A Real Horse Race in Jefferson This Midterm

We are on the precipice of a historical election. This is the most important election in a generation. This is the election of a lifetime.

Seriously? The midterms?

Well, if we put stock in the claims of myriad political pundits, not to mention various and sundry talking heads, it could be so. We just might be on the precipice of a historical election, although we will not know for quite some time.

Sure, we will learn results of the midterm election in a few short days, but it is likely to be weeks (even months … maybe years?) before we learn whether the 2018 midterm election was the most important in a generation. Historical or not, there decidedly is a lot of enthusiasm and excitement around the midterms – even here in Jefferson Township.

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According to the Morris County Board of Elections, there was a noticeable increase in new voter registration in the township between this year’s June primary and last month’s voter registration deadline. Of the 419 new voters, 134 registered Republican, 102 Democrat, and 183 Unaffiliated. This compares with 308 new voter registrations during the same year-ago period, representing an increase of 111 new voter registrations this year.

While Republicans have been in the driver’s seat in Jefferson for decades, more voters identify as Unaffiliated. All told, 6,112 Unaffiliated voters are eligible to cast votes next week, a number greater than voters in either major party.

Indy Jefferson

In fact, Jefferson is considered the most independent municipality in all of Morris County, according to the USA Today network. The publishing company ranked towns “by their percentage of Republican and Democratic voters based on voter registration totals as of May 2018.”

New Jersey, often considered a “blue” state, actually has a large contingent of independent voters, accounting for 42 percent of the state’s total electorate. Jefferson, however, is above the state average, with 44 percent of registered voters identifying as Unaffiliated (independent), according to the USA Today network report. Rounding out the township’s voter distribution, 35 percent are Republican and 21 percent are Democrat. Whatever their affiliation, on Tuesday, 15,251 township residents are qualified to enjoy the privilege of voting.

Midterm election enthusiasm and excitement has not been lost on Jefferson. Beginning with the primaries in June, longtime GOP mayor Russ Felter was challenged for the title by another Republican, Eric Wilsusen. In addition, two teams of Republicans faced off for the opportunity to run for two open council seats, with another Republican running solo.

Incumbent and current council president Debi Merz, who ran on Felter’s team, secured a place on the November ballot. A member of Wilsusen’s “New Vision” team, Melissa Senatore – a school board member – also secured a spot on the GOP ballot for a council seat.

The midterm excitement was guaranteed to continue as the Republican team, for the first time in years, would be faced with Democrat challengers. The township will see a real contest next week for the two open council seats.

New Vision for Jefferson with Experience

Pictured from left to right: the New Vision for Jefferson with Experience” team; council member Debi Merz, retired deputy police chief Eric Wilsusen, and Board of Education member Melissa Senatore. (Photo provided by the New Vision for Jefferson with Experience)

Merz has been on the Town Council and Planning Board for 27 years. “With these years of service comes a lot of knowledge and experience. We’ve earned connections with other elected officials, learned to manage money, and helped the community,” Merz told The Jefferson Chronicle earlier this year.

The candidate has also been active in the community. Through the years, she has served as a coach, Girl Scout leader, Milton Tri-School PTA president, Blue Knights member, Jefferson Arts Committee member, Sunday school teacher, and three-term member of the Board of Education.

Senatore, a lifelong Jefferson resident, is finishing her sixth year on the Board of Education. “I believe that my years of experience on the Board of Education have helped me prepare for the Town Council,” she told The Chronicle earlier this year. She added, “I understand the wants and the needs of the residents of Jefferson.”

The candidate also served on the Jefferson softball recreation board and committee, and she has coached for the Jefferson Recreation Department since 2013. She represented the township on the Morris County Educational Services Commission in 2016 and 2017, and has headed the Board of Education’s negotiations committee, educational committee, and building needs and finance committee.

Wilsusen is considered the mayor-elect, as he is running unopposed. Retiring in 2017 as deputy chief of police, he had served as a township police officer for 31 years. The soon-to-be mayor was also the township’s director of communications and deputy emergency management coordinator. He is the director of child and youth protection for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson.

The New Vision team is running on the following platform:

  • Reactivating an economic advisory board to research ways to bring new businesses to Jefferson
  • Increasing ratables while managing taxes for residents
  • Improving government communication with residents
  • Making local government run more efficiently.

To learn more about the GOP team, read “Republicans Wilsusen, Merz, and Senatore Team up for General Election.”

Challengers Seeking a “Shared Voice for Jefferson”

The Democratic team of Doug Helmstetter and Dan Malloy is running for the two open seats on the council, which has not seen bipartisan membership in nearly two decades. Historically a Republican stronghold, Jefferson’s last two-party representation was in 2000.

Doug Helmstetter, pictured above left, and Dan Malloy are running for two open seats on the Jefferson Township Council. Both are longtime township residents and active in community volunteer activities. (Photo: Maria Weiskott)

“For far too many years, our township has had only one voice,” Helmstetter told The Chronicle in September. “A democracy does not function as a monotone. Another voice is long overdue,” he added.

Although new to the political arena, the two men are not new to Jefferson. Both are married with families and have lived in the township for years.

Active in the community, Helmstetter spent time as a local soccer coach, Boy Scout leader, and volunteer with the Lake Forest swim team. He also served as a coordinator for the March of Dimes as well as the blood bank. These days, the candidate says, he is an active participant in “Saturdays at the Center, a Department for Persons with Disabilities (DPD) program that helps young adults with developmental disabilities to learn and socialize.” The DPD is operated by Catholic Charities, Diocese of Paterson.

A U.S. Navy veteran with four deployments under his belt, Malloy is a recipient of a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for heroic action. Locally, he co-created a charitable nonprofit. The 5K Taco Trot, a charity run, has raised over $100,000 for cancer research.

Malloy said he and his wife settled in Jefferson “because we love nature and truly feel that this community is the perfect balance between modern convenience and the beauty of New Jersey. I love the lake and the trails at Mahlon Dickerson, and feel that they make Jefferson special and unique.”

Both Democratic candidates strongly believe bipartisan representation is essential in a democracy. They agree that it is time for Jefferson to have a true bipartisan government and better conservation of tax dollars.

To learn more about the candidates, read No Primary Battle, but Dems Ready for Midterm Run.”

Editor’s Note: New Jersey polling places are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. For information about Jefferson Township polling districts, visit www.jeffersontownship.net/Cit-e-Access/webpage.cfm?TID=4&TPID=881.

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Maria Weiskott is a Jefferson Township resident and a forty year veteran of the publishing profession. An award-winning journalist and editor, she served in top managerial positions at numerous business-to- business newspapers and magazines including Reed Elsevier and Fairchild Publications. Early in her career she operated a local newspaper in the Passaic Valley towns of Little Falls, Totowa and the former West Paterson. Following retirement, she launched a “ghostblogging” service that provides social networking update and blogging services for small and medium sized businesses. Maria travels widely with her husband and is a passionate photographer. She can be reached at maria.weiskott@thejeffersonchronicle.com.