Hamilton Township voters will have an unusually full slate of candidates to pick from when they go to the polls for the primary election Tuesday, June 4.
On the Republican side, there are challengers in both the mayoral and council races, with incumbent mayor Kelly Yaede facing off against David Henderson for mayor. At the council level, five candidates—Bill Argust, Rich Balgowan, Vinnie Capodanno, Tony Celentano and Cynthia Simon—running for two ballot slots in the general election.
Things are slightly cleaner on the Democratic side, where township council president Jeff Martin runs unopposed for the party’s mayoral nomination. Three candidates—JoAnne Bruno, Pat Papero and Nancy Phillips—seek the two Democratic nods for township council.
But the names are only part of the story in what is turning out to be a wild campaign season in Hamilton.
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Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede faces two challengers, one on her political right and the other on her left, if she wants to keep the job she has held since November 2012.
Her first test will be against fellow Republican David Henderson, a former supporter turned adversary, in the primary. If she wins that, Democratic council president Jeffrey Martin will be waiting for her in the general election in November.
Yaede, 50, has built her political resume one step at a time: a member of the Hamilton Board of Education, later a Hamilton councilwoman and then the first female mayor of the ninth largest community in the state. During that time, she had to overcome invisible obstacles, like being told the community would never elect a woman, she was too young and that she should “tone down the pretty.”
Henderson, the mayoral challenger, used to support Yaede—
but no more.
“I have a vested interest in my hometown,” she said one day last month, seated behind a desk in her campaign office. “And this year is such an important election because we’re fighting for Hamilton’s values.”
She has touted a 10-percent-drop in crime from 2017 to 2018, a proposed municipal budget cutting taxes by 1.25 percent and “booming” economic development. She said she favors consolidating eight fire companies in town into one municipal department.
“When you are an executive, you are on the front line and you can affect change as an executive,” she said. “Anyone who knows and works with me knows I don’t like delay.”
Henderson, her Republican challenger, used to support Yaede—but no more.
“Four years ago, I voted for her because I felt things were running better then,” he said. “I didn’t like the candidate that was running against her. I helped her out in her re-election.”
Four years later, the opposite has occurred. He said that under her administration, municipal debt has more than doubled, from $92 million four years ago to $186 million now.
By contrast, Henderson, 67, pointed to his background in the public and private sectors as providing him with the experience to be the town’s next chief executive. He also cited his political independence as not being “the Hamilton machine Republican.”
“I’m not in with them,” he said. “I have great business experience and sense.”
In addition to the debt, he said property values are down in a community with 750 vacant properties. Along the town’s waterfront, he said he is for taking an old PSEG site and turning it into passive recreation, restaurants and entertainment and using other waterfront property for manufacturing. Henderson’s plans would require a change of direction, as a developer has already obtained ownership of the complex from PSEG earlier in 2019, and has announced plans for a fulfillment warehouse complex on the property.
Yaede has not debated Henderson, in person. She says he had wanted to work for her, politically, as her adviser—something she was not interested in. Henderson denies seeking any such position.
During the race, a Hamilton police report of a now since dismissed and later expunged criminal case against Henderson from June 2001 was published on a local blog. Henderson said there is an active investigation by Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri’s office into the release of information. A spokeswoman for Onofri did not respond to a request for comment.
In another wrinkle, municipal Health Officer Jeffrey Plunkett and Todd Bencivengo, the former supervisor of the municipal animal shelter, were charged with official misconduct and animal cruelty, the Prosecutor’s Office announced May 3. The charges stemmed from a law enforcement investigation into the shelter, where authorities alleged that from January 2016 to October 2018, about 329 cats and dogs had been euthanized “before holding the animals or offering them for adoption for at least seven days as required by state law,” the Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement announcing the charges.
There were “multiple examples of mismanagement” at the shelter, the statement read in part.
Yaede’s critics have seized on the problems at the shelter as a prime example of the lack of leadership.
“I think the mayor has never exercised good judgment and has never exercised leadership qualities,” Henderson said. “There’s no vision. There’s no forethought. Everything’s reactive.”
Yaede said the township had addressed the “deficiencies” at the shelter and improved the facility. She has asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey to look into the criminal charges that authorities have brought, and raised concerns about possible “political considerations” by the state attorney general’s office in the case.
Hamilton is one of the few municipalities in Mercer County, an otherwise deep blue Democratic stronghold in the state, where Republicans hold any political power.
In 2015, the year Yaede was re-elected, Republican swept the municipal races. But their grip on the municipal government has been weakening.
Democrats won all three council races in 2017 against a Yaede-backed slate. Also last year, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4) was re-elected, despite losing in Hamilton, a community that is in his district.
Meanwhile, Martin, 35, can watch the Republican civil war from a safe distance. He has no opponent in the Democratic primary and enjoys wide support among top Democrats. Party leaders including Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes and others stood at Martin’s side when he announced his bid for mayor.
“I’ve seen Hamilton become stale under our current mayor,” he said at his announcement in January. “I’ve seen it slowly deteriorate because of a lack of leadership, a lack of vision, a lack of accountability and a lack of follow through.”
Martin said that as mayor, he would concentrate on redevelopment as “a priority.” He criticized a plan to put a warehouse on land located across from the train station, something he called a “waste of prime space” for the community.
“That location can be an economic driver for Hamilton, not only in the near future but the long-term future being both across from the train station and right off 295,” he said.
On other issues, he said that as neighboring Robbinsville grows, that community should “pay their fair share of what they owe the town” for being a customer of Hamilton’s sewer utility. He said the quality of the water from Trenton remains a concern for residents.
As for other public policy, he declined to say whether he supports making Hamilton a sanctuary city, where local police limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. That’s a step officials in other Democratic-controlled towns around the state and the country have taken.
“I’m for Hamilton being a fair and a welcoming environment for anybody who wants to come inside Hamilton,” he said.
Martin, a native of Edison, is a relative newcomer to Hamilton, a town he has lived in for about five years.
“He needs a GPS to get around Hamilton. I do not,” Yaede said.
For his part, Martin, a veteran of the Air Force, called it “disingenuous” for her to raise that issue when “I went out and served our country for four years.”
“I think it’s a slap in the face to anybody who chooses to raise their hand and go serve their country, that they weren’t in the town longer,” said Martin, elected to council in 2017. “So I think people knew that about me two years ago and elected me and had zero concerns with that. And I think people will do the same thing this November as well.”
For Yaede, she said what gives her the “most trepidation” about a potential Martin victory would be the influence of Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, “on this great town.”
“The political machine will run Hamilton Township,” she said. “Our Hamilton values of what we know and love about this community will be lost. You will have Gov. Murphy run everything in this town.”
“I doubt Phil Murphy even knows who I am,” said Martin, whose wife, Scarlett Rajski, was Murphy’s director of appointments and now works as the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. “I’d be concerned about the mayor continuing to follow Chris Christie’s playbook on increasing debt, on bullying and intimidating people as a leadership style.”
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At the moment, Democrats hold three out of the five seats on the Council. Incumbent Republicans Ralph Mastrangelo and Ileana Schirmer declined to run for re-election this year.
Henderson is running with council candidates Cynthia Simon and Bill Argust. Yaede’s slate includes former Democratic Councilman Vincent Capodanno and Richard M. Balgowan.
Argust, a businessman, said he sees a lack of leadership in the municipal government.
“Real change really starts with the people,” said Argust, 66, the owner of an executive recruiting and consultation business. “It’s got to start with people that have a background in solving problems, how to approach a problem.”
As she campaigns, Simon said she is talking to voters about fiscal responsibility in government.
“I’m all about how we spend our dollars,” said Simon, 50, employed by Educational Testing Service.
Simon said that when it comes to developing the town, she has grown tired of seeing open space being sacrificed to make way for a warehouse.
GOP council candidate Tony Celentano, 77, has spent five nonconsecutive terms on the Hamilton Board of Education. He said the township Council needs people who can work together and “know how to agree to disagree in order to move forward.” He stressed having a “common ground where people start to talk to each other.”
In terms of staffing municipal government, the town needs to bring in people with experience and who can do the job, he said.
He declined to say if he is supporting Yaede or Henderson for mayor. Celentano, however, has worked with Henderson previously in launching a charter school in Hamilton and advised an attempt by Henderson to launch a charter STEM school in the township. Celentano also, in a press release announcing his 2019 candidacy, took a shot at “party insiders” who he said prevented him from running for council in the past.
For his part, Celentano predicted dire consequences for his party if Democrats sweep the mayor and council races this year.
“Because if we don’t win something, it’s over,” he said. “They won’t get anybody elected here for years just like at the county level. You can’t get a freeholder elected that’s a Republican.”
Capodanno, 71, served on council from 2000 to 2004. Having switched parties this year, he described himself as “very independent.”
“And if Republican have really good ideas and they’re doing the right thing, I’ll agree with them. If the Democrats have really good ideas and they’re doing the right thing, I’ll agree with them,” he said.
He left the Democratic Party, he said, because the party has gone “too far left.”
Though he and Yaede had their past differences, Capodanno said he’s come to know her and finds her “very understanding” and “not controlling.”
“And I like the way she runs the town,” he said.
If elected to council, he said he would not vote to raise taxes.
He calls this election “a tipping point” for Hamilton. He said Martin is “way too far to the left” and has a way of not revealing where he stands on an issue.
Balgowan, 65, used to work for the township as its director of public works from 2004 to 2011 serving under former mayors Glen Gilmore and John Bencivengo. He has never run for political office before.
“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I really like the things that Mayor Yaede is doing. The direction she’s going in, I think it’s a great thing for Hamilton Township.”
At one point, he said that Bencivengo, who was convicted in 2012 in a federal corruption case and served time in prison, did a “good job” as mayor.
“I just think he made a really bad decision,” he said of the ex-mayor.
Looking to the future of the community, he said “we’ve got to get a grasp on spending.” He stressed making government run more efficiently and felt there were ways Hamilton can work with neighboring towns, such as providing building inspections.
Yet the feud within the Republican Party appears as though it will last beyond the primary, regardless of who wins.
Argust said he would not vote for Yaede in November if she beats Henderson. Asked if she could support a split Republican ticket in November, Simon said “that’ll be a really tough pill to swallow.”
“That’s a difficult question to answer right now,” Balgowan said.
On the Democratic side, council candidates Pat Papero, Nancy Phillips and JoAnne Bruno are running for two seats. Papero and Phillips are on the same slate as Martin.
Phillips, 43, is a teacher in the South Brunswick school district. Papero, 42, is a Mercer County sheriff’s officer. They are running for public office for the first time.
For Phillips, she had gotten involved in advocacy work on behalf of one of her daughters, who was diagnosed with a rare disease when she was about 18 months old.
“I feel like I have a good background of advocating for those who can’t speak for themselves,” she said. “And I want to offer that to our residents and do everything I can to help them.”
Papero serves as a PBA delegate and also sits on the Public Employment Relations Committee, a state board that Gov. Murphy put him on. He contrasted his experience in law enforcement with what what he sees in municipal government in Hamilton.
“As a cop, you have to be transparent and you have to be accountable for the decisions you make,” he said. “And I think that’s how you gain the people’s trust. I think with some of the decisions that have been made, there hasn’t been any transparency. There hasn’t been any accountability.”
Picking up on that theme, Phillips recalled getting a letter in the mail about potential lead contamination in her drinking water. She called the township, including the mayor’s office, and got no response.
“And again, that was kind of my beginning of starting to get frustrated with how our local government was responding to its residents’ concerns,” she said.
Papero is a dog handler in the Sheriff’s K-9 unit. Of the township animal shelter, he stopped short of saying whether the facility should be privatized.
“I think we have very capable people working in Hamilton,” he said. “I think they need the tools and I think they need the leadership to allow them to do it.”
“I don’t know that privatizing is the right answer,” Phillips said. “You need good leadership.”
Bruno, a retired teacher who declined to give her age, rounds out the field on the Democratic side. She lost an earlier bid for council, in 2015, and will run off the party line in the primary.
She faults the Yaede administration’s approach to economic development. She said the community is 85 percent built out, with large numbers of vacant properties.
“And instead of doing incentives to get these builders and developers to buy those properties and redevelop them, they’re buying up the green space,” she said. “Let’s get some people to redevelop the properties that are already there, that are already existing and, instead of them being eyesores, let’s make them into something.”
For Hamilton’s youth, she said she supports the town building a youth center.
“I don’t know how we would fund it,” she said. “There must be some grant money somewhere we could grab and make something like that happen.”