Home>Campaigns>Running off the line, Mastrangelo brings harsh rhetoric to Morris GOP primary

Mendham Township Committeewoman Sarah Neibart, left, and Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo.

Running off the line, Mastrangelo brings harsh rhetoric to Morris GOP primary

Incumbent commissioner hits Neibart over 2021 drag queen story hour

By Joey Fox, June 02 2022 11:02 am

When Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo shockingly lost the support of the Morris GOP organization at their party convention in early March, that could have been the end of things. Typically, when countywide candidates in New Jersey fail to get the endorsement of their county party, they obey the party’s decision and drop out of the race.

But Mastrangelo, who has served on the county board since 2011, chose not to defer. He’s campaigning hard to keep his seat in the June 7 primary election, and has set his sights on Mendham Committeewoman Sarah Neibart, a party-endorsed candidate for one of the three seats up this year.

In particular, Mastrangelo is hitting Neibart for support of a “drag queen story hour” during Mendham Township’s 2021 LGBTQ pride month; Neibart said at the time that the story hour was “in line with who Mendham Township is.” According to Mastrangelo, endorsing the gay-themed event should be disqualifying.

“These are not conservative Republican values, and as a parent and a grandfather of a 1 and 2 year old I am appalled that current candidates in our own party and party organization insiders are supporting a candidate who supports the liberal woke agenda of indoctrination of young children,” he said in a press release.

The commissioner’s attacks, however, have rubbed some Morris Republicans the wrong way, among them party chairwoman Laura Marie Ali. Ali said that she offered to keep Mastrangelo in the fold after he lost the party endorsement, but that the commissioner spurned her offer and is now running unfair attacks against Neibart.

“It’s reprehensible to me,” Ali said. “[Neibart] is one of the kindest, most considerate, most generous souls out there. To be portraying her as this person that doesn’t exist is really wrong… He’s seizing the buzzword of the day – all the hot, red meat topics about what goes on in Board of Education meetings – and he’s trying to use that to slander her.”

Neibart, for her part, argued in a statement that Mastrangelo is grasping at straws by focusing on a single story hour she happened to attend.

“It’s unfortunate that Tom has resorted to drive-by political attacks that vastly distort my role in the event,” she said. “As mayor, I joined and welcomed attendees to hundreds of events – this was no different. I am a proud conservative that believes in liberty and freedom, and I firmly believe that parents know better than bureaucrats on what’s right for children.”

But Mastrangelo pointed out that Neibart specifically endorsed the event – over the objections of her current running mate, former Commissioner Christine Myers – and can’t distance herself from it so easily.

“This is her record,” Mastrangelo said. “She stated that she wished she had experiences like that as a child. She said she was so excited for the event, and she also said she didn’t believe it was controversial… The voters have a right to know where she stands on these issues, and where she stood less than a year ago.”

At its core, the debate may hinge on a simple generational divide. Mastrangelo is a grandfather while Neibart is still in her twenties, and their views on certain social issues seem to reflect that gap; the problem for Neibart is that many Morris County Republican voters likely disagree with her sympathetic approach to gay issues.

Prior to the county convention, Mastrangelo had been running on a ticket with fellow Commissioner Doug Cabana and Pequannock Councilwoman Melissa Florance-Lynch, who sought to replace retiring Commissioner Kathy DeFillippo.

But while the county committee memebrs in attendance at the convention liked Cabana, giving him first place with 390 votes, they chose Myers (386 votes) and Neibart (336 votes) over Mastrangelo (261 votes) and Florance-Lynch (233 votes) for the other two spots.

That meant Cabana, Myers, and Neibart, who had all been running separately, were suddenly hitched together as members of the official Morris Republican slate. Florance-Lynch dropped her bid soon afterwards, though a mysterious fifth candidate unaffiliated with anyone else, Joseph Coppola, will also appear on the ballot alongside Mastrangelo and the three party endorsees.

According to Ali, Mastrangelo’s defeat may have been partially caused by the persistent factionalism of the county board of commissioners; an ethics investigation into Mastrangelo’s interactions with a county committeeperson could have also played a role.

“I think that there are people out there who, for whatever reason, didn’t like the way that Tom operates all the time or conducts himself all the time,” Ali said. “I really did want to bring him into the fold, bring him into the party, and make it be a win-win for everybody, but he wasn’t interested in that.”

The Morris County Republican organizational line itself is a relatively new creation. In February 2021, after decades of open primaries, the county committee voted to establish a party line system, giving their preferred candidates an advantageous spot on the primary ballot as is done in most of the rest of the state.

As Mastrangelo pointed out, that means Morris Republicans are accustomed to searching for their preferred candidate when voting, rather than just obeying the line. But in 2021, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany) banked on that same voter loyalty after being shockingly booted from the line in favor of now-Assemblyman Christian Barranco (R-Jefferson), and she still lost.

Given that there are two high-profile Morris County primaries for Congress happening simultaneously next Tuesday, the county commissioner primary could get lost in the shuffle.

Mastrangelo is counting on drag queen story hour to elevate the race in voters’ minds. The question, though, is whether his messaging reaches enough of them – and whether it’s a salient enough issue to overcome the power of the line.

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