For the first few minutes on Tuesday night, as the early Democratic primary results trickled in, the campaign headquarters for Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty’s council slate had the feel of a hospital waiting room during a difficult delivery.
Whoops of relief greeted the final unofficial tally, which gave incumbents Michelle Dupree Harris and Toshiba Foster and their last-minute running mate, Michael Elms, a healthy victory over challengers Michael Pooler, Jessica Williamson and Tommy Alexander.
“Today was a very tense day. We were not sitting back for a single second. We were working hard from the beginning to the very end of the campaign,” said Michael Elms, a realtor appointed by the local Democratic committee to replace incumbent Kevin Gsellwhen he dropped out after the filing deadline in April.
The challengers tried to block that switch, but a Superior Court judge upheld it.
As of 10:43 pm Tuesday, numbers from the Morris County Clerk’s office showed Michelle, the council president, with 767 votes, followed by Toshiba with 748 and Michael Elms with 649.
Planning board member Michael Pooler was next with 385, followed by Jessica, from the town environmental commission, with 295 and Tommy, the town’s former human services director, with 279. No Morristown Republicans filed for the primary.
The Mayor, who was unopposed in the primary, had 963 votes. He will face a challenge in November from Republican Rich Babcock, who got enough write-in votes Tuesday to land on the ballot for the fall.
“It was an intense day,” Mayor Dougherty said of the primary. “I’m glad it’s over and we can move onto the November election.”
He acknowledged the challengers for a hard-fought primary, but said his slate’s message resonated with voters.
“The town, as a whole, feels like we’re moving in the right direction,” the Mayor said.
“I think the message was exactly what we ran on four years ago. We kept our commitment with the master plan. We’ve kept our commitment to being transparent. We’re an open government. We communicate… [We’ve had] smart and prudent finances. All the things you’re supposed to do as a government.”
The Mayor thanked his wife Mary, who chairs the town Democratic committee, and praised Toshiba Foster for tenacious campaigning.
He also claimed united support from the Latino community, which he called an historic first.
Town Attorney Vij Pawar went a step further.
“This was a resounding victory, in all wards and all districts. Voters are happy with the way things are going in Morristown, and they just want to go forward and continue doing good things,” he said.
It was a bittersweet triumph for Michelle Dupree Harris, whose father died over the weekend. She was with family members in North Carolina; victory speeches began with a moment of silence for her.
As a councilman, Michael Elms said his top priorities will be addressing public concerns about traffic, overdevelopment, crime, preserving neighborhoods and holding the line on taxes.
Ed Correa, head of a recently formed coalition called UNO, issued a statement on behalf of the challengers:
“The campaign of Alexander/Pooler/Williamson would like to congratulate the Dougherty Team in this Primary Election Night. It was a remarkable experience for our candidates and we are proud of our campaign. We also thank those who voted for our team. We are looking forward to continue organizing our community based on the issues . For our movement, this is just the beginning in Morristown.”
‘STILL A LOT TO TALK ABOUT’
Rich Babcock asserted low voter turnout on Tuesday was a sign that people feel disenfranchised.
“There’s still a lot to talk about and discuss,” said Rich, 50, who works for ADT Security. “I want to look at the way we manage and lead the town. It could be run in a much more collaborative way, with a more inclusive approach to all issues, to get more voices than we normally hear. There are a lot of disenfranchised people we never hear from.”
The decision to mount a write-in campaign, instead of filing for the Republican primary, was a tactical decision, said Rich, the town’s GOP vice chairman.
“Now that we’re on the general election ballot, it’s all an equal playing field. Who cares how we got there?” he said.
November’s mayoral race will have a personal element. Rich, a former council candidate, unsuccessfully sued the town in 2010 attempting to force Vij Pawar to report 2008 campaign contributions under the town’s anti-pay-to-play law.
Another write-in candidate, meanwhile, came up short on Tuesday.
Over the weekend a mystery mailing stirred the pot by asking Republicans to write in former Mayor Donald Cresitello — a Democrat running for Morris County Freeholder–for mayor.
Donald told the Daily Record the mailing was not his idea. It did not generate enough write-ins on Tuesday to qualify him for a re-match against Tim Dougherty, who unseated him four years ago in the Democratic primary.
The evening ended with a touch of symbolism. The victors celebrated at the Iron Horse, only a couple of doors away from Sona Thirteen. Relatives of that bar’s owners had publicly backed Jessica Williamson’s campaign.