Uphill Climb?

Well. That’s quite the crowd of candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Mercer County Freeholder! No fewer than  nine people are seeking to serve out the remainder of former Freeholder Anthony Verelli’s term, after he resigned to become an Assembly member representing the 15th District. That seat, in turn, became vacant when previous Assemblyman Reed Gusciora became Trenton’s Mayor on July 1.

And that’s only the most recent moves. The 2018 version of Mercer Dominoes got under way in January, when the other 15th District Assembly member, Elizabeth Maher Muoio, resigned her seat to become NJ State Treasurer. That vacancy was filled by then-Trenton City Council member Verlina Reynolds-Jackson.

All three of these people – Reynolds-Jackson, Verelli, and the to-be-named Freeholder Candidate  – will have been chosen by county Democratic Committee members, in three separate special conventions held throughout the year. All three will be on the ballot in November for the first time in their new offices, with the Assembly candidates running as incumbents.

They will be joined on the ballot by three other serving Democratic Freeholders running for regular re-election: Ann Cannon, Pat Colavita, and Sam Frisby. There will also be candidates for US Representative: incumbent Bonnie Watson Coleman for those parts of Mercer County in the 12th Congressional District, and Josh Welle in the areas of Mercer in NJ’s 4th District. Heading up the November Democratic ticket statewide in this midterm election year is incumbent United States Senator Robert Menendez.

Overall, it’s shaping up to be a very important election for New Jersey’s Democratic Party, especially so for Mercer County’s Democrats.

It’s not going to be an easy year for them.

That’s kind of counter-intuitive. A little more than two months away, this election is shaping up to be a very good one for national Democrats, as the midterm election is becoming a vote of confidence in a national Republican Party that is becoming the personal vehicle of a deeply polarizing President. A lot can change between now and November, of course, but there are signs of a building “Blue Wave” that will shake Washington as well as several states around the country. New Jersey, dependably Democratic for several national elections, would normally be expected to be a big part of that wave.

Not so fast!

From the statewide top of the ticket on down to the local Mercer races, there are problem areas for NJ’s Democrats that may lead to some major disappointments in November. State Democrats are whistling past the graveyard as they consider Bob Menendez’s prospects of keeping his US Senate seat. Yes, his federal corruption trial on corruption charges ended in a jury deadlock and mistrial. Yes, the US Attorney for NJ dropped all charges against him. Yes, his Republican opponent Robert Hugin is under ethical clouds of his own as an executive in a controversial pharmaceutical company.

None of that matters. Menendez is seriously damaged goods, in a state that is notoriously fickle about its politicians. Remember, Chris Christie wasn’t first elected Governor because voters loved him. Christie won in 2009 because they hated Jon Corzine. Bob Menendez faces that same dynamic this year. He has a real fight on his hands this fall, and that fight will affect all the other down-ballot races statewide, regardless of any other more local factors.

And local factors abound, at least in Mercer County.

For instance. The Freeholder incumbents and candidate will be campaigning this fall under the shadow of the action they are likely to take in September, a pending proposal for salary raises for many County Employees. The Freeholder Board this month passed the first reading of an Ordinance that would increase the salaries of a dozen County officials including Executive Brian Hughes by 2%, retroactive to the beginning of 2018. The second reading and final vote to approve the raises is scheduled for September 13.

The last time the Freeholders passed a measure to increase salaries was in January 2016. At that time, the Freeholders came under criticism, including in this space, for passing a salary increase that they did not run on or discuss in the most recent County election, that of November 2015. At that time I wrote,

“Voters deserve an opportunity to weigh in on a matter such as this, as a check and balance against the ability of public officials to grant themselves unilateral retroactive raises. The manner in which this is being discussed and approved suggests an effort to accomplish this early enough in the new legislative term so that voters may forget about it by the time the next election rolls around.”

Well, here we are. The next election is rolling around in November. Three Freeholders are running for re-election, along with one out of the nine current prospects who will be running to join the Board. This is a perfect opportunity for all of them to run on this issue.

That is, I don’t believe the Freeholders should approve any Ordinance to raise salaries in September, or October.

They should take the issue to the voters, as they definitely did not in 2015. Explain why they think this makes sense, why they support it. If the voters agree, the Freeholders will be re-elected. If not, they won’t.

That’s how representative democracy is supposed to work. In 2016, the Freeholders voted for a raise just after an election, with little accountability at the time for their actions. This time they propose to pass more raises just before the election, again minimizing accountability for the consequences of what might likely be an unpopular decision.

In 2016, the main argument for the propriety of the raises granted that year, as made by Brian Hughes, who “said his salary was flat during the recession years of 2008, 2009, and 2010 while the county’s union employees received raises.” But David Foster of the Trentonian reported that by 2016, the sacrifice made by Hughes and his colleagues in the recession years had been mostly offset:

“Hughes’ starting salary in 2004 was $127,336. In 12 years, his salary has increased nearly 29 percent, which equates to an average annual raise of 2.4 percent, according to figures provided by Mercer County. For comparison, rank-and-file employees from the largest union Mercer County contracts with received a pay increase of approximately 30 percent during that same period.”

The raise of 2016 brought Mr. Hughes’ annual salary to $164,090, according to Mr. Foster’s reporting from then. The measure under consideration now proposes to raise that to $174,133. That comes to a 2-year increase of 6.1%, a little over 3% for each of the 2 years, even though the reported 1-year increase is 2%. From the current reporting, I assume that the percentage increases for the other affected individuals will be similar.

From Isaac Avilucea’s August 9 article, he reports that an earlier draft of the ordinance included raises for the Freeholders themselves, an option that did not make it to the version of the Ordinance under consideration now.

I suppose the Freeholders thought it would be awkward to run for re-election after just giving themselves another raise.

But I think it’s just as awkward to run this Fall just after giving the County Executive and the other dozen officials their bumps.

Why don’t they wait, and make this election a referendum on these raises?

If they win in November, then they can vote on the raise package!

Right now, it strikes me as a difficult and unnecessary uphill climb fore Mercer Freeholders to run on what are bound to be unpopular salary increases, down ballot from a deeply unpopular US Senator.

But, what do I know?

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