Reality hadn’t sunk in yet.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Anthony Carabelli, Jr., and his running mates Jeff Martin and Rick Tighe had won election to the Hamilton Township council, and he couldn’t shake the numbness of the moment. In the most surprising result of Election Day 2017 in Mercer County, not one but all three Democrats had swept onto council—the first of their party to win a municipal race in Hamilton in 13 years.
Calls of congratulations had flooded in so fast, Carabelli couldn’t keep up. He took the day off from work, went to his parents’ house—his father Anthony Sr. was a longtime county freeholder—closed himself in a room there, and started returning messages.
“You feel the need to get back to everyone,” Carabelli, Jr. said.
Carabelli had met a lot of people on the campaign trail. The Democrats had started knocking on doors for the campaign in May, before the party primaries and long before voters had the Nov. 7 general election on the mind. Carabelli said they were often greeted with looks of confusion and residents asking, “What election is this for?”
The message eventually got through, though. Carabelli led all vote-getters in the council election, the results of which will give the Democrats a 3-2 majority on the town’s legislative body.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the outcome will be the departure of council president Dennis Pone from the board. Pone had served on council since January 2006, and ushered in a decade of Republican dominance in Hamilton. His fellow Republicans—Gino Melone and Dina Thornton—were both seeking their first elected terms on council. Thornton had served on council since March, when she replaced Ed Gore. Melone, who ran in place of longtime Republican councilman Dave Kenny, sat on the Trenton city council for 16 years before moving to Hamilton.
‘This was an anti-Chris Christie vote. Plain and simple.’ – Mayor Kelly Yaede
There may be the temptation to read into the results—particularly the symbolism in wiping out the last remnants of the 2005 Republican slate that changed the political tide in town. Or to perhaps consider the council election as a mid-term referendum on Mayor Kelly Yaede, a Republican who heavily campaigned for her partymates and lent her name to the council slate. The trio called themselves “the Yaede Team,” and put the designation on much of its campaign materials.
But the Republicans said the results were not an indication of dissatisfaction at the municipal level but rather a final vote against Gov. Chris Christie, who will leave office in January as the least popular governor in state history.
“This was an anti-Chris Christie vote,” Yaede said. “Plain and simple. I knew there was going to be backlash. This vote was not against good government here in Hamilton, the direction of Hamilton.”
The numbers seem to support Yaede’s argument. The council Democrats won by a combined percentage of 53 to 47. In Hamilton, Governor-elect Phil Murphy defeated the Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, 52-48—within one percentage point of the council results. Meanwhile, the final statewide numbers had Murphy winning by a wider margin overall, 56 percent to 42.
Carabelli, for his part, acknowledged he likely was helped by popular Democrats running at the state and county levels, as well as the name recognition built by his father during 46 years in office. But he is well-known in his own right, making plenty of connections in his role as a business advocate for the Mercer County Office of Economic Development and Sustainability, a member of the Hamilton Partnership and a coach at Sunnybrae Little League and Hamilton Township Recreation Soccer Association. He said he already has worked with or knows a number of members of the administration and council, including township economic development director Marty Flynn and Republican councilwoman Ileana Schirmer.
“I think it will be a seamless transition,” Carabelli said. “The fact I have those relationships, it bodes well.”
It also helps that the Democrats’ areas of priority seem to be in line with the administration’s, with the three new councilmen wanting to focus on keeping taxes stable, maintaining fiscal responsibility and stimulating economic development. It remains to be seen, though, if the Democrats and Republicans agree on how to achieve these.
Carabelli said, in particular, he wants to use his expertise in economic development to see more movement at the Congoleum site and the Cost Cutters shopping center. He also wants to make it a point to work closely with Shop Hamilton, a local business group. But, first, he said he, Martin and Tighe will sit down with Yaede and the administration and get to know their agenda.
Yaede also expressed optimism for a positive relationship between council and the administration and between Democrats and Republicans. She said, in the end, everyone is after the same goal: serving the residents of Hamilton Township.
“It’s time to govern now,” the mayor said. “This administration will continue doing what it has been for the residents.”
Among Yaede’s priorities are the continued implementation of the Do Not Knock solicitation policy, a focus on road repairs and public safety and seeking positive partnerships like the one forged between the township and the CYO at the Bromley Neighborhood Civic Center.
In the end, Yaede said, residents and those in government need to remember that life goes on after an election.
“We’ve seen this in Hamilton before,” Yaede said. “Working constructively is my main focus.”
Yaede, in fact, would know, as she had a prime role in the last political tide shift in Hamilton. In 2005, Democrats occupied every council seat and the mayor’s office. Then, on Election Day 2005, the Republican slate of Tom Goodwin, Dave Kenny and Dennis Pone shocked the ruling Democrats, all winning election. Their victory ousted then-council president Wayne DeAngelo (now a state assemblyman), and fellow incumbent Eileen Thornton. Tom Walls rounded out the Democratic slate, filling the place of incumbent Dan Benson, who decided to forsake his council seat for a run at state assembly. (Benson would lose that election, but would later earn appointment to the assembly in 2011. Benson won re-election to the assembly for the fourth time last month.) In the wake of the election, a fourth Democrat—Chuck Plumeri—resigned from council, and moved to Connecticut.
The Republicans had, in one night, altered 80 percent of council.
The next November, in a special election for Plumeri’s seat, the Republicans gained a 4-1 majority on council after a victory by their candidate—a former Board of Education member named Kelly Yaede.
In 2007, the Republicans took full control. Yaede won re-election to her seat while runningmate Kevin Meara knocked off the last remaining Democrat on council. John Becnivengo won the mayoral election, ousting incumbent Democrat Glen Gilmore.
No Democrat has filled an elected position in Hamilton municipal government since then, something that will change next month.
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In the Board of Education race, incumbent Susan Lombardo, former board member Al Gayzik and 19-year old Cameron Cardinale topped a crowded field of 13 for three 3-year terms. Lombardo, the top vote-getter, beat the next closest candidate by 5 percentage points.
Lombardo, in a letter to the Post, wrote that her main focuses are to continue to bring equity and diversity throughout the district, to increase drug addiction and suicide awareness programs, to address overcrowding in the district and to work with the rest of the board on “other important concerns such as curriculum, budget issues, and infrastructure improvements to our aging school district buildings.”