FANWOOD, NJ – In the Battle Royal of Fanwood Democrats, it’s two of the area’s best known political names going head-to-head in the June 4 Democratic primary: Mahr vs. Mirabella.
While they live just walking distance from each other, Union County Freeholder Al Mirabella and Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr couldn’t be farther apart. They are in a battle for control of the Democratic Committee in the borough.
For people not actively involved in local party politics, the question is Why?
According to Mirabella and his wife, Phyllis, who is running for the 6th District committee seat directly against Mayor Mahr, it’s about remaining loyal to the Regular Democratic Organization. (Fanwood is subdivided into 7 voting districts, each with one male and one female representative, for a total of 14.)
The seeds of this showdown were sown last year when 13 of the 14 Fanwood Democrats voted for Colleen Mahr to be the Union County Democratic chair. The lone dissenter was Al Mirabella, who supported State Senator Nick Scutari of Linden.
“I made one decision where I sided against her when I decided to back Nick Scutari for County chair, and she tried to throw me off the line,” Mirabella said during an in-person interview with TAP. “I’ve been loyal to the Democratic party for 30 years. The party is not just about one person.”
Mirabella maintains that the Regular Democratic line was offered to Mayor Mahr, and that she turned it down to run her own slate of candidates under Column B “People First Democrats.” He and Phyllis then put together a slate of candidates under Column A “Regular Democratic Organization” to run against the group, which includes current committee members.
“We are offering something different and are being inclusive. Al and I have been strong supporters of the Democratic party and have opened our home to many fundraisers over the years,” Phyllis Mirabella said. “This is not about one person, this is about diversity of opinion instead of the same candidates.”
“We are all Democrats, and we have to get ready for 2020. If we can’t get it together on the local level, we can’t help at the top (of the ticket),” added Phyllis, an outspoken critic of President Trump.
Al Mirabella feels that since he made the decision to back Scutari last year, he has been shut out by Mayor Mahr.
“I wasn’t invited to committee meetings,” he said. “She ‘ghosted’ me.”
Mirabella said that a few months ago Jack Molenaar, the local Fanwood Democratic chair, sent an email saying that he wouldn’t support the Regular Democratic Organization ticket. Molenaar is running for Freeholder under Column B in the June 4 primary.
“Last year’s election is carrying into 2019. Usually, everyone rallies around the winner after an election is over and moves forward. Colleen has not done that,” he said.
Members of the Mahr team and many of their supporters have been critical of the Column A slate of candidates that are running in Fanwood. They maintain that most of them are Union County employees – or their family members – who have been coerced into running in the primary. The topic has caused heated debate on social media.
“There are no facts to back that up. You can’t just fire people. It is patently false,” Mirabella said. “There are plenty of people who did not support Nick Scutari who are in government jobs, and they did not lose their jobs. What they’re claiming is untrue.”
Among the Regular Democratic Organization candidates, four of the 14 are currently Union County employees: Mark Brink, Union County Improvement Authority; Anita McNamara, Union County records manager; Al Mirabella, Union County Freeholder; and Phyllis Mirabella, Union County College, Director, Communications Center.
“They have left out the fact that members of their own slate have worked for the County – including Colleen Mahr, who had a job with the County, and Tom Plante, who worked for the County for many years,” Mirabella said.
The involvement of one Union County employee who is not on the Fanwood ballot has raised eyebrows: former Assemblywoman Linda Stender. Mahr supporters claim that Stender, who has been employed by the Union County Improvement Authority since she left elected office in 2015, actively recruited candidates to run against the Mayor and her team.
“Linda Stender is an elder statesman and has been a mentor to me,” Al Mirabella said. “Linda is an advisor to our ticket, and I am proud of that.”
Mirabella, who was recently inducted into the Freeholder Hall of Fame for his more than two decades of service, believes that the County government is not as unpopular as Mahr supporters claim it to be.
“County taxes are going down this year in Fanwood. I don’t feel a ‘negative’ County vibe,” the Freeholder said. “It’s an easy target, but Fanwood gets grants from the County every year. The County is doing a good job of supporting Fanwood. It’s hogwash.”
The Mirabellas have been canvassing their district knocking on doors and speaking with residents and expect the Column A candidates to be successful in the June 4 primarily.
“This is about diversity of ideas,” says Phyllis Mirabella, who has been spending her evenings asking her neighbors for their votes. “It’s not right to demonize County government. I won’t stand for it. Democrats need to be united, not torn apart, to go after Trump in 2020. I’m looking at the bigger picture.”
“Politics is baked inside of me. I’ve only been an elected official once (as a Roselle Park Councilperson), but I’ve campaigned with Al in every race he’s been in,” Phyllis said. “We are walking the neighborhood and getting positive feedback. We are raising money and putting campaign materials together. This is grassroots politics."