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Downtown Millburn. (Photo: Township of Millburn).

Millburn is a Democratic stronghold, but local race could be competitive

Divisions among local Democrats could give GOP chance at first township committee win since 2015

By David Wildstein, September 23 2022 9:09 pm

The political transformation of Millburn and Short Hills has been among the most remarkable in the state.  A generation ago, Republican won the town by a 3-1 margin; like other North Jersey train station town, Democrats frequently win by similar pluralities.

But in what is now a Democratic stronghold, two Republican candidates for the all-Democratic Millburn Township Committee have a path, albeit a difficult one, to winning this year.

The Millburn/Short Hills Democratic Party has been facing the kind of growing pains that are often the case in one-party municipalities.  It was easier for Democrats to remain unified when they were the minority party pining in unwinnable races.  Once they became the majority party, factions began to develop and the big tent became unwieldy.

Internal disputes led to two-term Democrat Dianne Thall Eglow, a former mayor and the current deputy mayor, seeking re-election as an independent after failing to win party support.  She’s running with former Planning Board member David Morrow.  Another incumbent, Richard Wasserman, is not seeing re-election.

Last year, Eglow alleged that Wasserman made had made offensive comments to her of a sexual nature.  Wasserman has denied this.

The Democratic candidates are Annette Romano, the municipal chair and a human resources manager at New Jersey Transit and a retired project manager, Michael Cohen.  They won the Democratic primary by a 2-1 margin, but the 467 votes received by a local attorney, Jeffrey Feld, could be problematic.

Republicans are running former school board member Oyin Owolabi and Frank Saccomandi, an IT professional who replaced Michael Rozansky on the ticket after the primary.

Candidates like Barack Obama, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker have won landslides in a town where 60 years ago, their parents parents would have been denied the ability to buy because Short Hills was a restricted community.   That would make the election of the two Republicans, one Black and the other gay, would be especially noteworthy if they win.

In ticket-splitting Millburn, all politics is local

Gov. Phil Murphy won Millburn by 2,176 votes, 66%-33% last year, and former Gov. Richard Codey carried it by 2,198 (67%) in his State Senate re-election bid.

But last year’s township committee race was significantly closer.  Democrat Tara Prupis was re-elected to a second term against Owolabi, but by just 563 votes, 55%-45% — 959 votes behind the top of the ticket.

Prupis had won her first race in 2018, unseating Republican Jodi Rosenberg (now a Superior Court judge) by 425 votes, 52%-48%.  Menendez won 63% that year, and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo took 69%.  In the congressional race, Democrat Tom Malinowski carried Millburn by 3,488 votes, 69%-29%, against five-term Republican Rep. Leonard Lance.

The 2019 race was even closer.  Republican Agnes Sym came within 79 votes of capturing a township committee seat against Wasserman.  That came despite 2-1 victories by the two Democratic State Assembly incumbents, John McKeon and Mila Jasey, and interim Freeholder Romaine Graham carrying Millburn with 63%.

Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in Millburn by 48 points, 73%-25% in 2020.  Booker received 69% and Malinowski won 66% — one of the reasons Tom Kean, Jr. was thrilled when congressional redistricting gave the town to Mikie Sherrill.    Democratic township committee candidates won in a blowout that year.

Despite Millburn trending Democratic, Republicans remained in control of the township committee until 2016, when Eglow and Sam Levy unseated the GOP incumbents, Mayor Ted Bourke and Deputy Mayor Ian Mount.  That gave Democrats a 3-2 majority after a campaign masterminded by legendary Essex County strategist Tom Barrett.

In 2017, Democrat Cheryl Burstein won a second term and her running mate, Jackie Benjamin Lieberberg, unseated three-term Republican Robert Tillotson by roughly 1,100 votes.

Democrats won a majority in 2005 when Jim Suell and Ellen Steinberg, who had lost a 2003 State Senate race against Kean, Jr., unseated Republican Salvatore Bate and his running mate, Jeffrey Dahlman.  That gave Democrats a 3-2 majority and made Daniel Baer, who unseated Republican Committeewoman Linda Seelbach by just 5 votes in 2004, the new mayor.

That year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine carried Millburn by ten percentage points over Republican Doug Forrester, while the Republican Assembly candidates, Jon Bramnick and Eric Munoz, also won the township.

Republicans won the majority back in 2008 after Tillotson flipped Steinberg’s seat by 123 votes against Stephanie Nesser.

How voting has changed

Changes in Millburn’s voting patterns can be followed through the Kean family.

In 1934, Hamilton Kean received 62% in Millburn when he sought re-election to the U.S. Senate against Gov. A. Harry Moore.   Moore defeated Kean by 17 points statewide that year.

Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston), the son of the former senator, carried Millburn with 79% of the vote in his 1958 U.S. Senate race against Democrat Harrison Williams.

Eight years later, when his son, 32-year-old Thomas Kean, ran for the State Assembly, Kean also took 79% when compared to a head-to-head with Democrat Bernard Kuttner.

Millburn held for the Republicans in the Watergate wave elections of 1973 and 1974.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brendan Byrne, a West Orange resident, won Millburn by a 2-1 margin and carried all 15 districts with a 2,486-vote plurality.

But voters split their ticket.  State Sen. James Wallwork (R-Short Hills) received 67% in his hometown against Roseland Councilman Joel Wasserman – his margin was 2,496 —  and Kean, then the sitting Assembly Speaker, outpolled his 26-year-old Democratic opponent, Thomas P. Giblin, by 2,272 votes.

In 1974, less than three months after Richard Nixon resigned, Millburn voters split their tickets again.

Millburn elected the first Democrat ever – and first woman – when Ann Cooper won a township committee seat by about 625 votes.  A Republican incumbent Alexander Lyon was re-elected by outpolling his running mate by roughly 575 votes.

But in the race for an open congressional seat, former Assemblywoman Millicent Fenwick  carried Millburn by 1,932 votes, 63%-36%), against Democrat Frederick Bohen, a former White House staffer under Lyndon B. Johnson.

In his 1981 race for governor – the closest in state history – Millburn gave Kean 72% of the vote against Democrat Jim Florio.

When Kean, Jr. ran for his first full term in the State Assembly in 2001 – Millburn was in the same legislative district as Westfield – he won Millburn by 1,084 votes over Democrat Tom Jardim, the mayor of Westfield.   Six years later, when he ran for re-election to the State Senate for the last time with Millburn in the district, his margin was 290 votes over Democrat Gina Genovese.

New Millburn is also evident in presidential elections:

1980: Ronald Reagan +4,094 votes (71%) over Jimmy Carter
1984: Ronald Reagan +3,336 votes (66%) over Walter Mondale
1988: George H.W. Bush +2,518 (62%) over Michael Dukakis
1992: George H.W. Bush +577 (49%) over Bill Clinton and Ross Perot
1996: Bill Clinton +255 (48%) over Bob Dole and Ross Perot
2000: Al Gore +1,391 (57%) over George W. Bush
2004: John Kerry +1,157 (56%) over George W. Bush
2008: Barack Obama +1,953 (60%) over John McCain
2012: Barack Obama +1,055 (56%) over Mitt Romney
2016: Hillary Clinton +3,951 (72%) over Donald Trump
2020: Joe Biden +5,606 (73%) over Donald Trump

Despite its standing as a Democratic stronghold, Millburn has not produced candidates for higher office while local Republicans held a seat in the legislature for 34 years: Wallwork was in the Senate from 1968 to 1982; Maureen Ogden, a former mayor, was an assemblywoman from 1982 to 1996; Monroe Jay Lustbader served as an Essex County District IV freeholder from 1982 to 1992 and as an assemblyman from 1992 until his death in 1996; and Joel Weingarten, a former  township committeeman, was an assemblyman from 1996 until his 2002 when his seat was eliminated in redistricting.

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