won the Democratic nomination to oppose Rep. Leonard Lance for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Michele and I are extremely humbled and honored and moreover proud of the residents of this town. Once again, they have proven that they will not be manipulated or divided,” Figueiredo said in a statement. “They have spoken loud and clear, and for the third time in 19 months they have shown that they will not be fooled by someone who takes their democratic values for granted and uses them opportunistically, and only when it suits him.”
The incumbents in the township faced off against former Union Board of Education President Ronnie McDowell and Jason Krychiw, who has run as an independent candidate in the past.
“…We were up against an efficient organization,” McDowell said in an email. “I still have respect for Manny and Michele and wish them well for the benefit of our town. No regrets for running as a Democrat because that’s what Jason and I are.”
Both McDowell and Krychiw were beaten by about a 10 percent margin in the primaries, unofficial results show. Krychiw said he lost by a much larger percentage when he ran as an independent challenging the incumbents during past general elections. To him, it was a smallgain.
“I always said, in a way, when we would campaign, it was less campaigning and more education,” Krychiw said, referring to how it was important to spread his platform to voters pushing for direct election of the mayor.
Three candidates ran for mayor in Linden, a city with a population of about 43,000. Derek Armstead, the incumbent, beat the UCDC’s endorsed candidate, 10th Ward Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey for the party’s nomination. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby also ran.
Unofficial results on June 11 showed that Armstead won with 3,846 votes, over Hickey's 2,405 votes. Cosby received 354 votes. When reached for comment, Hickey congratulated Armstead and said she would continue to be an advocate for the taxpayers. Cosby, who is black, was resentful that she was cast as a spoiler candidate who was working with Hickey to steal votes from Armstead.
“…[T]he regular Democratic Party chose not to support my campaign, spending the same — if not more — on their candidate who lost,” Cosby wrote in an email. “Couple that with the fact that the incumbent repeatedly published the lie that I was working with the third candidate to split/steal votes from him and he used the race card tactic very successfully to his advantage.”
While Armstead said he would work with Cosby and Hickey, who will both remain on city council, he also expressed frustration over state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the UCDC chair, kicking him off the endorsed line. Armstead was excluded from the line after he supported Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr for UCDC chair earlier this year.
“My support for the chairmanship should not have resulted in my not getting the Democratic organization line here in Linden, especially since I was the most qualified candidate and have been doing a good job as the mayor thus far,” Armstead wrote in an email. “What should have happened is that Chairman Scutari should have lived up to his words in his conciliatory speech the night of his appointment that the party should come together and begin moving forward.”
Two independents will challenge Armstead in November during the general elections.
The city clerk office confirmed that John Principato, who was promoted in 2015 to lieutenant in the city’s fire department, and Adam Kuczynski, a former city councilman, both have filed to run.