Somerset County Democrats are expected to back former Green Brook mayor Melonie Marano as their candidate for freeholder against Republican Pat Walsh.
Democrats beat two GOP freeholders in 2018 and the addition of one more seat would give them 3-2 control of county government.
The race sets up a rematch of the 2007 freeholder campaign, when Walsh defeated Marano by a narrow 1,867-vote margin, 51.5%-49.5%.
Walsh, a four-term incumbent, is also a former Green Brook mayor.
Darrin Russo, a retired Franklin police lieutenant, will likely be the Democratic organization candidate for sheriff. Russo won 49% of the vote against incumbent Frank Provenzano three years ago. Provenzano is retiring after eighteen years as sheriff; North Plainfield police chief Bill Parenti and Tim Pino, a retired captain with the sheriff’s department, are seeking the Republican nomination.
Democrats will formally pick their organization slate at the March 21 county convention.
Somerset Democratic vice chairman Zenon Christodoulou had mulled a bid for freeholder but decided against running.
The county chair, Peg Schaffer, says that Somerset Democrats have laid the groundwork to take control this year.
“Like any successful business, we have developed an ambitious 5 year plan that includes positioning the right candidate for the right job at the right time. In addition to maintaining our focus on local elections, Zenon and I have committed ourselves to supporting Senator Booker’s bid for the White House and returning Congressman Malinowski to Washington. It is time to elect a Democratic President,” Schaffer said.
“We need Zenon’s passion and leadership, once again, as we approach the critical 2020 election season. He has been fighting for religious freedom and human rights for his entire adult life and his participation in each of our campaigns is essential,” she added.
Once a Republican stronghold, Somerset has become a swing county in recent years.
The county has 15,798 more Democrats than Republicans. A decade ago, Republicans had an edge of 879.
Somerset has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton winning by 20,184 votes in 2016. Murphy and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez won Somerset in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
In 2017, Somerville Councilman Steven Peter unseated veteran Republican County Clerk Brett Radi by 407 votes; the Democratic Freeholder candidates lost by 1,489 votes.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Rocky Hill) became the first congressman from Somerset County since Michael Pappas lost re-election in 1998. He ousted five-term Rep. Leonard Lance in the November 2018 mid-term, carrying the Somerset portion of his district by 8,758 votes (53%-45%).
In total, Somerset County voters cast 60% of their ballots in 2018 for Democratic congressional candidates. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) won her part of Somerset with 70% of the vote.
Two Democratic Assemblymen live in Somerset: Joe Danielson (D-Franklin) and Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough). A third, Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), lives in Middlesex County, but his district is mostly in Somerset County.
Democrats are beginning to build a bench in Somerset, where they’ve made significant gains on the local level.