Home>Campaigns>In one of New Jersey’s swingiest towns, a mayoral challenger emerges

New Providence Mayor Al Morgan, left, and Democratic challenger Harry Clewell. (Photos: Al Morgan and Harry Clewell).

In one of New Jersey’s swingiest towns, a mayoral challenger emerges

New Providence will host contest between “Mayor Al” Morgan and Harry Clewell

By Joey Fox, April 01 2022 4:35 pm

New Providence was a solidly Republican town, until it wasn’t.

The Union County borough, which is in the state’s upper echelons of both income and educational attainment, used to vote for Republicans up and down the ballot, from staunch conservatives like former President George W. Bush to New Jerseyan moderates like former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Then, in 2016, a switch flipped. After having voted for Mitt Romney by nine points over Barack Obama four years earlier, New Providence gave Hillary Clinton a striking 12-point victory, and it’s voted for an increasing number of national and local Democrats in the years since, including Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) and Gov. Phil Murphy in close races. 

This year, with the borough’s mayoralty and two council seats up for election, Democrats will test whether they can replicate that success on a local level.

The divide between the candidates is clear. Republican Mayor Allen Morgan is a highly popular former UPS driver who’s in his fourth term as mayor and has been involved in local politics for nearly three decades; Democratic attorney Harry Clewell was a toddler when Morgan was first elected to the council, and is promising a breath of fresh air for the borough.

All politics is local, as the saying goes, and in a municipality of 13,654 people, that’s especially true. But New Providence has earned its reputation as one of the state’s swingiest municipalities, and it will no doubt be critical this November in the hotly contested race for the 7th congressional district, giving the borough’s politics national implications.

Democrats haven’t contested a mayoral race in New Providence in decades, so the matchup this year between Clewell and Morgan will be treading genuinely new ground. History is on Republicans’ side – but the question that Democrats get to ask is, when does that history come to an end?

A look at 40 years of New Providence political history

The advent of New Providence borough was in 1899, when the “boroughitis” sweeping the state led it to excise itself from New Providence Township, which had itself withdrawn from Springfield Township.

Before that fateful year, New Providence had been combined with the modern-day Summit and Berkeley Heights, and it continued to bear some vestiges of its neighbors for years afterwards; it wasn’t until 1927 that the New Providence NJ Transit station was renamed after being known as the West Summit station since the 1800s.

New Providence’s politics have also long been of a kind with its larger Union County neighbors like Summit and Westfield. From 1980 – the earliest the Rutgers New Jersey Data Book goes – until the 2010s, the borough voted near-exclusively for Republicans, at every level of the ballot.

In the 1984 Republican landslide, New Providence gave President Ronald Reagan a punishing 46-point victory over Walter Mondale; in President Bill Clinton’s resounding 1996 win, he still lost New Providence by around 15 points to Bob Dole.

The borough also happily re-elected one of its native sons, Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Providence), to Congress from the 7th congressional district before switching to Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-Warren Township) and, later, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township). Even when the district hosted close races, as happened in 2000 and 2006, New Providence still went Republican.

In fact, the only federal or statewide election between 1980 and 2016 in which New Providence voted for a Democrat was the 1984 U.S. Senate election, when Senator Bill Bradley was winning statewide by nearly 30 points. Except in the grimmest of Democratic landslides, New Providence was a Republican town.

Just as he did in so many other suburbs around the country, however, Donald Trump changed that calculus. Trump lost New Providence 42-54% in 2016, and followed that up with an even more drastic 38-61% loss to Joe Biden in 2020.

“Donald Trump hurt the Republican brand all over the state, and it’s taken a while to come back from that,” said State Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who has represented New Providence in the legislature for two decades and who has consistently won the borough. “This is all a price we paid for the way Donald Trump spoke to people, called people names, disrespected people. Republicans in New Jersey paid a cost for that.”

That cost quickly became apparent when Lance was unseated by now-Rep. Tom Malinowski in 2018, with New Providence doing its part and giving Malinowski a 10-point margin; it voted for the Democrat once again in 2020, even with Union County native Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) as the Republican nominee.

Even more strikingly, the borough voted for Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno 49-48% over Phil Murphy in 2017 – but flipped to Murphy last year, going for the governor 53-47% against Republican Jack Ciattarelli even though Democrats were doing far worse statewide. 

The Morgan dynasty

For all the political tidal waves that have hit New Providence on a federal and statewide level, however, its local government has remained largely unaffected.

The borough has seemingly only had one Democratic mayor in its existence: Francis Farley, who served in the early 1960s. Otherwise, local politics have been dominated by Republicans, a mantle that has been taken for 16 of the last 24 years by Mayor Allen Morgan, or “Mayor Al.”

Morgan, a 67-year-old now-retired driver for UPS whose package deliveries gave him a powerful local brand, was elected to the borough council in 1997 before quickly turning around and winning the mayoralty in 1998. He served two terms, spent eight years out of power starting in 2006, and launched a successful comeback bid for a third term in 2014.

Remarkably, Morgan didn’t draw any opponents whatsoever in either 2014 or 2018, which Bramnick, who is a friend of Morgan’s, said is a testament to his incredible local popularity.

“Al Morgan is one of the most popular mayors in the state,” Bramnick said. “He’s one of the few people in New Jersey that transcends politics.”

Bramnick attributed this transcendence to Morgan’s steadfast focus on local issues, despite the “R” that may appear next to his name in election years. (Morgan himself did not respond to a request for an interview.)

“Al Morgan never became the mayor,” Bramnick said. “He always stayed Al. He stays away from anything that doesn’t involve issues that directly affect New Providence… He’s not partisan in any way whatsoever. He’s everywhere all the time. Everybody likes him because he’s just a regular guy.”

For the most part, Morgan’s dominance has also applied to races for borough council, of which Bramnick’s running mate, Assemblywoman Michele Matsikoudis (R-New Providence), is a former member. Between 2011 and 2016, for example, Democrats did not field a single candidate for the council, which holds staggered elections for its six seats every year; one independent ran in 2012 and got 9% of the vote.

But after fielding two candidates who did decently in 2017, Democrats at last put up a fierce fight for two seats on the council in 2018, and came strikingly close to winning. While Morgan was winning re-election uncontested, Republican Councilmen Peter DeSarno and Matthew Cumiskey were just barely squeaking past Democrats Rupa Kale and John Keane, the latter of whom came just 75 votes from flipping a seat.

The following three cycles were all busts – Democrats only fielded two candidates for six total seats between 2019 and 2021 – but the party is back with a full slate this year, and they’re excited about their chances.

A providential opportunity

When Al Morgan was first elected mayor, Harry Clewell hadn’t even started elementary school yet.

Now a 26-year-old Seton Hall School of Law-educated attorney with Genova Burns and a judge advocate for the United States Army Reserve, Clewell’s fledgling mayoral campaign plans to focus on taxes and transparency, making sure the borough gets the resources and government access it deserves. Also important, Clewell said, is including younger people like himself in borough governance.

“Honestly, it’s time to pass the torch to the next generation of leadership in New Providence,” Clewell said. “[Morgan]’s done a good job. He’s cared a lot for the community. But, for me, it’s about taking the torch and passing it on so we can get the unique skillset and perspective from a different generation.”

Despite his youth, this won’t be Clewell’s first campaign; he briefly ran last year for State Assembly and raised an impressive $49,000 before being departing the race.

Both Morgan and Clewell were born and raised in New Providence, and Clewell was appreciative of Morgan’s leadership, but he said it will be up to voters to choose which of the borough’s two native sons will be elected to lead it.

“People will see that we both have experience and unique perspectives, and they’ll decide which one they’d rather vote for in November,” he said.

Running with Clewell are Kale, gunning for a comeback after losing narrowly in 2018, and Tommy DeCataldo. The councilpeople up for re-election are Councilman Robert Muñoz and Councilwoman Diane Bilicska, who was appointed to Matsikoudis’ open seat, though it’s not immediately clear if both are running for re-election.

With the election still seven months away, it’s difficult to handicap the race, especially given that there hasn’t been a Democratic mayoral contender in decades; there simply isn’t a baseline to go off of. It could be that the Democratic trends on a national level catch up to New Providence Republicans and they find themselves in a highly competitive race, or it could be that Morgan’s popularity is so widespread that Clewell doesn’t even come close.

Clewell, naturally, is a proponent of the former theory.

“It’s a place that’s slowly started to turn more Democratic,” he said. “The trends show that it’s definitely turning more blue, and I think a full slate of dedicated and experienced candidates will be the difference.”

With the congressional race between Malinowski and Kean already drawing huge amounts of spending, New Providence will certainly be getting a significant amount of political attention; since Malinowski is likely to win New Providence barring a landslide defeat, that may bolster Democrats locally.

Clewell also demonstrated fundraising prowess in his 2021 legislative run, while Morgan’s money-raising abilities are unknown, since he had no need to aggressively fundraise in his previous uncontested races. 

But Bramnick was skeptical that Morgan, with all of his history and connections in the borough, could be in danger of losing. The people of New Providence are too independent-minded, he said, to dump Mayor Al.

“It’s real normal people,” Bramnick said. “They love New Providence. They’re regular people. I don’t think they’re very partisan people. They’re concerned about New Providence… It’s a down-to-earth community.”

Bramnick added that therein lies the fundamental job of a mayor: stay grounded and connected with the people you serve, no matter if you’re a four-term mayor like Al Morgan or a newcomer like Harry Clewell.

“You don’t lose because you’ve been the mayor for 10 years, 15 years, or 20 years,” he said. “You lose when you forget that you’re just a regular person who lives in town, who happens to be working for the people.”

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