On June 2, newcomer Greg Lembrich won the Maplewood Township Committee Democratic primary election — along with Nancy Adams — defeating incumbent Jerry Ryan by a nearly two-to-one margin.
Lembrich’s victory was also remarkable in that he was not endorsed by the Maplewood Democratic Committee, as were Adams and Ryan.
A major point of contention in the primary involved plans for redevelopment of the former Maplewood Post Office. However, Lembrich emphasized the election was not just about that one issue, and also campaigned hard on bringing a fresh, new voice to local government as well as working more closely with the school district.
Recently, The Village Green spoke with Lembrich to see what’s next in his campaign for the general election on November 3. Lembrich and Adams will be on the ballot together, and will vie for the two seats against Republican Phyllis Scalera, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary. Here are his responses:
Greg Lembrich: I’ll acknowledge that the fall campaign will not probably be quite as hard fought as the primary. There is a large registration advantage for Democrats, and Democrats have historically won by landslide margins over the past few decades. This is the off-off odd year election that only comes along in New Jersey every 16 years. As with the primary, turnout likely is going to be very low. Even more so than the primary, where there was a heavily contested local race, there may be complacency in the fall. The contested school board election may help drive turnout, but that remains to be seen.
The challenge for Nancy and myself will be to overcome that complacency and the air of inevitability to motivate people to come out to the polls and vote. It’s important for “Adams and Lembrich” but also for [NJ Assembly representatives] John McKeon and Mila Jasey, whose seats are in theory safe but may be more difficult to hold with redistricting since the [27th] district is more Republican than it used to be. A combination of low Democratic turnout in Essex County and motivated Republican turnout in Morris County could end up with people waking up the next day scratching their heads.
Nancy and I will be out there campaigning. The fact that we are new candidates — Nancy ran once before in a primary — and that we are looking forward to being new voices on the TC, will motivate us to get out there, to meet people in the community and hear community concerns.
Village Green: Then you and Nancy Adams are running together on a ticket?
GL: Nancy and [Maplewood Democratic Committee Chair] Ian [Grodman] and I met last month in the first meeting of what I assume will be many meetings between now and the fall, sketching an outline of what the fall campaign will look like: Are we going to establish a joint campaign account? Who is going to run the campaign? What sorts of ideas do we have for how we want to campaign? Lawn signs? Events? …. Ian will be especially valuable for coordinating the Maplewood local campaign with larger state assembly and county Democratic campaigns.
The important thing to understand is that Nancy and I are running as a ticket in the same way that Nancy and Jerry ran. It’s not like Gore and Lieberman. It’s less important that we get on the same page on every issue. There are a number of things on which we will agree. But other things we both agreed on with Jerry Ryan as well. We agree a lot more than we disagree. That will be the case going forward. But we aren’t going to try to paper over the areas where we are different. Nancy is pretty outspoken. I am pretty outspoken. We will be upfront about where we differ. In a town with a committee of five, some disagreement among people in the same party is healthy. I think people want to see that. You want those voices heard from the audience but also reflected in the people sitting up front behind the nameplates.
VG: Will you have new campaign managers?
GL: [Former mayor and Lembrich primary campaign co-chair] Fred [Profeta] is pursuing a number of other things that would make it physically impossible for him to chair a campaign going forward. He’s very involved with Village Keepers and the litigation [now dropped] and is a full-time practicing appellate lawyer. It was always in my mind that if I made it past the primary there would need to be a different team for the general. Some allies from the primary would want to remain involved and some would be less interested in the general election. [Fred] won’t be campaign manager or chair. I think Nancy would be uncomfortable with that as well — as someone who had been co-chair of my campaign was now co-chairing her campaign — in the same way that I don’t know that I’d want people who were running the Ryan/Adams campaign against me to slide over and run the joint campaign.
[Primary campaign co-chair] David Huemer and I haven’t really talked about his role for the general campaign. I’d like him to stay involved.
My wife [Alex Carter] was my campaign manager in the primary, but I do not think she will run the Lembrich-Adams campaign.
VG: Can we talk about the VK lawsuit?
GL: I was unaware of the lawsuit during the campaign. I learned later that it was filed one week before the primary election. I learned that five days after the election at a post campaign wrap-up celebration at Fred’s house, and the meeting was not a Post Office/Village Keepers meeting. A lot of people were there with no affiliation with that issue, but Fred and Dirk [Olin, Director of Village Keepers] told me about it. I’m happy to talk about the issue but I don’t want to comment on the merits legal or otherwise of the lawsuit. It’s hard because, though I’m a lawyer, it’s not my area of expertise, and if I’m elected and the lawsuit is still pending I don’t want to prejudice either party with going on record, nor do I want to need to recuse myself [from future discussions on the TC].
VG: Does the Village Keepers’ endorsement cause you problems?
GL: No, because I agreed with the objectives and goals of the Village Keepers throughout my primary campaign. At the time that the Village Keepers endorsed me there was no lawsuit and I wasn’t aware of the lawsuit until after the primary. You can’t really give back an endorsement or renounce it after the fact. It was for the primary, and in both a technical sense and in reality the general is a different election.
VG: Outside of your views on the Post Office development, your campaign platform of “Fresh Ideas, New Voice” really seemed to resonate.
GL: I think having the support of key local figures like Fred and David initially gave me some credibility and viability. Right off the bat, people were willing to listen to me, pay attention to me, meet with me. The Post Office development site was a key driving issue in the campaign because it was on a lot of people’s minds. It was a major point of debate in the community before the campaign started. The campaign reflected the community. People are still engaged [in the post office debate] even after the election. Several organized groups against the Post Office proposal also helped me establish a base. And a number of my volunteers were largely motivated by that issue.
But ultimately I don’t think Fred, David and the anti-Post Office movement would have been nearly enough to win. It got me attention and momentum, but I think it was the overall platform. People wanted someone of the younger generation, someone with a young family. They recognize that schools are part of the community, not a totally different entity. They want somebody with ideas about greater transparency and accessibility in local government. Sustainability and environmental responsiveness was another issue that helped.
Before and after the senior forum, I had ideas for engaging with seniors that really resonated and I got a lot of support from seniors.
At the end of the day, there probably are some people who only voted for me because of the Post Office, but if I had to rely on that I would have lost or it would have been closer. The reason I was the top vote getter was because we built a really good committed team of volunteers, we worked very hard. With David, I walked every neighborhood in Maplewood, and connected with a lot of people in town who felt disconnected from local government. We got a lot of unlikely voters because they were excited by my campaign. It was not any one factor. The SOMEA endorsement was helpful. But ultimately endorsements and support shines a spotlight and makes people read more and learn more. It doesn’t swing the vote. Most people aren’t one issue voters. It’s not clear that Post Office will even be an issue in the fall campaign.
VG: Do you think your stance about PILOTs [tax breaks granted to developers] related to future developments was also important?
GL: Yes, the PILOTS and generally being more responsible in giving tax breaks to developers and talking about the process. There was not just dissatisfaction with the results of the Post House, but the processes themselves. There were significant improvements between the Station House process and Post Office process, but there still is a lot of room for improvement. Whether or not people thought their vote on June 2 could impact the Post Office proposal, I felt they wanted my ideas going forward about future development processes and decisions.
Another thing I would mention, there seems to be some rumbling in the community that the Maplewood Democratic Committee is fractured or divided. That is not the case. Jerry Ryan has been nothing but helpful and supportive since election night. We’ve gotten together and had good dialogues, exchanged emails. We had dinner together with our wives and Jerry offered “anything I can help with.” [Mayor] Vic [DeLuca] has also reached out; we’ve met a few times. He’s offered his experience and guidance. He walked both Nancy and me through the different subcommittees and boards TC members serve on, and also provided budget review and development updates.
The idea that there are hard feelings or that the Democratic Party is now split is just false. Jerry, Nancy and I respected each other and got along well together during the campaign and that has only grown afterwards. In a town governed solely by Democrats for nearly a quarter of a century and likely unanimously Democratic going forward, there is never just one Democratic Party in Maplewood. There are always segments and wings. While we are all Democrats, we are not going to agree on every issue. The last person who ran and won off line was Vic DeLuca ten years ago. These alliances in the Democratic Party shift depending on what issues are hot, but the idea that there is some sort of division and Democrats are not going to come together and support Nancy and me — I don’t see that.
VG: Do you feel that discourse on the Post Office needs to be more civil?
GL: Need for civil discourse on the Post Office? I agree. I feel one way, but I don’t dismiss people who feel the other way. I don’t think their arguments are lies or that people are making them in bad faith. I think this is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree. As long as we are operating from the same facts, different opinions are a part of society. In Maplewood, you are going to have smart, committed people who are going to disagree. It’s how we go about resolving those disagreements that’s important. The combination of this hot button issue with a contested primary campaign probably added fuel to the fire and created an environment where diatribe overcame dialogue. We need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. That’s something that Nancy, Jerry and I did during the campaign. Even when we disagreed, I never felt that anyone disrespected each other. [This is] not to pat ourselves on the back, but if everyone could discuss the issue in the way that the candidates did during the campaign we’d be better off and more productive.