Democrats Wilson and Arvanites break GOP grip on Morris Township committee

John Arvanites and Cathy Wilson celebrate at Morris County Democratic Headquarters after winning seats on the Morris Township Committee, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
John Arvanites and Cathy Wilson celebrate at Morris County Democratic Headquarters after winning seats on the Morris Township Committee, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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The fourth try was the charm for Cathy Wilson, who on Tuesday finally won the right to sit on the Morris Township Committee dais, instead of videotaping it from the audience.

“I’m feeling in shock,” Wilson said after she and fellow Democrat John Arvanites defeated Republican Committeewoman Louise Johnson and her running mate, Nicole Saphier, to crack the all-GOP governing body.

John Arvanites greets Cathy Wilson with a hug after their victorious Morris Township Committee race, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
John Arvanites greets Cathy Wilson with a hug after their victorious Morris Township Committee race, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The victors were greeted by whoops and hollers in Morristown at Morris County Democratic Headquarters, a place experiencing unbridled jubilation for the first time in memory.

Although they did not win any freeholder or legislative seats, Democrats scored victories in local races in Morristown, Parsippany, Chatham, Madison and Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s hometown, Mendham.

County Democratic Chairman Chip Robinson chalked up the successes to public frustration with Christie and President Donald Trump.

Morris County Democratic Chairman Chip Robinson congratulates Cathy Wilson after her Morris Township committee victory, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morris County Democratic Chairman Chip Robinson congratulates Cathy Wilson after her Morris Township committee victory, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It drove people into our office the day after [Trump] won,” Robinson said, with a smile so big his face seemed in danger of breaking.  “I can’t even count how many seats we won all over the county.”

Wilson and Arvanites each got 26 percent of the vote (rounded); their opponents each came in around 24 percent, according to unofficial results from the Morris County Clerk’s Office.

It was believed to be the first double victory by Democrats in a municipality that has been solidly red for as long as anyone can remember. Lately, however, Democrats have been closing the gap on Republicans, according to voter registration numbers.

John Arvanites and Cathy Wilson, after clinching seats on the Morris Township committee, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
John Arvanites and Cathy Wilson, after clinching seats on the Morris Township committee, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Wilson, a retired educator, said the difference for her this time was an exhausting door-to-door campaign.

“My first priority is, I need sleep,” she said. Wilson is the Township’s Democratic chair, and her long crusade for a more open government even led her to start webcasting committee meetings.

“I knocked on doors and talked to people and listened to their concerns and had conversations with them. Repeatedly. Over and over. All over the whole town,” she said.

“They also want a mix of views. They’re tired of the one-party monopoly in a town like ours.”

Wilson said she plans to ask many of them to serve on new advisory groups, for seniors issues, transportation, green space and taxes.

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“Our message was crisp, concise, we kept it positive. That, I think was the formula to success,” said Arvanites, adding kudos to a hard-working campaign team.

Badge worn by Cathy Wilson, Committeewoman-elect in Morris Township, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Badge worn by Cathy Wilson, Committeewoman-elect in Morris Township, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The former Roseland mayor, who only moved to the Township last year, said his opponents ran a different race.

“I didn’t see any literature go out that said what they were looking to do. All they did was say negative things about Cathy and I,” Arvanites said.

Wilson said the Republicans’ “nasty … deceitful” tactics brought her to tears on one occasion.

Johnson, a retired corporate manager, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. Saphier, an M.D., said they had nothing to apologize for.

‘A VERY CONTENTIOUS POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT’

GOP candidate Nicole Saphier at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
GOP candidate Nicole Saphier at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I think Louise and I ran an amazing campaign…I wouldn’t change anything we did. We knocked on over 3,000 doors.

“In the end, it’s a very contentious political environment right now. It’s very hard to compete with money from [Democratic Governor-Elect] Phil Murphy,” Saphier said.

The Trump-Christie factor had an impact, too, she said.

“I think what’s going on at the national and state level directly correlates,” Saphier said, insisting that “Louise and myself were the more qualified candidates, with more volunteer commitments to things.”

(Democrats won governorships in New Jersey–although Phil Murphy did not win Morris County–and in Virginia.)

Yet Saphier wished the winners well, adding: “I trust the process. I support democracy. The people have spoken. And that’s where they’re at right now.”

During the campaign, Wilson chided Saphier for missing meetings of the Township Economic Development Advisory Committee, on which she serves. Saphier labeled Wilson a “nonsensical obstructionist.”

Wilson also had accused Johnson and her fellow Township Committee members of keeping the public in the dark about $2 million of planned improvements to Cornine Field. And the Democrats’ mailings rapped Johnson for referring to the “racial area” of the Township during a forum last month.

Democratic contender John Arvanites and GOP incumbent Louise Johnson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Democratic contender John Arvanites and GOP incumbent Louise Johnson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

For their part, Johnson and Saphier made a point of contrasting the traditionally conservative Township with its liberal neighbor, Morristown, and its “fair and welcoming” policy toward undocumented immigrants.

Such a program would “hamstring our police officers  from keeping you safe” if enacted by the Township, Johnson told a candidates forum.

The Republicans also noted how Arvanites, an accountant, got fined for late filings of campaign spending reports back in Roseland.

That sounded like ancient history at the exuberant Democratic headquarters on Tuesday. Going forward, Arvanites said his priorities will be trimming budget surpluses to lower taxes, and improving the Collinsville park.

But that starts in January. First, he’s looking forward to telling his daughter Layna, 6, all about the election.

“She’s going to be very happy in the morning,” Arvanites said.

MORE ELECTION 2017 COVERAGE

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Congratulations to the winners, of course. They will have an apportunity to prove themselves, but let’s not have any illusions about the cause of this result – a substantial number of Americans hate Trump and want to send a message. Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have won this year.

  2. Arvanites has lived in Morris Township for six months; he was mayor in Roseland and ran a failed campaign for Congress. Have we learned nothing from the career politicians in DC? These two better be productive. Morris Township should tolerate nothing less.

  3. I am so excited to see that after all this work, Cathy Wilson finally gets a seat. And thankfully there’s enough of a margin that the county clerk didn’t have to do a “republicans only” behind closed doors recount. Whew!

    I think this victory also has to do with the League of Women Voters giving the community a chance to hear all the candidates. On another level it is a vote against the nastiness in politics that comes from our current “leader”. While Saphier and Johnson were not stoking fears at the same level as Guadagno and Trump, they still kept pulling the “we know our town is better” card which uses Morristown’s diversity as a bit of boogeyman. Yes, the township is mostly white. I get it.

    I think Johnson really showed her true colors in the debate when she talked about an area of the Township as “the racial area”. I mean, what century are we living in? I think I can also thank Dan Caffrey’s rant for exposing what some of his fellow council members think about half their constiuents. That certainly motivated me to spread the word about this race.

    I for one look forward to a full budget review, some energy savings, and I would REALLY like to have a look at that IT and telecom budget, that’s fat with pork. And I also think we’re a bit heavy on the number of police officers for such a small town, but that’s probably too radical to change. I hope that the other three seats don’t leave us with the same sort of gridlock as DC though…

    Anyhow, congrats to Cathy and John, it was well-earned!

    ps – I’d love some sidewalks so I don’t have to walk on the narrow James Street shoulder with rush hour traffic whizzing by at 20 MPH over the speed limit (where’s the cops when you need them?).

  4. Congratulations Cathy and John on your victory. You worked hard and ran an outstanding campaign.

    Morris Township residents have rejected use of the Trump scare-tactics playbook, one-party rule, and the lack of transparency in government.

    Next goal: RODNEY must go!!

  5. I was in shock as I read Ms. Saphier’s comments in this article. Kathy and John won because they are dedicated to public service and they work to unite all community members. When Kathy came to my door, she never slandered Louise’s service on the Township Committee. Instead, she actually told me that she was a good member of the Committee – and then went on to tell me why she herself would like a be on the committee and what she wanted to accomplish. That got my vote.

    I’ve lived in the Township for a long time. My family moved her from New York when I was in 6th grade. I attended public school here and my husband and I bought our first home here in Morristown. It was two streets over from my childhood home, however it was in the Town of Morristown; ten years later we moved to the Township. But during all that time, I always said Morristown was my home. This community is my home.

    The Town and The Township have different government systems and different issues that each need to address. But that does not over-ride our care for one another or our friendship with our neighbors. If the Township has an emergency and needs backup, the Town is there for us – and vice versa. Our Committee members should seek to foster the spirit of our First Responders. Collaboration and respect for one another.

    This is the magic of our community that clearly Ms. Saphier didn’t understand.

    Morristown and Morris Township are unique and special. We are neighbors that work together for the betterment of our collective community. In her comments, she went so far as to blame money from Phil Murphy winning this race. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    It was Cathy & John’s positive message and community building skills that won them the vote. Morris Township voters are smart. They know that when a candidate has to resort to fear tactics, they are not the best choice for our community.

    I hope the rest of the Township committee sees that the voters want a diversity of opinions. And I hope the voters continue to be engaged.

    In friendship –
    Samantha Rothman

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