Hamilton Mayor-Elect Jeff Martin in the now-infamous picture from January of 2019. Photo by Michael” The Swami” Sabo.
An introspective look back on a wild 2019 election season in Hamilton!
Nearly one year ago to this date, we published a story along with a photo when Jeff Martin was sworn in as council president titled “MARTIN TAKES REIGNS AS COUNCIL PRESIDENT, now he is Mayor-Elect.
If you would have told us that simple photo of then-Councilman Jeff Martin sitting at the dais would become one of the most influential and controversial photos in politics, which would eventually lead to criminal charges by the Mercer County Prosecutors Office and become a cornerstone component, along with countless other issues that would end Kelly Yaede’s term as Mayor, we would have laughed and called B.S.
Now, for the first time since 2004, the Hamilton Township Democratic Party is set to take full control of both the Mayor’s office and the Council chambers.
At high noon on New Year’s day, Jeff Martin will be sworn in, becoming the 6th full-time mayor in Hamilton’s history. (Jack Rafferty, Glen Gilmore, John Bencivengo, Kevin Meara and Kelly Yaede) Maurice T. “Maury” Perilli served as Mayor of Hamilton before the implementation of the Faulkner Act in 1976 which designated a full-time Mayor-Council structure of government in Hamilton.
The End of Republican Dominance in Hamilton and the End of Kelly Yaede’s Political Career
Yaede was once labeled as one of the brightest rising Republican stars in New Jersey, after riding the wave of Chris Christie’s 2013 Democratic wipeout to become Mayor after John Bencivengo.
But in just 4 years, political pundits on both sides of the aisle watched in dismay as Yaede self-imploded and went from rumored Lieutenant Governor to the face of daily news front-page scandals, eventually being charged for the release of her primary opponents expunged police records. Yaede would later beat those charges in Ewing Municipal Court, but the constant missteps and damage had already been done.
Martin would go on to beat Yaede by 12 points in the November general election after a flawless, nearly perfect campaign and as they say… the rest is history.
But the road to Martin’s victory started way before 2019.
The beginning of the End for Hamilton Republicans
The internal problems in the Republican party started in early 2014 when Yaede and former running-mate, fellow Republican Councilwoman Ileana Schirmer began to skirmish over a fundraiser that Schirmer was having. Yaede was listed as a guest along with Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick but no-showed the event saying she had no clue about the fundraiser. Rumors swirled that Yaede also told various members of her inner circle not to attend the fundraiser and actively worked to stop people from attending.
Yaede and Schirmer along with Ralph Mastrangelo would keep it together in 2015 for re-election just enough to hold off a challenge from little known local business owner Amy Inman, along with her running mates Joann Bruno, and Donald Ryland.
Yaede topped Inman by 3,000 votes while Schirmer and Mastrangelo held on against their council opponents to win by under 500 votes. This set off alarms and raised red flags in the Republican party considering that Inman had no money, no organizational support, no issues, and no real coordinated effort to help her against Yaede.
After the race, a long-time political consultant noted to party leaders that the drop off in votes from Yaede to Schirmer was something to be really concerned about.
In a Trentonian story about the 2015 election, Vinnie Capodanno who was a democrat at the time said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes — a Democrat who was easily re-elected to a fourth term Tuesday — should have used the full extent of his influence and resources to help the Hamilton Democrats defeat Yaede, Schirmer and Mastrangelo.
As fate would have it, Capodanno would change parties to become a Republican and Yaede’s running mate this year. ( more on that below)
The rift between Yaede and Schirmer grew as Schirmer’s independent, good government before party politics approach on the council angered Yaede.
In 2017 when Schirmer decided to take a run for Senate, Yaded refused to support her even as calls rang in from party leaders for unity, further dividing the local Republican Party.
Also on the ballot in 2017 was control of the Hamilton Council. Then councilman Dennis Pone, Dina Thornton, and Trenton transplant Gino Melone were set to take on Anthony Carrabelli Jr. and two political newcomers, Jeff Martin and Rick Tighe.
Talk on the street was the 3 Republicans would easily win running as the “Yaede Team”. But after Chris Christie took a seat at the beach on July 4th, internal Republican infighting throughout the campaign and Yaede’s miscalculation on just how popular she was, the Republican trio was washed out on election day, ushering a new dawn for local Democrats.
An Unavoidable Primary Problem Or Another Self Inflicted Wound?
After suffering a surprise loss at the ballot box in 2017 it was becoming clear that “Team Yaede” had more holes in its armor than swiss cheese.
Besides a four-alarm fire burning with Schirmer, a longtime Republican party player by the name of David Henderson was growing concerned with the direction that the party and the government had taken under the leadership or what he described as the lack thereof, by Yaede.
Insiders say Henderson reached out to Yaede and members of her inner circle, but he was rebuked about discussing the future of the Republicans in Hamilton.
An unnamed source confirmed when Yaede was asked about what could be done about Henderson…Yaede replied, “F*&K him, he’s nobody”.
Yaede might be thinking differently today.
Right about the same time, animal activists began seeking information on what they perceived as a very high “kill rate” at the Hamilton Animal Shelter.
This opened up a flood gate of open public records request also know as OPRAS, eventually leading to an Animal Shelter investigation ordered by Jeff Martin and ultimately criminal charges of Jeff Plunkett and Todd Bencivengo.
As the election season approached there was a growing movement for Schirmer to take on Yaede in a primary. Schirmer wasn’t interested in a primary fight and Republican leaders started to discuss whether Yaede could be replaced without a bruising primary that would further hinder a Republican victory in November.
Preliminary polling showed Yaede was in deep trouble for an incumbent sitting Mayor.
At war with her party, and under investigation by the Mercer County Prosecutors Office, Yaede then turned her sites and picked a fight with Hamilton CFO, John Barret having her administration file disciplinary tenure charges adding yet another level of chaos as she fought to seek re-election. Barrett was once praised by Yaede as a financial wizard that helped Hamilton keep taxes stable.
Martin Makes His Move
As the local Republicans were spinning out of control in early 2019, Democrats were looking for their option to take on Yaede in November. It was clear to the Democrat party that Jeff Martin was their man.
The even-tempered, former Air Force JAG Attorney, Martin had already proved he was a leader in his short time on the council that possessed the qualities that would appeal across the partisan divide and could crack the code the Democrats needed to gain back the Mayor’s seat.
Henderson Jumps into Republican Primary
After the announcement of Martin into the race, things got really interesting in March when David Henderson stood on the steps of the towns municipal building and proclaimed “I simply cannot sit by any longer and watch the town that I grew up in run into the ground by the mismanagement and corruption of the current Administration. I want Hamiltonians to have a viable, conservative choice to manage the affairs of their government moving forward.”
Before Yaede could even think about Martin, she needed to get through Henderson. Although Henderson was a long shot against a 13-year elected incumbent, with his rough and tumble style, it was one more problem that Yaede caused herself.
Republican Convention Suprise Picks
With a primary heating up on the horizon and the announcement by sitting Councilwoman Ileana Schirmer that she would not seek re-election, Republicans now had another dilemma on their hands, they needed to choose a candidate for council to replace Shirmer.
Rumors swirled that party chairman and former Councilman Dennis Pone, who just been beaten badly by Martin in 2017, would be the pick to run with Ralph Mastrangelo and Yaede.
But the convention had more twists than a roller coaster ride at Six Flags when the party nominated Rich Balgowan and former Democrat Councilman Vinnie Capodanno, who changed parties just days before the convention.
Insiders say Mastrangelo bailed out at the last minute, leaving Yaede and the Republicans at the alter like a groom running with cold feet, giving them no other option than Capodanno.
At the same time, Henderson showed his political prowess by opting not to attend the convention and steal the news cycle away from Yaede having to run with two democrats because she couldn’t find any Republicans that wanted to run with her.
Nasty, brutal primary
With her 2 former Democrat running mates, a new out of town campaign manager Dan Scharfenberger, who was described as a “Real Cracker Jack” by trusted Yaede Lieutenant, David Carothers and newly minted behind the scenes campaign strategist Steve Cook, executive director of the Arc, Team Yaede was ready to do battle against Henderson.
Their first new and innovative idea from Schafenberger was to create a fake news website with the intent of having their own pro Yaede propaganda machine, considering they needed a way to counterbalance the fact that every “rake” Yaede stepped on, wound up as an embarrassing front-page news story.
The fake news website would kick off with a story announcing Yaede’s re-election and then published a slanted biased anti-Martin piece attempting to smear Martin. The publisher of the fake news article made a crucial mistake when he stole the photo (same photo for this story) from this website which was taken by photographer and Chief Media Evangelist Michael A. Sabo.
That would be the first of many countless amateur hour moves, like releasing and publishing Henderson’s police records by Scharfenberger that would lead to both him and Yaede being charged by the Prosecutors office.
If Yaede never engages Henderson and ignores him in the primary, she wins the primary against him by 95 percent of the vote and likely goes on to win re-election to a second full term, explained a long time Republican who didn’t wish to be named.
The next shoe that would drop before the primary would be criminal charges against two people in Yaede’s Administration for animal cruelty. Yaede doubled down against the charges in a weird conspiracy theory type retort claiming they were politically motivated and cooked up by Governor Phil Murphy.
Yaede would go on to beat Henderson in the Republican primary, but the nasty back and forth, day in day out news stories about the race turned him into a household name as he garnered over 35% of the Republican vote.
Martin and Company run one of the “Best Campaigns” in New Jersey
While it was thought that it would be impossible to run a worse campaign then Yaede did against Henderson in the primary, Team Yaede managed to do it in the general election against Martin.
Yaede never moved her focus from her bogeyman of Henderson and attempted to attack him and Martin at the same time, while adding attacks on Robbinsville Mayor David Fried in the mix for good luck.
The turning point moment of the campaign was likely when a high paid “preacher man” opposition research expert from Holts Summit, Missouri dug up the fact that Martin in his time in the Air Force as a JAG Attorney defended an Airman accused of sexual misconduct. Yaede and her crack commando team of campaign geniuses went all in with this newfound information running a nasty television ad and several full-page advertisements in the local newspapers. The move would backfire as countless veterans including a retired general, came out to publicly slam her – and mock her for not understanding the U.S. Constitution.
A similar style attack was tried by Republicans in 1999 when then-candidate for Mayor Pete Schroeder, whose campaign was on life support attacked opponent Glen Gilmore claiming he had a hand in defending a rapist and opposed Megan’s Law because his firm did research. The move backfired in 1999 ending Schroeder’s chance and resulting in Gilmore becoming Mayor.
Throughout every attack hurled at him, Martin’s campaign never got off tilt or off message as he steamrolled to victory along with his running mates returning Hamilton an all Democrat-controlled town.
Subsequently, Yaede was named runner up for Loser of the Year by www.NJGlobe.com for their year-end review in politics and Martin’s campaign was named one of the Best Campaigns of the Year.