The newest controversy in Morris County politics involves Rockaway mayor Michael Puzio’s endorsement of Republican-turned-Democrat William Schievella for sheriff.
An e-mail chain between Republican leaders this weekend and obtained by the New Jersey Globe, shows considerable tension within the county GOP organization over Puzio’s support of Schiavella – and lingering effects of a divisive 2018 campaign for county chairman that Ronald DeFilippis won by just four votes.
“Mayor Puzio’s actions are reprehensible,” said DeFilippis. “He will never receive a nickel from MCRC. Puzio definitely has to go, but he is not the only cancer in this party.”
Puzio endorsed Democrat Mikie Sherrill for Congress in 2018 and is already facing a challenge from councilman Tucker Kelley in the June Republican primary. Based on his comments, the Republican county chairman appears to be backing Kelley.
Despite DeFilippis’ comments, the Morris Republican organization recently promoted Puzio’s campaign fundraiser.
Morris County freeholder Deborah Smith also issued a sharp rebuke to Puzio.
“We may not agree on every issue, but I hope we can all agree that allowing fake Republicans like Mayor Puzio to endorse Democrats in key races without any consequences sends a terrible message about the strength and viability of our party,” said Smith. “The MCRC must forcefully and publicly denounce Mayor Puzio and break all ties with him. This should not be a difficult decision.”
Smith chastised the county GOP for not taking a tougher stance against Puzio last year when he endorsed Sherrill over Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains).
“Mayor Puzio’s endorsement of Mikie Sherrill hurt Jay’s campaign and should have been met with a swift rebuke from the MCRC. Since it was not, Puzio feels emboldened,” Smith said. “Absent decisive action, it’s only a matter of time before others follow suit and put their own perceived self-interest before that of our party.”
DeFilippis says that following the Sherrill endorsement, he and Republican state chairman Doug Steinhardt issued a press release asking Puzio to change his party registration.
“Jay told me that was enough because he did not want Sherrill to keep getting free publicity,” DeFilippis said. “Doug told me that absent a party line there was not much more that I could do except withhold campaign funds from him.”
He also accused his former opponent, Rob Zwigard, of working against Webber.
In an e-mail to DeFilippis, Zwigard said he has had enough of DeFilippis’ lies.
Zwigard says a political action committee he runs with former county chairman John Sette opened a phone bank to make calls for Webber.
“My advice to you is stop deflecting your failures and spewing your lies about the two of us.,” Zwigard wrote to DeFilippis.
The Morris GOP vice chair, Laura Ali , also entered the fray.
“There are also witnesses that overheard you and a BFF of yours at a Montville bar saying the only thing better than having Jay lose would have been if Ann Grossi lost too,” Ali wrote. “Those witnesses are happy to come forward. You should be careful who’s within earshot when you spread your toxic venom and poison.”
Ali also criticized Zwigard for being photographed with Michael Soriano, the Democratic mayor of Parsippany “at their events.”
“Laura once again you are a liar and if you are referring to a picture with Mayor Soriano, it was at a business associates Christmas party, whose business is in Parsippany,” Zwigard write to Ali. “There in other countywide Republican elected officials in that photo and even more at the party.”
That exchange caused the counsel for the Morris Republicans, Peter King, to ask “whose party was it?” The party was hosted by attorney Mark Semeraro, a prominent Republican, Zwigard said.
“Why is Robert Zwigard commenting or even on this thread as he is not an elected official, nor does he have any official position,” King said.
Ali accused Zwigard of sending out an e-mail under the alias of Robert Lawrence criticizing Puzio.
“At least ten people have now told me that you are Robert Lawrence. Once I prove it, which I will, you are going to be very embarrassed,” Ali wrote. “It’s time for you to stop your constant bashing and slandering of MCRC.”
Zwigard pushed pack strongly on Ali’s claim.
“I don’t need a fake name to tell you what I think about the state of our county party,” Zwigard responded.
DeFilippis claims that at a Parsippany GOP fundraiser last fall, Zwigard “was letting everyone know he wanted Jay to lose and he was doing everything he could to make that happen.”
“Unfortunately for him, several of the businessmen in the room are clients of mine and as soon as they heard him they immediately called to tell me,” says DeFilippis.
Zwigard says that he’s tired of DeFilippis’ “blatant lies.”
Among the ironies to the Morris GOP dysfunction is that the faction of the Rockaway Republicans allied with Puzio pit DeFilippis over the top in his 242 to 239 win against Zwigard.
Last year, a Republican county committee candidate filed a lawsuit alleging that Morris County Clerk Ann Grossi had improperly instructed municipal clerks on the legal number of petition signatures required.
Superior Court Judge Ernest Capossela ruled that Grossi had violated the law by failing to understand the law but let the seven candidates who filed flawed petition remain on the ballot since the error wasn’t their fault.
Two months later, Rockaway mayor Michael Dachisen died unexpectedly at age 58. The county committee picked Puzio as the GOP candidate in a November special election.
Democrats declined to nominate a candidate to run against Puzio.
Schievella, a former undersheriff and GOP councilman in Rockaway, is challenging Republican incumbent James Gannon.