CLARK, NJ — State Sen. Nicholas Scutari was elected chairman of the Union County Democratic Committee after several weeks of campaigning against Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr that exposed deep-rooted alliances and party divisions within the county.
Scutari was elected 412-341 in a vote taken by paper ballot at the Gran Centurions in Clark on Feb. 21, according to Edward Kologi, a lawyer for the senator. The vote came about three weeks after state Assemblyman Jerry Green resigned from his post as the leader in the county party due to an undisclosed illness. Scutari represents Legislative District 22, which includes parts of Union, Somerset and Middlesex counties. Mahr, the committee’s vice chairwoman, served as acting chairwoman leading up to the election.
Despite the 71-vote difference among the committee’s members, Scutari and Mahr said they plan to work together to help the party succeed in November. The committee plays a pivotal role in local elections, as it decides which candidates appear on the endorsed Democratic lines on ballots.
“The Democratic Party is not just about one or two people,” Mahr said in a Feb. 22 phone call. “There were differences of opinions and differences of how the party should be led. But that’s what democracy is and that’s what America is.”
The vote came after a short legal battle over Mahr’s attempt to conduct the balloting in secret by voting machine, a move Scutari said was against the committee’s bylaws. Scutari said the vote should be an open ballot by a show of hands.
A chancery judge issued a preliminary injunction one day before the convention to bar a vote by machines and require an open ballot, Kologi said. Mahr said she tried to appeal Superior Court Judge Katherine Dupuis’ decision to a state appellate court, but her request was denied.
The vote was conducted by paper ballot, a decision Mahr said was hers since the judge did not specifically prohibit the method. Kologi said committee members were given paper ballots with their names printed on them. After each member had signed the ballot and checked off a box for either Scutari or Mahr, a delegate collected them to place into a box. The votes were then counted by Suplee, Clooney and Co., a Westfield-based accounting firm, Kologi said.
While Scutari took issue with the paper ballots, he said he does not plan any further legal action. The decision marks the end of a tense chapter for the committee.
“I have every intention of working with each and every one of them,” Scutari said of fellow committee members in a Feb. 23 phone call. “I wouldn’t say it caused any rift. Maybe it exposed some alliances, but it certainly showed the strength of the Democratic Party in Union County.”
Meanwhile, Hillside Democratic Committee Chairman Anthony Salters withdrew his own candidacy to lead of the committee two days before the convention to support Mahr.
“It was a bruising battle,” Salters said in a statement. “The election is over. Hillside wishes Chairman Scutari all the best. We are hopeful he will now unite the UCDC so we can progress forward. There were complaints during the campaign. I am sure he heard it. Now the real work begins.”
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead ran alongside Mahr to be vice chairman. Since Mahr did not win the election, she retained her post as vice chairwoman without having to be re-elected.
“I was disappointed that the election process was an open ballot because many people who were going to support Colleen felt threatened by revealing their names and vote,” Armstead said in a Feb. 22 statement. “As a former county employee, I personally understand the political intimidation tactics associated with an open ballot, especially, if your job security depends on your vote. So, some people had to pick between job security, harassment, friendship or conviction.”
He later added: “Finally, the results of the Union County Chair election, last night, show democracy at its finest, good or bad. At the end, we did elect a new chair. Moving forward, (Scutari) will continue to support me and the Linden Democratic ticket and include everyone during the process.”