MORRISTOWN – Mayor Tim Dougherty, a 12-year incumbent seeking a new term, says success in town government comes down to the basics.
Are the streets in good condition, is the garbage being picked up, do people visit and invest, is there much crime?
By that measuring stick, Dougherty feels he’s in fine shape for a new term beginning with the June 8 Democratic primary.
But in a jarring juxtaposition, a mobile billboard appeared a few days ago just off the historic town Green trashing the mayor and making his wife’s recent legal troubles a campaign issue.
“Dunkin Dougherty,” it said in Dunkin Donuts motif. The display included a coffee cup.
The point was unmistakable. Mary Dougherty, the mayor’s wife, just pleaded guilty in a corruption case that began in 2018 when she reportedly accepted $10,000 in cash in a paper coffee cup from a man seeking legal work. She was running for Morris County freeholder at the time. Mary Dougherty was one of five politicians charged, but has been the only one so far to plead guilty. She was sentenced to a year’s probation by a judge who seemed to consider the transgression an anomaly. That ended the legal proceedings for Mary Dougherty.
But as we can see – literally – the political saga is just beginning for Tim Dougherty.
No fool, he knew this was likely to happen.
“My wife has taken responsibility and has moved on,” he said in a recent interview. “And I love her very much.”
The moving billboard is buttressed by a website and Facebook page under the generic name of Morristown Watch. Besides his wife’s case, both sites take aim at the mayor for cutting deals with developers and an ongoing feud with the PBA. Town police are working without a contract, which in truth, is not that extraordinary.
Esperanza Porras-Field is challenging Dougherty in the primary.
A native of Colombia, Porras-Field was born in 1954, has lived in town since 1989 and has a long track record of civic involvement, including stints on the town’s planning board and parking authority. A realtor, she founded the Morris County Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce and also has been active with the local chapter of the American Red Cross. She ran unsuccessfully for town council in 2017 and for freeholder more than two decades ago.
“I’m qualified to be mayor,” she said in a recent interview, citing her civic work and long-time residency.
The Morristown Watch Facebook page does not officially say it was created to back Porras-Field, but a connection is obvious. A post identified her – a bit prematurely – as “the first woman to become Morristown Mayor.” It also features a picture of the candidate and links to her campaign website. So much for subtlety.
Porras-Field said she believes in term limits and that after 12 years as mayor and eight years before that on the council, it’s time for Dougherty to be replaced.
“Now, four more?” she asked.
This is a common refrain from those seeking to beat a long-time incumbent.
Dougherty, 62, waves such concerns aside, saying that term limits can be implemented by voters anytime they want.
A more substantive issue the challenger brings up are the many lawsuits facing the town, reasoning that they cost taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars in legal fees.
There are a number of suits from developers against the town. The mayor says a litigious society makes this inevitable and what’s more, he’s not going to let developers bully him.
Development, or, in the case of Morristown, redevelopment, is always a political issue.
Dougherty thinks he’s on the right side of this one. He says redevelopment has been “balanced” and that it has helped stabilize property taxes. A perennial problem in Morristown is its small size – less than 3 square-miles – and acres of tax-exempt property in the form of the county complex, most of the local hospital and many churches.
He says the ongoing redevelopment of an old shopping center near the train station into an office complex figures to be a “huge plus” for the town. Deloitte, the accounting firm, has signed a lease to occupy 110,000 square-feet of space in what will be called M Station.
Porras-Field says she supports development with “moderation,” but offered no specific criticism other than lawsuits, although she said the town’s history must be preserved. To say the least, history is big in a place traversed by the likes of Washington, Hamilton and Lafayette. It’s also where legendary political cartoonist Thomas Nast lived in the 1800’s.
Dougherty admits he thought about not running again, but has decided to plunge ahead.
He says he wants to guide the town into the future. One project he wants to accomplish is restoring and preserving the Morristown Post Office, which to use a cliche – has seen better days. He also is happy to talk about how the arts and other activities have a home in Morristown, mentioning such annual events as the Grand Fondo bike ride, a book fair and a jazz and blues festival, which will be held this year on the third Saturday of September. It’s normally in August.
Porras-Field’s official platform is hardly controversial. It includes calls for such things as a community center, shared services, better financial oversight and a dog park.
Then again, genuine issues are seldom front and center in a primary, where, as we are already seeing, personality and old grudges often take precedent.
Dougherty became mayor after beating incumbent Donald Cresitello in the 2009 Democratic primary. That was a spirited race, or as Dougherty put it, there was a lot of “on the street communication .. going door-to-door.”
Given the fact we already have attack ads on moving billboards two months before election day, this race figures to have some spirit as well.