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Mayor Michael Soriano. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

The road to Parsippany Mayor Michael Soriano

How 50 years of Republican infighting has given Democrats the crown jewel of Morris County

By David Wildstein, April 01 2019 12:15 am

Decades of infighting among Parsippany Republicans led to Democratic mayors for 33 of the last 53 years in a solidly Republican town that once provided huge pluralities for GOP candidates running statewide and in Morris County.

With intra-party quarrels on hold for now — at least at press time — Republicans are battling to keep control of the township council amidst changing demographics that have made the largest municipality in Morris County a swing town.

The local Republican wars go back to 1965, when voters switched from a non-partisan township manager form of government to the direct election of a strong mayor in partisan elections.

The GOP mayor, Francis X. Downey, controlled a bloc of three votes on the five-member township council.  In 1965, the Downey faction suspended township manager Anthony Mara, alleging that he lied to the county tax board to lower the assessment.

Mara ran for mayor in 1965 and Downey, who had the backing of the Republican Club but not the GOP municipal chairman, ran as an independent.

Parsippany Democratic municipal chairman John Walsh also ran for mayor – his fourth bid for public office after losing a 1957 State Assembly race and bids for county clerk in 1958 and 1961.

Walsh defeated Mara by a massive 54%-28% margin, with 18% for Downey.  Democrats swept all five council seats that year.

Ten months into his term as mayor, Wash suffered a heart attack and died at age 45.

The Henry Luther years

Council president Henry Luther III succeeded him as mayor.

While Luther had no trouble capturing the Democratic nomination for a 1967 special election, Republicans had a primary.

Parsippany GOP municipal chairman Michael Merola defeated John Kucek by 219 votes, a 33%-26% margin in a field of six candidates.  Downey, the former mayor, finished in 5th place with just 6% of the vote.  (Kucek ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1994, this time as a Holocaust revisionist and follower of Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.)

Luther defeated Merola by 766 votes, 54%-46%, in the general election.

Republicans flipped three council seats in that race.  One of the winners was 31-year-old Dean Gallo.

In the race for a full four-year term for mayor in 1969, Republicans again had a divisive and controversial primary.

Councilman Norbert Socolewski defeated Arthur Everly, who had finished third in the GOP mayoral primary two years earlier, by 214 votes.

A GOP council candidate, John Freeman, found out the day before the primary that the Morris County Clerk failed to include his name on the ballot in nearly half of the election districts in the township.  He was forced to conduct a write-in campaign until the clerk – perhaps a precursor to Ann Grossi more than 40 years later– reprinted the ballot strips and repaired the machines while the voting was going on.

Freeman lost the primary, but decided not to contest the election – some thought he would seek a rerun – when he concluded that the extra votes would not have propelled him to victory.

Luther won the general election by a 58%-42% margin against Socolewski, and Democrats held their two council seats.

Gallo ran for Morris County freeholder that year but dropped out of the race before the GOP primary.  He won in 1971 and moved up to the State Assembly four years later.

Both parties had mayoral primaries in 1973 when Luther declined to seek re-election.

Councilman John Fahy, who had won on the Walsh-Luther ticket in 1965, defeated Patricia Jackson in the Democratic primary by 346 votes.    Republicans again nominated Socolewski, who defeated the candidate backed by the local GOP organization, school board member Joseph Sandillo, by 839 votes.

Republicans were set for another primary fight in 1977, this time between council president Elmer Vreeland and Edith Winter, a former zoning board member.  Winter won the primary by about 750 votes, 64%-36%.

Fahy faced Jackson in a rematch and won by a margin of more than 2-1.

Noteworthy in the ’77 primary was the victory of 29-year-old Frank Priore in the race for township council.  Priore was the top vote-getter in a field of six Republicans for two seats.

In the general election Fahy beat Vreeland by about 650 votes, with Priore and Republican Arthur Vespignani winning council seats.  That gave the GOP a 4-1 council majority – enough votes to make Vreeland the township clerk three years later.

Luther had served in the Byrne administration as director of the New Jersey Lottery and as a Waterfront Commissioner.  He was the campaign manager for Byrne’s stunning, come-from-behind re-election victory over Republican Raymond Bateman.

Parsippany went for Gov. Brendan Byrne by a narrow 200-vote margin that year, but Republican State Sen. James Vreeland (R-Montville) won the town by about 3,200.  GOP candidates for sheriff (Parsippany’s John Fox) and Assembly (Gallo) won the town by similar margins.

Luther had been on early short lists to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1981 and he had actively considered running. The legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City proved to be an attractive draw for someone with his connections, so his campaign for governor never materialized.

Fahy became the Democratic candidate for Congress in 1978, running against popular Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-Bernardsville) in a heavily Republican district that Gerald Ford won with 59% two years earlier.

Fenwick clobbered Fahy, winning by 62,631 votes (73%-27%).  Fenwick won Parsippany by about 2,100 votes, 59%-41%.  In the race for U.S. Senate, Democrat Bill Bradley carried Parsippany by about 150 votes over Republican Jeff Bell.

The mayors of Parsippany-Troy Hills, New Jersey. Top row, left to right: Francis X. Downey, John Walsh, Henry Luther III, John Fahy and Frank Priore. Bottom row: Joseph Weisberg, Mimi Letts, Michael Luther, Jamie Barberio and Michael Soriano

The Frank Priore era

In 1981, Fahy ran for re-election to a third term.  He easily beat back a three way primary, defeating John Notte by a 63%-20% margin, with Thomas Duggan running third with 17%.

Republicans had another bitter primary that divided the township into two factions, with Fiore facing off against his former running mate, Arthur Vespignani.

Fiore won by 787 votes, 59%-41%.

Also winning the primary was Michael dePierro, a former school board member who had lost the 1979 primary for councilman.

The ’81 general turned out to be even more bitter than the primary.

During a federal racketeering trial on Long Island in September, executives of an engineering form testified that they bribed Fahy will working on a Parsippany sewer project.  Fahy strongly denied the allegations and was never charged.

Fiore won by about 2,250 votes against Fahy, 57%-43%, with Republicans sweeping the council races.  In the race for governor, Republican Tom Kean won Parsippany by about 3,200 votes.

The fight between Fahy and Fiore went on for four years, with Parsippany filing a civil lawsuit alleging that Fahy took bribes.  That suit wasn’t settled until 1986.

After twenty years of fractious primaries, both parties settled on mayoral candidates early in 1985.  Priore was unopposed in the Republican primary and councilman Bud Downing had no competition for the Democratic nomination.

Priore was the man behind a massive “Pride in Parsippany” campaign that he said brought the town together.

That year, dePierro sought the Republican for Morris County Freeholder.  Randolph Mayor George Szatkowski defeated him in the GOP primary by about 400 votes countywide, but dePierro beat Szatkowski in Parsippany by about 650 votes.

In the general election, Priore beat Downing by a margin of about 3,250 votes (62%-38%) to win a second term in 1985.  DePierro held his council seat against Democrat Mimi Letts.

In January 1989, dePierro ran in a special election convention for State Assembly in the 26th district after Assemblyman Ralph Loveys (R-Florham Park) resigned to become chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

He wound up dropping out as Parsippany went with another favorite son, Freeholder Alex DeCroce.  DeCroce went on to win on the second ballot by just one vote against another freeholder, Carol Murphy.  The convention was marked by a fist-fight between the West Milford Republican municipal chairman and a DeCroce supporter.

Priore again avoided any primary challenge in 1989, but dePierro had to get through a GOP challenge.  He beat Michael DeCroce by about 750 votes.

In November, Priore coasted to a 64% win over Democrat Drew Britcher, a margin of nearly 4,300 votes.  In the council race, dePierro also won, but by about a thousand votes less than Priore did.

In 1993, federal prosecutors indicted Priore on bribery and extortion charges, alleging that took money from a caterer who had space at the municipal golf fours, took free hotel rooms, and took $5,100 from the employee health fund.

Priore avoided a primary challenge when rival Rosemarie Agostini, the former director of the Parsippany Office on Aging, decided to run as an independent instead.

With Priore’s trial set to begin in the fall, Agostini calculated that she would have a better chance in the general.  Her campaign manager was former Democratic mayor Fahy.

Democrats ran Letts.

Despite the indictment, Priore won with 49% of the vote, with Agostini (26%) running about 3,700 votes behind him.  Letts finished third with 25%, less than 200 votes behind Agostini.

After Priore

The following March, a jury convicted Priore on 20 counts of corruption.

Priore refused to resign, and it took a court order to remove him from office.

That created a seemingly endless flow of mayors, at least for a while.

Council President Bill Clark became the acting mayor until the Parsippany Republican County Committee could meet to pick three names to submit to the council for an interim appointment.

Meanwhile, the filing date for a November 1994 special election was days away.

Councilman Joseph Weisberg, a Priore loyalist, became a candidate for the Republican nomination, along with Agostini, dePierro, and former Morris County sheriff John Fox.  Both dePierro, who took a job in the fledgling administration of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and Fox dropped out before the filing deadline.

Two Democrats entered the mayoral race: Letts and former Parsippany Democratic municipal chairman Patrick Salmon.

The county committee picked Weisberg, dePierro and councilman Edward Wall for mayor.  The council picked Weisberg, who became Parsippany’s third mayor that month.

In the June primary, Agostini bested Weisberg by 429 votes, 55%-45%.  Letts won the Democratic primary by a 66%-27% margin over Salmon, with Tim Costello finished a weak third.

Some Republican leaders refused to back Agostini and Letts was elected mayor by a margin of around 200 votes.  The GOP held control of the council.

In 1995, Agostini and running mate James Vigilante beat the last vestiges of the Priore organization when they ousted Clark and dePierro in the GOP primary for township council. Republicans won the council races that year, albeit by a margin of about 1,000 votes.

Letts again faced the voters in 1997 when she sought re-election, this time to a full four-year term.

Republicans had a nasty primary between Agostini and dePierro.

The dePierro campaign was largely financed by controversial local real estate developer Edward Mosberg, who in the days before dark money and John Graham’s super PAC, figured out how to funnel money through an assortment of partnerships to skirt the campaign contribution limit.

In the June primary, Agostini beat dePierro by fourteen votes.  After a recount, Agostini’s margin went to fifteen.

Republicans could not unite behind Agostini and Letts won nearly every voting district in the town in a 59%-41% victory.  Republicans still coasted in the races for township council.

Republicans remained split again in 2001, with three Republican councilmembers filed to challenge Letts’ bid for a third term: Vincent Strumolo, Vigilante, and for the fourth time, Agostini.

Agostini won the GOP primary again, this time with 42% of the vote.  The other faction split between Vigilante (30%) and Strumolo (28%).

Letts won the general election by about 450 votes against Agostini, 52%-48%.    Letts continued to have no coattails, with GOP council candidate James Barberio running more than 700 votes ahead of Democrat Mary Comora.

In 2005, Letts decided not to seek re-election.

Democrats nominated prosecutor Michael Luther, the son of the former mayor.  Luther beat Jonathan Nelson by less than 500 votes in the Democratic primary.

Republicans continued to fight.

Agostini made her fifth run for mayor and narrowly won in a three-way race.  Agostini beat Barberio by less than 250 votes, 37%-32%, with Fox, the former sheriff, finishing about 100 votes behind Barberio (31%).

Fox refused to endorse Agostini in the general election

Luther just barely squeaked by in November, beating Agostini by just 40 votes after a recount.

In that same election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Douglas Forrester carried Parsippany by 690 votes, and then-Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio (R-Parsippany) won it by 1,578.

Republicans Ann Grossi and John Cesaro won council seats that year.

Agostini hired one of the best election lawyers in the state, John Carbone, to overturn the election based on irregularities, but she was not able to disqualify enough voters to prevail.

The (temporary) Republican comeback

Republicans finally had enough of Agostini in 2007 and she lost the Republican primary for township council.  Barberio and dePierro won, and Fox edged out Agostini by about 120 votes.

The defeat of Agostini temporarily united Parsippany Republicans for the first time since Priore, with Barberio running unopposed for the GOP mayoral nomination.

Barberio ousted Luther by about 600 votes, 52%-48%.

The Republican candidate for mayor still ran far behind his party’s candidate for governor, Chris Christie, won carried Parsippany by 2,554 votes. Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) won it by 3,006.

In 2012, Jonathan Nelson became the first Democratic councilman since the 1970s when he won special election to fill the unexpired term of Cesaro, who has been elected freeholder.

Barberio was unable to keep Parsippany Republicans unified and nearly lost the Republican primary when he sought re-election to a second term.

Facing Councilman Paul Carifi, Jr., Barbiero prevailed by just 89 vote out of more than 4,900 cast.   Barbiero’s running mates, incumbent Vincent Ferrara and Milin Shah, lost the Republican primary to Carifi allies Louis Valori and Robert Peluso.

Nelson ran against Barberio in 2013 and nearly pulled off an upset.  Barberio won by a margin of about 700 votes, 53%-47%.

Barberio’s margin was even less impressive considering the vote performance of the entire GOP ticket.

Christie won Parsippany by 4,536 votes, Pennacchio (running for a third term in the Senate) by 2,564, and Webber by 2,190.

The advent of Michael Soriano

The tradition of Republican cannibalism in Parsippany continued in 2017.

Barberio faced a challenge from Peluso in the GOP primary and survived by around 375 votes out of more 5,100 cast.

In the general election, Barberio faced Democratic Michael Soriano, a charismatic union electrician.
Soriano ended eight years of Republican control of the powerful mayor post, upsetting Barberio by 832 votes, 7,438 to 6,606 (53%-47%).

Democrats Janice McCarthy and Emily Peterson won township council seats, defeating incumbent Valori and former councilman Ferrara.

The election continued the Democratic tide in Parsippany.

Barack Obama won Parsippany with 52% in 2012, with Bob Menendez getting 54%.  Hillary Clinton carried Parsippany with 54% over Donald Trump in 2016.

In 2017, Phil Murphy won by 475 votes (51%), while Pennacchio carried Parsippany by 321 (51%).

Last fall, Menendez carried Parsippany by 744 votes, a 50%-46% win over Bob Hugin.  Democratic congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill won Parsippany by 3,887 (60%).  In the race for county clerk, Grossi lost her hometown by 926 votes and all three Democratic freeholder candidates carried the township.

Republicans still have a 3-2 majority and Democrats need to win one of the three Republican seats up this fall to win a majority.  Democrats picked up two council seats in 2017.

The incumbent GOP councilmembers — Paul Carifi, Jr., Mike dePierro and Loretta Gragnani – come from different factions but are running on a unity ticket.  They could still face a primary challenge.  Parsippany Democrats are running gun safety advocate Cori Menkin Herbig, union leader Rob Kaminski, and planning board member Judy Hernandez.

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3 thoughts on “The road to Parsippany Mayor Michael Soriano

  1. Thank goodness all that historical entrenchment and corruption has been ousted. Having the history makes me feel even more positive than the new sense of public engagement (and the running trail on the reservoir). This has become such a more positive place to raise a family than when we first moved here. Keep up the good work Parsippany!

  2. Thank goodness all that entrenchment and corruption has been ousted. Having the history makes even more positive than the new sense of public engagement (and the running path around the reservoir). This is such a better and more positive place to raise kids than when we moved here. Keep up the good work Parsippany!

  3. Not sure why the election results are attributed to “50 years of Republican infighting”. I believe the victory had more to do with voters realizing how poorly the town was being run, as well as the fresh message the candidates brought to the table and how hard they worked to earn the votes of Parsippany residents.

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