Republicans have not lost a freeholder race in Sussex County since 1999, when Democrat Howard Burrell ousted incumbent Richard Darina by 501 votes. Races for freeholder are settled in GOP primaries – Sussex has had competitive June elections for the last nine years – and 2018 continues the tradition.
Freeholders Jonathan Rose and Carl Lazzaro are facing Sparta Mayor Josh Hertzberg and Franklin Borough Council President Dawn Fantasia in the Republican primary. Some of the most powerful GOP officials in the county – State Sen. Steve Oroho, Assemblymen Parker Space and Hal Wirths, and Sheriff Michael Strada – are backing the challengers.
For most of the last decade, the big issue in Sussex politics was the botched 2011 Sussex County Renewable Energy Program that wound up costing a reported $40 million – including nearly $7 million in settlements – that will impact the county budget for the next decade.
While the solar energy issue loomed large, it wasn’t the only issue. Like any county that is reliably under one-party control, factions develop that create genuine completion. And dissent becomes easier when the county Republican organization has no line to hold over candidates.
The 2018 primary is one of those throw a body on a tarmac stories: Rose and Lazzaro were not helpful to Oroho during his brief primary challenge from Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus last year, and the Senator – easily the most powerful politician in Sussex County – needs to show others that disloyalty carries a penalty.
Despite the upcoming primary battle, Sussex Republicans appear in an exponentially better place today than it was three years ago when County Chair Ailish Hambel unexpectedly resigned two days before the primary. She citied party infighting as her reason for quitting.
The new chairman, Jerry Scanlan, appears to be a more unifying figure who gets along with the different factions. He won an impressive 60% when he ran in a special election to replace Hambel and seems to be more focused on winning general elections. Still, the unofficial Sussex GOP organization candidate for freeholder last year, Herbert Yardley, beat Hambel in the primary with 61% of the vote.