It should be an interesting autumn in Morristown.
Former Mayor Donald Cresitello and former Council President Michelle Dupree Harris, both Democrats, on Tuesday filed to run as Independents with the slogan “Restore Government Integrity.”
Cresitello, 75, said he plans to run regardless of whether Mayor Tim Dougherty or challenger Esperanza Porras-Field emerges as the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, though “it certainly would change the tone of the entire campaign” if the incumbent loses the primary.
“I’m not happy with what’s going on. I have a problem with the Dougherty administration, a serious problem,” said Cresitello, who insists it’s not about revenge.
Dougherty beat him by a 2-to-1 margin in the 2009 primary.
“I could care less about that. He beat me fair and square, and I’ll beat him fair and square now. And I will make the changes that need to be made,” Cresitello said.
The mayor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Also filing petitions Tuesday as Independents: Verilli’s bakery owner Kristi Dimogerodakis, whose petition as a Democrat was rejected in April over discrepancies; and John Thomas Jr.
Cresitello said it’s not yet clear if they will round out his slate. Dougherty has been campaigning with council members Toshiba Foster and David Silva and newcomer Nathan Umbriac as the “Morristown First” ticket.
Citing concerns about a “lack of harmony between the police department and the mayor” and “dark money” political contributions, Cresitello said Morristown has been overbuilt and vowed audits of all redevelopment projects.
Many residents also still have questions about the state pay-to-play probe that implicated Dougherty’s wife, Cresitello contended.
Mary Dougherty received probation for a campaign violation stemming from her 2018 run for county office.
Mayor Dougherty, who seeks a fourth term, has denied being the unnamed “Individual No. 1” in the investigation, and he has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Four former officials from other towns still face charges for allegedly taking bribes from Morristown lawyer Matt O’Donnell.
‘I FIGURE I CAN USE MY EXPERTISE’
Harris, who lost to Dougherty in the 2017 mayoral primary, stepped down that year after serving 20 years on the council.
The retired kindergarten teacher has been planning to relocate to North Carolina, but said on Tuesday she has missed public service and anticipates being in Morristown for another four years.
“I’m getting in because I don’t like what’s happened. I figure I can use my expertise, doing something I love,” Harris said.
She cited overdevelopment as her top concern, along with greater transparency, “making sure that when the budget is printed and put on the website, it’s not upside down on pages, and salaries are indicated.
“There’s just a lot of little things that I see aren’t consistent with what we used to do in the past. The residents were more informed,” she said.
Cresitello served as an alderman, councilman and two-term mayor over 32 years, stretching to 1972. His first stint as mayor was in the late 1970s. For six years, he also worked for the New Jersey Schools Development Authority.
He has had some election issues of his own. In 2011, the state Election Law Enforcement Commission fined him more than $11,000 for violations stemming from his 2005 mayoral race.
The commission said campaign finance reports were filed late, without proper disclosure details about donors, and that Cresitello was late to return contributions that exceeded legal limits.
Also in 2011, the town cited him for claiming a commercial building as a residence, without permits. He used the New Street address to cast an absentee ballot in a close council primary. That same year, when he was renting out his Mills Street residence, he listed a councilman’s address to vote in the general election.
After his primary defeat in 2009, and a 2013 run for Morris County Commissioner, Cresitello eventually spent most of his time at the Shore, where he ran unsuccessfully for council in Manasquan.
He said he moved back to Morristown, where he has operated an electrical contracting business for a half-century, last summer, to Lincoln Street.
Recent projects have included the new Macho Nacho storefront on South Street, and Midtown Wine Merchants, he said.
Cresitello sparked controversy during his second term as mayor, from 2006-2009, by supporting an Obama administration program called 287(g), which deputized police to double as federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Morristown was among 13 municipalities nationwide chosen for the program. Cresitello said he always has supported a pathway to citizenship for hard-working undocumented immigrants.
“They have done a lot to move the country forward,” he said. At the same time, he said, he also supports working with state and federal agencies to combat crime, gangs and illegal weapons.
The only way he might back out of this race, Cresitello said, is if a Republican mounts a write-in campaign.
“Certainly, we can’t be in a three-way race,” he said.
“Is it difficult as an Independent to run against an incumbent mayor? Yes. I would expect there’s not going to be a Republican candidate, and I think if that’s the case, then I’ll be able to get votes from all sides of the aisle.”