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Acrimony grips GOP primary in Morris County


Acrimony grips GOP primary in Morris County

Jun 03, 2023 | 12:00 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
Acrimony grips GOP primary in Morris County
Assemblyman Brian Bergen is facing a challenge from former Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce in the 26th District, and the two are accusing each other of lying on the campaign trail. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor/DeCroce campaign)

Republicans in the 26th Legislative District are headed into an acrimonious primary on Tuesday headlined by former running mates whose tense relationship predates the 2021 race that pushed one of them out of office.

Incumbent Assemblymen Jay Webber and Brian Bergen — Morris County Republicans, and two of the Assembly’s most conservative members — face a challenge from former Parsippany Councilman Robert Peluso and ex-Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, who lost her seat in the Legislature after Morris Republicans backed her challenger in 2021.

In the upper chamber race, Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris) is opposed by longtime Morris County Commissioner Thomas Mastrangelo, who ran alongside DeCroce in 2021’s Assembly race.

The discord in the 26th has so far centered around Bergen and DeCroce and the Senate faceoff, with Webber — the top Assembly vote-getter in the 2021 race — and Peluso keeping their powder relatively dry.

This is a Republican stronghold comprising mostly towns in Morris County, one that GOP gubernatorial challenger Jack Ciattarelli won handily in 2021.

DeCroce’s campaign represents an attempt to reclaim a seat that has been represented by a DeCroce for 32 of the last 34 years, first by her late husband, Alex DeCroce, then by DeCroce herself following his death in 2012.

DeCroce has lodged attacks at Bergen over a pandemic loan he sought for a botany business and his legislative record, one she charged has left little impact on New Jersey law.

Bergen, a former Denville councilman who frequently butts heads with Democratic leadership on the Assembly floor, has railed against the party’s control of Trenton and its legislative committees. He alleges DeCroce is spreading untruths about him.

“The volume of lies that BettyLou DeCroce tries to say about me and my record, it’s really crazy,” he said. “I’ve never been a part of something like this, and I hope I’m never part of something like this again. Primaries are fine and an election is fine, but the lies — it’s just really crazy.”

Bergen has taken aim at DeCroce’s record of voting — or not voting — saying she was an absentee lawmaker who accomplished little while in office.

“He has turned off a lot of people with his demeanor, and he’s attacked me at every club meeting. He’s gone brutally at me, and so be it. That’ll show his character,” DeCroce said.

On the Senate side, Mastrangelo has launched repeated attacks at Pennacchio, running online ads seeking to paint Pennacchio — the 2020 Trump reelection co-chair — as a liberal who wants to cut Social Security, raise IRS funding, and slash U.S. military spending.

As a state senator, Pennacchio has no say over any of those federal issues and, like Bergen, says his challenger is lying about his record.

“I believe absolutely nothing that comes out of his mouth,” Pennacchio said. “The only thing that I’m hoping is that the voters can see past that, and I think they will because this is a very smart electorate that I’ve been given the pleasure of serving as state senator.”

Totaled, the two slates spent just over $260,000 on the primary by May 25, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. The incumbents’ $154,794 in spending edged out their challengers.

Webber and Peluso did not return requests seeking comment. Peluso has already signaled his intention to run for county commission next year and for Parsippany-Troy Hills mayor in 2025. 

Mastrangelo could not be reached.

Acrimony grips GOP primary in Morris County
Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, right, is facing a challenge from Morris County Commissioner Thomas Mastrangelo, who accuses Pennacchio of being too liberal. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Off the line over the line

Bitterness remains over DeCroce losing Morris GOP support in 2021 (Republican Assemblyman Christian Barranco, who ousted her, is seeking reelection in the 25th District under redrawn lines).

That year, Morris County first adopted an organizational line, a change party officials said was needed to combat increasing Democratic strength in Morris County.

Most New Jersey county parties award organizational — or party — lines to their favored candidates, lending them an advantageous ballot position that groups them with party-backed local and county candidates during primaries.

The process of awarding a line varies between counties, with some leaving the endorsement process to the discretion of the county chair. The Morris GOP’s bylaws require the party to award its organizational line based on a vote by the district’s county committee members — party officials elected during primaries.

DeCroce said she and her running mates are bound by opposition to the line.

“The line is no good, that it doesn’t give the public the right to pick who’s going to run in the primary, and everyone should have the chance to run,” DeCroce said. “There’s party favorites out there, and the party has been playing too much to party favorites.”

Pennacchio, who advocated for Morris Republicans to adopt a line in 2021, called that version of events an instance of revisionist history.

“They all campaigned at the convention to get the line — they all did — and they were all buddies,” the senator said. “They were all slapping each others’ backs, especially Mastrangelo. The second they lose, all of a sudden it’s not slapping backs. All of a sudden, we’re a bunch of insiders.”