How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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Thoughts on Mercer's political parties

The Republican Party dominated Mercer County politics from 1979-2003 and now they are completely gone from the scene.

Bill Mathesius followed by Bob Prunetti each served three consecutive four-year terms as County Executive during that period.

With the election of Brian Hughes in 2003 as County Executive the Republicans have been eclipsed at the county-level. How did that happen?

For 24 years the Republicans not only held the Office of County Executive, they also at one time held five of the seven freeholders seats, the County Clerk's Office, the Surrogate Office and Assembly and Senate seats in both the 14th and 15th legislative districts.

During their heydays, the following Republicans held office: County Executive Mathesisus, Freeholder and then County Executive Robert Prunetti, Freeholder and Assemblyman Paul Kramer, Assemblywoman Barbara Wright, Freeholder and State Senate Peter Inverso, State Senator Dick LaRossa, Freeholder Carolyn Bronson, Freeholder Calvin Izzard, Assemblyman Jack Rafferty, County Clerk Cathy DiConstanzo and Surrogate Carol Oswald. Nowadays, not one of these offices is held by a Republican.

There are three reasons the Republicans lost their foothold. First, the Republican Party's success was largely attributable to the presence of three highly visible leaders - Bill Mathesius, Jack Rafferty and Bob Prunetti. No matter what you think about Bill Mathesius' combative in-your face personality, no one can question his good looks, quick wit and overall intelligence. He was an imposing charismatic political figure in the county for a number of years with the ability to garner considerable press coverage and enough political clot to block the lost link of I-95 in 1982.

Likewise, Jack Rafferty, the former long-term Mayor of Hamilton Township (first elected in 1975), is a legend who continues to make an impression to this day. If you happen to be at Rossi's Bar and Grill when "the mayor" and Doris arrive, you'll in veritably see a crowd gather at his table to reminisce about the "good old times" with "their Mayor." He is truly beloved and extremely well-liked by politicians on both sides of the aisle, even though he has been retired since 1999.

The vaunted old guard in Hamilton was led by the "Jacks" -- Jack Rafferty and long-time council president Jack Lacey and included former councilman and well-known Hamilton bar/restaurant owner Jack Zoller.

Bob Prunetti, with his Democratic Chambersburg roots, was able to appeal to Regan Democrats by forging an alliance with Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer that resulted in the construction of the highly-visible Waterfront Park and the sports arena in Trenton.

Republicans benefited by riding the powerful coattails of Bill Mathesius and Jack Rafferty and, to lesser extent those of Bob Purnetti. When they left the scene, no next generation politician was able to replace them and provide the coattails they did.

The second reason, the Republicans were so successful during was because they had some very skilled party operatives, i.e., Kenneth Zauber (finances) and Walter DeAngelo and John Ricci (operations). These folks worked year round, building an effective well-oiled campaign apparatus that included hundreds of volunteers coordinated by hard working captains. The effort included a robust on-going polling operation, extensive phone banks, multiple targeted mailings stuffed by an army of volunteers, mailing of Christmas cards to workers and supporters, April to election day door-to-door targeted campaigning by candidates, hosting an annual picnic that drew upwards of a 1,000+ participants and extensive use of lawn signs. A new generation of operatives never emerged in Republican politics when these folks moved on to other endeavors.

While the Republicans during the past decade and a half have lacked field leadership, Democrats Party's field operations was ably lead by the highly regarded Rich McClellan before his recent untimely passing.

The third reason for the Republican demise was their inability to maintain their party's overriding advantage in Hamilton Township. Although the Republican were able to recapture the Mayor's office after Democrat Glen Gilmore held it for two terms, with John Bencivengo (who was sentenced to three years in prison for accepting a bribe while in office) and with current mayor, Kelly Yaede, their control of Hamilton is not reminiscent of the glory years under Jack Rafferty.

This is evident by the Democrats sweep of three seats on the Hamilton Council this year and the inability of Hamilton Republican to win in the 14th legislative district. The days when Hamilton was able to bring home candidates, in spite of a huge Democratic pluralities in Trenton, as it did in the '80s and '90s are long gone (as yours truly, Shirley Turner and Joe Bocchini can attest to from our unsuccessful run for freeholder and County Executive against the Mathesius/Kramer/Prunetti ticket in 1987).

While Hamilton still remains a stronghold of the Republican Party, as evident by Kim Guadgano defeat of Phil Murphy in 35 of 64 Hamilton election districts and Ilenana Schirner defeat of Senator Greenstein in Hamilton, it is not able to produce the margins of victory it did more than two decades ago.

When it comes to politics, people do matter. The presence of charismatic leaders and competent party operatives willing to do the behind the scenes work in the trenches are what separate successful and unsuccessful parties at the county-level in Mercer County and all levels.