Entries in Sussex County Politics (26)


The sad fates of those who trusted Freeholder Boss Graham

Around the County Courthouse in Newton they have a saying... George Graham makes a lot of friends, but doesn't keep any for long. 

Graham rose in Sussex County politics from a local Democrat official to the Republican boss of county government.  His political consulting business -- York Strategies -- was once closely associated with the campaigns of a number of Democrat candidates in Hudson County.  Remember Assembly Speaker Joe Doria?  The Hudson County Democrat was Governor Jim Florio's legislative point man in the passage of the most restrictive firearms ban in our nation's history.

George Graham and his political consulting business, York Strategies, worked for Joe Doria in Hudson County.  Graham was a registered Democrat when he worked for Doria. 

George Graham was a lifelong Democrat until switching to Republican to vote in the primary against conservatives Alison McHose and Gary Chiusano.  In the General Election that year, Graham donated to their liberal Democrat opponents and switched back from Republican to Democrat in order to vote in the 2008 Democrat presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. 

Afraid of losing his seat on Stanhope council, a desperate Graham switched again to Republican, his current party today.  In a matter of a few years time, George Graham flipped from Democrat to Republican, back to Democrat, and then to Republican again. Graham has been a Democrat for most of his adult life and affiliated with liberals for much of that time.

Graham's political consulting business, York Strategies, which included partner James Barracato, came up with slogans like "Joe Doria is full time Bayonne" and "I'm with Joe," according to the Hudson Reporter newspaper.  Although no longer a member of the Legislature, Joe Doria is still on the campaign trail with Jim Florio, only now they campaign for gun control and against the NRA (National Rifle Association).  At a recent gathering the two called for new constraints on the Second Amendment, with Joe Doria calling the NRA "dirty".  Not to be outdone, Florio added that the manufacturers and sellers of guns were, in his words, "Merchants of Death." 

As a Republican, George Graham closely aligned himself with former Freeholder Glen Vetrano.  In 2012, Vetrano and Graham engineered the victory of Dennis Mudrick, who was elected to the Freeholder Board. 

But it didn't take long for Graham to deep six his former friends.  After securing election to the Freeholder Board himself in 2013, the following year Graham instigated the ethics investigation that brought down Vetrano, and in 2015 he ran Jonathan Rose and Carl Lazzaro against incumbent Freeholder Mudrick, who was defeated in the primary.

In 2016, Graham became the boss of the Freeholder Board -- controlling a majority made up of him, Rose, and Lazzaro.  After winning the primary that year, he successfully talked Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus into challenging Senator Steve Oroho for his seat in 2017.  This move essentially ended Phoebus' political career as well.  

Not content with ruining Assemblywoman Phoebus, Graham moved on to Republican candidate for Freeholder Herb Yardley, who Graham deliberately sought to hobble so that Democrat Dan Perez might win and the join Graham, Rose, and Lazzaro on the Freeholder Board.  Worse still was the fact that Graham involved Freeholders Jonathan Rose and Carl Lazzaro in supporting the Democrat. 

And that is why we are where we are today. 


Watchdog drives the Freeholder race

We are watching with delight how the Gray-Gorman campaign is using past Watchdog columns to run a very hard-hitting campaign against incumbent Freeholder George Graham and his running mate, Hopatcong Mayor Sylvia Petillo.  Watchdog's insights, often missed by corporate media, have provided nearly all of the hits used by Freeholder challengers David Gray and Kathleen Gorman.

This is the most curious campaign on record in Sussex County, not least because of the changing merry-go-round of alliances.  In 2012, George Graham started his rise in Republican politics in Sussex County as the manager of Dennis Mudrick's campaign for Freeholder and the ally of Glen Vetrano and Wendy Molner.  With Graham's help, Mudrick won that election, but the following year saw Graham side with Gary Chiusano in the race for Surrogate and against Alicia Ferrante, the candidate recruited by Glen Vetrano.  Chiusano won and Vetrano subsequently developed some ethical problems as a Trustee for the Sussex County Community College.  In 2014, Graham helped Molner with Freeholder Phil Crabb's successful bid for re-election.  Then in 2015, Graham backed fellow Freeholder Gail Phoebus in her successful bid for State Assembly against Molner-recruited candidate Marie Bilik.  

George Graham was elected to the Freeholder Board in 2013, with the strong support of the county's local elected officials.  In 2015, Graham split with fellow Freeholders Phil Crabb and Richard Vohden over the solar issue -- specifically rejecting their plan to place the entire blame for the 2011 solar project on the shoulders of Parker Space, who was a Freeholder in 2011, but who had subsequently been elected to the State Assembly in 2013.  Graham's support for Space led to his falling out with Crabb and Vohden.  This is curious, because this year Space has been somewhat loose in his support for the man who came to his aid last year.  But that's politics for you.


Reagan didn't keep his own 11th Commandment

There is a letter floating around from one of the candidates for Chairman of the Sussex County Republican Committee that quotes the so-called "11th Commandment" of Ronald Reagan:  "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."

Now anyone with even a little knowledge of the history behind Reagan's electoral success understands that Reagan didn't actually practice this.  If he had, he would have never secured the nomination in1980 and would have never gone on to be a successful President.  Ronald Reagan was fierce, ruthless campaigner.  Here are two of his campaign ads from 1976 that attack the incumbent Republican President, Gerald Ford.  

The so-called "11th Commandment" is nothing more than a bed time story told by people who should know better.




Crabb, Vohden, Mudrick appoint crony to top job

Earlier this year, Sussex County Human Services Administrator Stephen Gruchacz, aged 67, was telling people that he was all set to retire.  Many believed that Gruchacz would be the fifth top county bureaucrat to hand in his resignation in the aftermath of the county's solar debacle. 

Instead, three of the five county freeholders got around the State's Open Public Meetings Act to successfully negotiate a deal with Gruchacz to stay on -- provided he got a promotion and a 22% salary increase.  At Wednesday's meeting of the county's Freeholder Board, Gruchacz was appointed County Administrator, Sussex County's top unelected bureaucrat, on a 3-2 vote (Crabb, Vohden, Mudrick voted yes; Phoebus and Graham voted no).

Of course, the $30,000-per-year salary increase the three Freeholders gave Gruchacz came with a three-year contract.  In effect, they gave him a pension boost as well.  It's nice to have friends in high places.  Word has it that the votes of the three Freeholders for Gruchacz were delivered by outgoing County Administrator Johnny "Wildthing" Eskilson. 

On the same day that Freeholder Vohden was insisting that destroying the audio recordings of what he said during the negotiations that led to the solar debacle was nothing more than "following the law",  Vohden led a posse of Crabb and Mudrick in ignoring the County's law that requires the top job be filled by someone residing in Sussex County.  Gruchacz lives in Somerset County and pays his property taxes there.  Taxpayers screwed again.  This man doesn't even feel our pain. 

However, the Gruchacz appointment did make it plain who runs the county -- it's the outgoing County Administrator and the three Freeholders (Vohden, Crabb, and Mudrick) one of whom was just defeated for re-election (Mudrick came in four out of four).  Instead of taking the will of the voters into account, Gruchacz was appointed over the strong objections of the County's legislative delegation, other elected county officials, and numerous local elected officials.

Nobody thought it a good idea to hand Gruchacz a three year contract.  All these elected officials advised giving him no more than an interim contract as provided for by law, but Eskilson got to Crabb who infected Vohden, leaving Mudrick, who just slavishly obeys.  One can only wonder what kind of cooperation the County will get from Trenton after pulling a stunt like this.

At Wednesday's meeting, Freeholder Crabb referred to Gruchacz as "Best of Breed" -- apparently forgetting that the term is used in judging dogs.  On the other hand, this might well be a real dog of an appointment. 



Is the Sussex GOP "Dysfunctional"?

Gary Larson has been a successful local politician.  He is the Mayor of Frankford Township and has been elected and re-elected to that town's Committee.  At that level -- the small community -- it is tough to avoid hearing from your neighbor, to avoid touching the voters. 

Mayor Larson has also run for county Freeholder twice, in 2013 and again in 2015, and has lost both times.  After each loss, Larson has blamed the Republican Party for his loss.  In his most recent loss, he labeled the party as "dysfunctional".  One can only suppose that if he had won the election, Larson would have said the party was in good working order, functioning as it should.

But Larson does have a point because, by virtue of his running with incumbent Freeholder Dennis Mudrick, he could be described as a candidate of the county's "establishment".  So why didn't he win? 

The weekend before the June 2nd primary election, Larson and Mudrick put out a mailer that listed their support from local and county elected officials. Including Mudrick, three of the five county Freeholders supported Larson.  Their ticket ran a technically better campaign, with unified advertising and more voter contact.  They got their message out, so what went wrong?

Well, what went wrong was the same thing that went so disastrously wrong with the campaign of Marie Bilik.  The message and where it came from.

Instead of looking to the voters for guidance about what their message should be, in Sussex County many would be elected officials look to a small group of political insiders.  They have conversations, conduct their own version of "market research" and then fashion their message based on how they believe these insiders will react to it.  Unfortunately, these insiders represent only a fraction of the primary electorate who actually turnout to vote.  And many have altogether different reasons for voting.

There are levels of "insider" in Sussex County.  At the inner most core exist those who owe their living to government -- county, local, state, and federal (in that order) -- especially those whose living is based on a more fluid relationship with government.  Most county employees have a static relationship with government (35 hours time for X in compensation, week in, week out) and are not political insiders.  However, if you are looking to score a contract from government, it is probably safe to say that you are at least an aspiring insider.  If you are not one of the chattering class, you will soon be.

It is this relationship -- the wanting of something from government -- that makes the Sussex County "insider" so different from the average Republican primary voter in Sussex County.  The insider is looking for something from government:  Money or some consideration that he or she can turn into money.  The average Republican voter doesn't want shat from government.  They simply want to be left alone.  They want government to spend less, so it doesn't have to tax them at the highest rate in America.

So there's the difference.  The insider wants government to spend taxpayers' money on their product or service.  The average Republican primary voter wants government to spend less and just go away.  It's a difference of perspective and it is why candidates like Gary Larson see "dysfunction" -- because the wants of the insiders he's listening to are different from those of the Republican voters he is trying to convince to vote for him.

And often -- too often -- the insider's game turns into little more than crony capitalism, with products and services considered based on the pedigree of the "representative" (aka "advocate", "lobbyist", "recipient of corporate welfare") as opposed to the needs of the taxpayer.  Who said we needed solar panels on the roof tops of every public building anyway?  Which came first, some insider's need for a score or the taxpayers' need for the product?

So Gary Larson is on to something.  There is something dysfunctional about Sussex County politics.  Too many prospective elected officials dispense with polling the people they want to represent and instead look to the direction of a handful of chattering insiders.  These perspectives couldn't be more different, and so they lose, wonder why, and then call it "dysfunctional".