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Morris County voters won't have many choices in the June 6 primary, where only a handful of mayors face competition from their own party nominations and only one seat is up for grabs on the County Commissioner Board.
But state legislative races are another matter, particularly in the Morris-dominated District 26, where a sitting county commissioner and a former assemblywoman are challenging Republican incumbents.
The district includes Boonton, Denville, East Hanover, Florham Park, Hanover, Lincoln Park, Montville, Morris Plains, Mountain Lakes, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Pequannock and Riverdale in Morris County; and Bloomingdale, Pompton Lakes, Ringwood and Wanaque in Passaic.
LD26 Senate race: 'a dirty campaign'
In the district's state Senate primary, Montville residents Tom Mastrangelo and Joe Pennacchio are embroiled in a fierce campaign featuring two well-known conservative firebrands. Pennacchio has represented District 26 in Trenton since 2000, serving eight years in the Assembly before moving to the Senate in 2008. Mastrangelo is another veteran politician, having served as a Morris County commissioner since 2011.
Through TV and social media advertising, each has tried to establish himself as the more conservative choice. Mastrangelo has attempted to tar Pennacchio for voting in favor of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy's state budget, saying it raised taxes and provided "funding for illegal immigrants."
“Murphy allocated $2.1 million to legal aid that would help people in immigration court, where individuals are not guaranteed a lawyer. The budget bumps that up to $3.1 million," Mastrangelo told the Asbury Park Press.
But Pennaccchio noted that was the 2019-2020 budget, which several Republicans approved. Pennnacchio added that vote came after he and other Senate Republicans negotiated with Murphy to eliminate $600 million from the draft budget.
"In 20 years I've been in Trenton, I've never voted for a tax increase," Pennacchio responded. "He knows it. He's basically a liar. That budget had no money for aid for abortion or illegal immigration, which was a separate bill not that year, but the following year. On that bill, I voted no."
Pennacchio has countered with ads aimed at Mastrangelo's business, claiming they "have been subject to 19 tax liens or civil judgments, totaling more than $60,000." He also released an audiotape of Mastrangelo profanely criticizing several Morris-area Republican leaders.
"Pennacchio has been running a dirty campaign," Mastrangelo said. "He's been lying and everybody knows it."
The owner of an IT consultancy firm, Mastrangelo has a bachelor's degree and law degree from Seton Hall and a master's in management from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Pennacchio is a dentist by trade who advanced to the Legislature after a term as a Morris County Freeholder (a position now known as commissioner).
Social issues dominate
Both have inserted themselves into recent Morris County controversies involving school boards that mirror nationwide disputes over the inclusion of sex education and LGBTQ-themed materials in school libraries. Mastrangelo appeared at recent Roxbury Board of Education meetings in support of parents objecting to state-mandated books and graphic novels depicting illustrations of sexual activity.
Pennacchio also addressed the controversy with public support of two residents being sued by the Roxbury High School librarian, who alleges the residents have defamed her by publicly describing her as a "child predator" and saying she was "grooming" students to embrace LGBTQ lifestyles.
Both politicians have also spoken out against New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin's move last month to obtain a court order blocking a new Hanover Township school district policy. The district wants to require teachers to disclose to parents the gender identity and sexual orientation of LGBTQ students.
Pennacchio's endorsement list includes the entire Morris County Commissioner Board aside from Mastrangelo.
"Those who know him best like him the least," Pennacchio said.
Pennacchio also received endorsement from Morris County Sheriff James Gannon, the New Jersey PBA and the National Rifle Association. The NRA also issued an "alert" on Twitter stating "Mastrangelo is misleading voters by distributing knockoff NRA orange postcards."
🚨ALERT: New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Mastrangelo is misleading voters by distributing knockoff NRA orange postcards.
Genuine NRA orange postcards inform voters about NRA-endorsed candidates.
Incumbent @JoePennacchio is the only NRA-endorsed candidate in this race. #njleg pic.twitter.com/aw7xIlHsfG
— NRA (@NRA) May 19, 2023
Mastrangeo's endorsements include Mayor James Barberio and the council majority in Parsippany, the largest town in Morris County and LD 26. Councilman Justin Musella chose to endorse the Pennacchio-Webber-Bergen ticket. Mastrangelo has received additional support from Riverdale and Mayor Paul Carelli.
"Endorsements really don't mean much in this district," said Mastrangelo, who notably won reelection to the Commissioner board last year despite the other board members endorsing other candidates. That forced him to run off the Morris County Republican Committee line, a position that usually gives party-favored candidates an advantage.
Mastrangelo's campaign has focused more on issues than endorsements. His priorities include "smart economic policy," which he touts by noting the county commissioners have passed six consecutive budgets without a tax increase. His website also prioritizes fighting against "illegal immigration" and what he terms “woke efforts to indoctrinate our young and erase the history of our great nation."
Pennacchio also has spoken out against illegal immigration and affordable housing mandates in New Jersey that he says are "crushing and "changing the nature of their towns for the worse.”
New seats for Bergen, Barranco
A shift this year in legislative districts has altered the political landscape in northwest New Jersey, with towns in Morris, Sussex and surrounding counties moving into new districts in a year when all 120 seats in the state Assembly and Senate will be in play.
The redrawn lines in Morris also dictated a change in the Morris County legislative scorecard. State Assemblyman Brian Bergen, a Denville resident, moved with his hometown of Denville from the 25th to the 26th district. He swapped seats with Assemblyman Christian Barranco, a Jefferson resident who now takes Bergen's seat in the 25th.
District 26 now consists of Boonton, Denville, East Hanover, Florham Park, Hanover, Lincoln Park, Montville, Morris Plains, Mountain Lakes, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Pequannock and Riverdale in Morris County; and Bloomingdale, Pompton Lakes, Ringwood and Wanaque in Passaic.
26th Assembly: Bergen and DeCroce trade barbs
The redistricting also set up an intriguing GOP primary battle in the 26th, where former Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce is attempting to regain the seat she held in Trenton for a decade.
In 2021, DeCroce, like Mastrangelo, lost the Morris County Republican Committee line and the primary to Barranco. She is now serving as the business administrator in Dover, one of a handful of Morris County towns controlled by Democrats.
DeCroce is running for the GOP's two Assembly nominations with former Parsippany Councilman Robert Peluso. They are matched against incumbents Bergen and Jay Webber, who are running as a ticket with Pennacchio.
While Webber has run a comparatively quiet campaign to keep the seat he has held in the Assembly since 2008, Bergen has been vocal in attacking DeCroce's record. First elected in 2019 to the 25th District, redistricting means he is campaigning for the first time this year in the 26th.
“BettyLou and Rob knew they had no chance, but they still tried to tear apart the party for their own ambitions,” said Bergen. “It’s sad.”
DeCroce attacked Bergen for his lack of transparency in using an anonymous, Wyoming-registered consulting company in his previous campaign. After the election, the owner of the company sued Bergen for refusing to pay a $15,000 bonus fee after he won the election. The matter went to court and in February 2021, a judge in Morristown ordered Bergen to pay.
Bergen attacked DeCroce by calling her "one of the most liberal Republicans in Trenton" and referred to her campaign as "a desperate attempt to restore [her] shattered ego after losing the 2021 Republican primary."
DeCroce was appointed to replace her husband, longtime District 26 Assemblyman Alex DeCroce following his sudden death in 2012. She went on to win four terms.
“I have prided myself on being a professional in Trenton and working for my constituents to get things done, not call attention to myself, as Mr. Bergen has done in ridiculous displays,” DeCroce said. "The Assembly Republican Offices chose me to serve on seven committees in the Legislature because they trust me to bring intelligent and rational Republican positions to the committees, not to turn the legislative process into a circus."
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on Morristown Daily Record: Morris County NJ 26th district races nasty as primary nears