BY LINDA SMITH HANCHARICKWEST MILFORD — It looks like there will be a contested Republican primary again this June.
On Monday night, the West Milford Regular Republican Municipal County Committee selected incumbent Councilman Lou Signorino and Peter McGuinness as its candidates for council this year. Missing from that slate is incumbent Councilwoman and Council President Michele Dale - who is also vice chair for the Republican County Committee.
Republican Municipal County Committee Chairman Matt Conlon told the Messenger that he was surprised by the committee’s vote.
“I was pretty surprised too that the vote went down as it did,” said Conlon. But, he added, the candidates were selected by the duly elected county committee members.
Signorino and Dale were two of those being considered. They were interviewed by the five-member vetting committee, whose members were appointed by Conlon.
At the meeting on Monday, Signorino and Dale presented statements to the county committee and answered more questions before the vote. Conlon said the vote is a secret ballot, as it has been in the past. All three candidates were listed on one ballot. Committee members may vote for one, two or all three. Signorino received a 14-3 majority vote on the first ballot; Dale received 5 votes in favor and 13 against. The other candidate, who was not named by Conlon, received 1 vote and 17 against.
There are 26 members of the county committee, two from each of the 13 voting districts. Eighteen members were present at Monday's meeting. Conlon doesn’t vote unless there is a tie, he said.
After the first vote, the committee then took nominations from the floor, something allowed in the committee’s bylaws. Conlon said McGuinness was nominated from the floor. Dale was also nominated for another vote.
The vetting committee asked McGuinness the same questions they had asked the other candidates who had submitted their letters a month earlier, according to Conlon.
“Following the subsequent vote, McGuinness was the only candidate to receive a majority vote of the members present to earn his place on the ballot,” Conlon said in a press release.
McGuinness didn’t submit a letter of intent from the start, Conlon told The Messenger, because there were two incumbent council members looking for reelection and “he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.”
“His feeling was if his party members are calling on him, he would do it,” Conlon added.
The bylaws state that if the committee cannot come up with candidates who have been vetted, another meeting may be set up, giving them more time to research other candidates or draft new ones. However, that meeting must occur within a 30-day window of when petitions are due to the township, which is April 4. There wasn't time for that. Instead, they took nominations from the floor; they have the option to vote on them immediately or at a follow-up meeting.
Then last June, the local County Committee election went mostly to the challengers, which included Signorino and Dale. The committee elected former school board trustee Conlon as their chairman and Dale as vice chair. Just eight months later, those same committee members have rejected Dale as their candidate.
“Last night, the machine Republican leader threw his weight and ensured I was not selected as your candidate in the upcoming primary election,” Dale wrote in a letter to the editor, which appears on page 12. “Why? Because I refuse to agree to run a negative campaign and because I refuse to vote their dictates on township issues. I have and will always vote my conscience.”
Dale blames party leadership, namely Conlon and Signorino, saying they insist party allegiance comes before conscience. She said she is running a primary challenge because they are wrong.
“I know wholeheartedly that you, my fellow Republicans, value ethics and conscience over the limited vision of our current leadership,” she added.
“I respect the decision of the committee,” said Conlon. “They’re duly elected by our Republican constituents. I hope Michele doesn’t run a primary and we can talk things out.”
Primaries have become the norm for the Republicans. In the last seven years, there have been disputed primaries in all but one year - 2014 - and that's because candidates ran in November as independents instead.
McGuinness was one of those independent candidates in 2014. He lost his bid for the council then. He was also on the ticket last year to run a primary with Signorino for mayor and Mike Hensley for council against the Regular Republican candidates, who were chosen by the previous county committee. McGuinness stepped aside when Tim Wagner agreed to run for council. Hensley and Wagner went on to win while Signorino, a two-time councilman, lost in his bid for mayor.
Conlon said he is focused on getting his candidates elected.
“We're looking to unify the party and continue to get Republicans elected,” he said. “I can't control what other people do, but I do hope they respect the committee's decision.”
“The biggest victory for me would be to win and be free to do what’s right for West Milford,” said Dale, “and not to engage in these politics.”
The primary election date is June 7.
What are your thoughts? Go to westmilfordmessenger.com and get in on the conversation.