CLARK, NJ – The vote for the Union County Democratic Committee (UCDC) chairmanship came to a conclusion Wednesday night when 748 committee members from the county’s 21 municipalities descended on the Gran Centurions in Clark to vote for their new party leader.
State Senator Nick Scutari came away with a 412-341 victory over Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr in a battle that had become quite contentious over the past three weeks with old political alliances being broken.
The candidates went to court on Tuesday over the way the voting would be handled. The Scutari camp argued that the party’s bylaws call for an open ballot. The Mahr camp argued that an open ballot created an environment in which voters could be intimidated and possibly be victims of retaliation if they did not vote the way that local party bosses wanted.
A group of Democrats supporting Nick 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 papers in Union County Superior Court to prevent the use of voting booths at the convention.
“The UCDC's rules are clear, and in violating them, she sows disruption and confusion at this meeting. People will not know whether to follow Ms. Mahr or follow the rules,” Rev. Atkins said.
Mahr called the machines "the best way… that voters are assured that they have a right to vote their true feelings."
In the end, Judge Katherine Dupuis ruled against the use of machine ballots. The ruling led to Anthony Salters of Hillside’s dropping out of the race and throwing his support behind Colleen Mahr. Following the decision, attorneys for Mahr and Scutari reached a compromise in which paper ballots were distributed to voters, who were instructed to mark and then sign their names to them, thus making the voting “open.”
“We are dealing with a historic moment here,” Mahr told the crowd. “We have not had a contested election in decades.”
Committee members had a half hour to sign and submit their ballots, which could be counted by delegation chairs before being sent to another room to be certified by auditors.
In the end, Scutari’s strength in Linden (69 voters), Elizabeth (113) and Plainfield (61) proved too much for Mahr, whose support came from nearby suburban towns such as Westfield and Cranford. Mahr’s campaign was hurt by the fact that many of neighboring Scotch Plains's committee voted for Scutari, who started off by thanking the township and Councilman John Del Sordi during his post-election remarks.
Scutari promised to “be the chairman of all 21 municipalities” in Union County and said “Colleen, you deserve all the praise in the world” before announcing that she would be his first vice chair.
While Mahr supporters were disappointed by the outcome, they were encouraged that the final tally was closer than they might have expected with the open ballot and that women in Union County now seem more willing to challenge the status quo.
“This is the way we do things in America (by voting),” said Linden Mayor Derek Armstead, who ran as Mahr's vice chair. “We don’t send in the tanks.”