Seven county commissioner candidates are seeking party support at tomorrow’s Mercer County Democratic convention, where one incumbent, Andrew Koontz, is not seeking re-election and another, Nina Melker, is running for a second full-term without any guarantee that she’ll be on the organization line.
The vote comes one year after County Commissioner Ann Cannon, who had held the seat for 27 years, was rejected by Mercer Democrats in her bid for a 10th term.
In addition to Melker, the current chair of the Board of Commissioners, seeking support for county commissioner seats are:
* Elvin Montero, the deputy executive director of the Chemical Council of New Jersey and a director of the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation. An ally of Mayor Reed Gusciora, Montero ran for an at-large Trenton City Council seat in 2018 and finished 105 votes behind the winner of the third seat.
* Cathleen Lewis, a Lawrence councilwoman, former mayor and party stalwart, has worked as a political operative and held a number of state government positions. She’s currently a program manager at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
* Robin Bridges Johnson, a former Lawrence school board member worked for Secretary of State Regena Thomas and for the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority and the Department of Transportation. She’s now at the Department of Banking and Insurance.
* John Durbin, a former Princeton Democratic municipal chairman and Princeton Community Democratic Organization chairman who has the backing of State Sen. Andrew Zwicker and Princeton Mayor Mark Freda.
* Yan Mei Wang, a physicist and former West Windsor mayoral candidate who made it to the second ballot in the 2021 Democratic convention as a candidate for county commissioner.
* Kevin Norris, a teacher and progressive activist.
Melker, a Hamilton Democrat, won a 2018 special election convention to fill the vacancy created after Anthony Verrelli (D-Hopewell) was elected to the State Assembly. She defeated Lance Lopez, a corrections officer who had led PBA Local 105. Seven Democrats had sought the seat.
The contest hinges on a series of racial, geographic, political and gender issues in Mercer County.
Mercer is about 19% Hispanic and 12% Asian, yet a Hispanic or Asian candidate has never held countywide office. The replacement of Koontz by Lewis, Johnson or Wang would mean a majority of county commissioner seats would be held by women.
While the current board has two Black commissioners – the Black population is about 21.5% — Johnson would become the first Black woman to hold countywide office since now-State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) left the Board of Freeholders in 1986. Montero would become the first Latino to hold countywide office, and the first openly gay person. Wang would be the first Asian American.
A progressive group, Our Revolution Trenton/Mercer, has endorsed Norris and Wang. Melker, Montero, Lewis, Johnson attended their candidate forum earlier this month.
Koontz is from Princeton and Durbin is trying to hold a county commissioner seat for a municipality that produces big margins for Democratic candidates.
Hamilton, which has the largest block of county committee votes, is strongly for Melker. But it’s not clear if they will support a second candidate on the first ballot in a bid to help their candidate avoid a runoff.
Lawrence Democrats opted not to endorse a candidate in a race that includes Lewis and Johnson. Last year, when six-term incumbent Commissioner Pat Colavita, Jr., a former Lawrence mayor, retired, Councilman Michael Powers tried to jeep the seat in town. He was eliminated after the first ballot.
Melker is avoiding some of the pitfalls that cost Cannon her seat last year, working Democratic groups in advance of the convention.
Republicans have not won a countywide election in Mercer since 2000 and currently hold no partisan municipal offices. The GOP will hold their convention tonight.
Eight Democrats initially sought the Democratic organization line for three county commissioner seats last year following the retirement of six-term incumbent Pat Colavita, Jr.
While incumbent Samuel Frisby easily won the March convention for another term, the competition for the open seat led to the defeat of a nine-term incumbent who had not paid close attention to Democratic county committee members.
Hopewell Township Committeewoman and former mayor Kristin McLaughlin and political newcomer Terrance Stokes, a football coach from Ewing, defeated Ann Cannon, who had first won in 1994, on the third ballot at the party convention.