Local Politics: Read All about It!

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If he finds “anyone in Princeton…who is Republican,” Dudley Sipprelle, Chairman of the Princeton Republican Committee, will be all ears. It was not that long ago that Princeton was a conservative-minded town. But now when Sipprelle encounters a Princetonian who shares his beliefs, he experiences a moment of astonishment.

In 2005, when Sipprelle and his wife moved to Princeton, he went on a Roanoke Colony-esque quest to discover the whereabouts of the once-vigorous Princeton Republican Committee. Coming from D.C. where his wife worked for the State Department, Sipprelle was ready to be politically engaged. He sent a letter to the Princeton Republican Committee but never received a response. The Princeton Public Library told him that the faction had never existed. After endless dead-end searches, he located the last local GOP committee at Princeton and, similar to the Lost Colony, there were no remaining members. But, even without leadership, the organization still had money in its account: a paltry $66. Sipprelle quickly took control of the organization and began recruiting members.

During our conversations, Sipprelle remained a realist in tone, and an optimist in attitude. He recognized, in other words, the enduring, systematic failure of the local Republican party in Princeton to gain any kind of power in numbers proportional to their Democratic counterparts’ but maintained hope because the Republicans who are active within the Princeton GOP continue to work hard to make necessary improvements to the town, and, through their efforts, have had some success since he arrived. “Believe it or not, Princeton used to be a Republican town,” Sipprelle told me, but now, “the Princeton community is a Democratic organization.” Currently, the “ultra-progressives” control all of the municipal statutes and volunteer opportunities in the city. Despite their pushback, however, Sipprelle said that the majority of the time he has been Chairman, he has been able to pursue innovative ways to improve the Princeton community.

Sipprelle started our conversation by informing me that the Democrats now control Princeton’s local politics because they have created a “one party system.” This means that, instead of electing a non-partisan municipal government like nearby West Windsor, Princeton maintains party affiliation as a part of the election ballot for town council positions. Because the Democrats in Princeton hold so much power through their unofficial, privately funded club, The Princeton Community Democratic Organization, which endorses candidates and organizes campaigns for its cherished leaders, they are able to ensure that Princeton’s municipal council seats go entirely to their own.

During recent changes in the community’s municipal structure, the Democrats have been a force to be reckoned with. The Democratic Committee, the municipal council, and the Democratic club (PCOD) all maintained control of the extensive process of combining Princeton Borough and Princeton Township. Now, the area is termed Princeton municipality (it’s not technically a town), effective January 1, 2013. The committee overseeing the merger, which was dominated by Democrats, met regularly from January 2012 and recorded minutes through January 2013, with up to 16 meetings in just one month. Even in their short time in power, they accomplished much—just one example is the establishment of a huge senior resource center, with a hired staff and director. Sipprelle and his team are adverse to the establishment of the center because he says that government-funded community organizations like this have the propensity to “take on a life of their own.” Contrary to the center’s goal of providing seniors with easily accessible resources unique to their life situation, many non-seniors and people come from surrounding areas to use the facilities. (One example includes young men coming in playing Ping-Pong in the center.) Sipprelle, like most conservatives, feel that there should be a limit to how much public funding provides for services like this, and he mentions that if centers like this need to exist, they should be forced to mirror the best practices from other successful communities.

This task force and senior center is just one example of the high level of bureaucratic overspending which Sipprelle and the Republican Committee of Princeton try to prevent. But they have a difficult time—the Princeton Municipal Council is 100 percent Democrats, all of whom vote along party lines. Those who don’t are quickly replaced, meaning there is not even the chance that Republicans can run someone who is nominally a Democrat but might bring diversity to the council. In a “Planet Princeton,” article from March 20th, Krystal Knapp reviewed their minutes and found that the six-member, all-Democrat council voted unanimously on 321 votes, or 94.4 percent of the time. The votes ranged from ordinances and resolutions to professional appointments. Unfortunately, Joe Butler, a woman who used to be what Sipprelle called the Democrat “darling,” started thinking for herself, choosing to vote against the majority once or twice. On one occasion, Butler abstained from voting on Princeton University’s payment of taxes for 2013, citing a conflict of interest in because her husband works for the university. For her independence, she then lost support of PCDO, and she is no longer the favorite. PCOD has found a new favorite for council elections this June, one Sue Nemeth.

Democrats control even local volunteer appointments, with only three out of 130 volunteer positions filled by Republicans. All of these positions can be viewed on Princeton’s new website (as one municipality): http://www.princetonnj.gov/. Try getting one of these seats as conservative, and you’ll have to be friends with those in charge for as many years as most of us have walked the planet. Take, for example, Mr. Cook, who is 87 years old and earned his place by serving on the local political scene for 30 years. Or Richard Woodbridge, who has worked for 20 years to make up for his party affiliations. Democrats control even local volunteer appointments, with only three out of 130 volunteer positions filled by Republicans. All of these positions can be viewed on Princeton’s new website (as one municipality): http://www.princetonnj.gov/. Try getting one of these seats as conservative, and you’ll have to be friends with those in charge for as many years as most of us have walked the planet. Take, for example, Mr. Cook, who is 87 years old and earned his place by serving on the local political scene for 30 years. Or Richard Woodbridge, who has worked for 20 years to make up for his party affiliations.

At this point, it is clear that there is no mercy for anything but groupthink inside the liberal house of cards; Democrats have built for themselves a cement foundation to maintain control of Princeton. This includes campaign tactics. There is no campaigning in public here. Instead, Sipprelle tells me that candidates for the upcoming municipal election have hunted down registered Democrats and hand out literature and make calls on a personal basis. Some candidates even had volunteers calling households offering to babysit voters’ children during a recent local convention. Yet, this aggressive nature of campaigning was not always acceptable in the Princeton area. Until five or seven years ago, lawn signs were banned because the residents found Princeton to be too classy for that campaign tactic.

Sipprelle told me that, in the face of this opposition, his committee is not going to run anyone in the primary for the local race this year. Although it is a time of upward momentum for the Republican Party due to the President Obama’s lack of delivery, New Jersey members of the GOP still have a rocky road to walk. The Christie bridge scandal and other situations make it difficult for local Republicans to become excited about the party, and Sipprelle has found it difficult to find promising registered Republicans willing to run for the municipal council. Last year, his Republican Committee ran Fausta Rodriguez Wertz, who modeled herself on a platform of diversity and change. She got about 35 percent of the vote, which I am told was a fairly good outcome considering that only 12 percent of registered voters are Republican in Princeton. But unfortunately, the Republicans have not won a general election race for the council in the Borough since the early 90’s or in the Township since 1994. Now that these two municipal entities are combined, this means that there has not been a single Republican representing the interest of Princeton citizens for the past two decades. But, realizing that they have a finite amount of resources, the Republican Party of Princeton will not be spending them on the upcoming elections. Do not bother to register in Princeton for the general election November 4.

So the burning question is: how do committed Republicans accomplish anything in this town? It is no wonder that the past Republican Committee, before Sipprelle and his team took it over, threw up their hands in defeat—as mentioned previously, only about 12 percent of voters in the town of Princeton are registered Republicans. Admittedly, as conservatives in a liberal academy, we can probably identify with the plight of the Princeton Republican Committee (fortunately, we at least have the Tory to combat this liberal majority). Nevertheless, Sipprelle tells me that his team does often gain success with independents and even convinces Democrats to vote Republican on occasion. The Republican Committee also works to establish conservative policies through district seats in the state legislature. Currently, Republicans represent all of the general assembly seats in the 16th district, which is situated in Mercer County. State Senator Christopher Bateman, Assemblyman (read, representative) Jack Ciattarelli and Assemblywoman Donna Simon all won their most recent re-elections in November of 2013. Senator Bateman held a 39% edge over his contender, and Ciattarelli and Simon held 56% and 43% leads over their Democrat contestants, respectively.

This large victory for Mercer county Republicans is a result of the aggregate vote in the entire 16th district. Nevertheless, Sipprelle’s team of star volunteers in Princeton has still won an astonishing victory. This was accomplished by a major “get-out-the-vote,” campaign, facilitated by volunteers like George Fox, who began his involvement with the Republican Committee in Princeton when Sipprelle’s son, Scott, ran for Congress in 2010. Fox was impressed with Scott Sipprelle’s credentials and professionalism, and hoped to bring success to the area by being a dedicated volunteer. With a number of fellow volunteers, like Joan Bassette, Fox went door-to-door and made phone calls for candidates like Scott Sipprelle and Donna Simon. Fox also has worked on a mayoral campaign, in which he tells me that he was joined by at least 20 committed volunteers. The Princeton GOP depends also on outgoing and hardworking leaders to promote the party in each of the precincts, or districts. According to Fox, this is how the Princeton Republican committee successfully spreads the word about voting, for the races in which the Republicans have a chance to win.

To get an idea of how successful Sipprelle’s committee is, consider some numbers regarding the breakdown of registered voters in Princeton. Currently, there are 18,000 registered voters, 9,300 of whom are Democrats. That means that more than half of the area consists of registered Democrats, which is the highest percentage of any municipality in Mercer County. With 12 percent registered Republicans, there is a 38 percent differential between registered voters, which is highly unusual (although not as dire as in Trenton, in which only four percent of registered voters are Republican and 47 percent Democrat). But in the state-wide elections of 2013, 40 percent of Princeton voters went Republican, meaning that volunteers and campaign staff scored 28 points from independents in addition to the 12 percent Republican base. So, although the Democrats find a numbers advantage within the municipality of Princeton, the Princeton GOP helps aid in the state races, by contributing to overall victory for Bateman, Ciattarelli, and Simon, Republican candidates in the 16th district.

Fox also told me that the Princeton Republican Party has benefited from key leaders, like Sipprelle, or those who contribute to the Packet Op-Ed’s, who routinely stay abreast of the local issues. These leaders bring the issues to the Committee, and find Republican avenues, like working with the state senator, to address the local needs at hand. The biggest issue that the local Republican party in Princeton has faced is the property tax issue and funding for public schools. Sipprelle despises the sentiment of Joe Biden that it is our patriotic duty to pay taxes, which Biden expressed in his first Vice Presidential 2008 campaign. To combat this view, which is shared by local Democratic politicians, Chairman Sipprelle and his team organized a letter writing campaign to raise awareness of how much of their hard-earned money goes to paying for unnecessary benefits for school employees. The Republican Committee has found success in this area, as neither the amount of tax money going to schools nor the Princeton property tax itself has been raised for about four years. So though it faces challenges, Princeton’s Republic Party plays smart. Savvy solutions, such as an aggressive “get-out-the-vote,” or letter writing campaigns have helped the Princeton Republican Committee put conservatives in state office and keep local spending down. Be sure to contact Chairman Sipprelle if you would like to shock him with the existence of another conservative Princetonian—I’m sure he would love to have you as a volunteer!

Elizabeth Mae Davidson is a graduate student at the Princeton Theological Seminary. She is from Bettendorf, Iowa, and is pursuing a Masters in Christian Education. She can be reached at emd2@princeton.edu.

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article erroneously identified Ms. Wanda Gunning as a Republican Planning Director. The current planning director is Lee Solow. Ms. Gunning is a registered Democrat and serves as the chair of the Planning Board, a position appointed by the mayor. The Princeton Tory apologizes for the error.

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