Princeton revisited: town Republicans persist despite strident opposition| Jun 5, 2018
In the Northwest corner of Princeton, N.J., Jodi Bouer and Paul Josephson’s handsome colonial stands tall near a cul-de-sac, secluded by a thicket of trees. On the evening of Oct. 22, 2017, two weeks before the New Jersey general elections, 25 men and women gathered on Bouer and Josephson’s deck to drink wine, eat cheese, and “meet and greet the candidate.” The couple, who could not be there, having been called away at the last minute for a family emergency, was well-known in this small circle for their mixed political marriage: Josephson had recently been named legal counsel for the Phil Murphy campaign, while Bouer is currently serving as the Princeton Republican Committee’s vice chair and was hosting the event on her own. Many of those present perceived the marriage as a perfect example of different political views coexisting peacefully. But in the town, the political views of the Princeton Republicans gathered there had been met with distrust and hostility. The men and women there felt as though Princeton was an ideological echo chamber.
Aside from their advancing age, all those gathered on that evening shared one thing in common: a deep commitment to the ideals and candidates put forth by the Grand Old Party.
“My whole life is here,” explained one woman, speaking slowly. “All the memories I’ve created are here,” she said, succinctly capturing why the 25 men and women gathered there had not left the town which frustrated them so. But when the candidate of the hour, Donna Simon arrived, the mood shifted. Simon’s magnetism burst through the patio doors, arresting everyone’s attention. Dudley Sipprelle, chair of the Princeton Republican Committee, soon seized on the moment, and announced it was time to begin. As Sipprelle gave a synopsis of the 16th legislative district’s recent political history, Simon, sporting a beige plaid skirt, knee length boots, and sleek glasses, waited by his side, periodically nodding. Sipprelle explained that the district had been gerrymandered in a 2011 Democratic redistricting effort which saw liberal towns like Princeton and South Brunswick moved into the district and conservative towns moved out. According to Sipprelle, shifting demographics had cost Simon her assembly seat in 2016. Simon, explained Sipprelle, had lost by only 76 votes.
“Only 76 votes,” Sipprelle repeated a second time, affecting Simon’s confident façade.
When her turn finally came, Simon spoke deliberately. She laid out her plan for a better New Jersey, hammering on the need for lower property taxes and safer cities. She said that restrictions placed on businesses and individuals in New Jersey have made it the top state “bleeding” residents. Voting for the Democratic incumbent, Andrew Zwicker, she said, would only further this problem. Simon explained that Princeton Republicans had a real role to play in stopping the 16th legislative district from turning blue. Her direct appeal to Princeton Republicans energized the crowd above all else. The 25 people standing on the deck felt like someone was finally paying attention to them. It seemed as though political catharsis was imminent.
East Coast San Francisco
When describing the town to newcomers, Sipprelle cannot resist setting up two similes: San Francisco is “the Princeton of the West” and Princeton is the “San Francisco of the East.” Sipprelle said the experience of moving to Princeton was extraordinary. Crossing the Alexander Road bridge over the Delaware and Raritan Canal is like crossing into a bastion of progressivism, he said. He spoke about how Princeton is a town where every elected and appointed official is a Democrat, where Republicans are outnumbered by double digits, and where the liberal-leaning university is growing larger and larger. No other town nearby can boast such stellar liberal credentials.
A career foreign service officer, Sipprelle has seen much of the world: Colombia, Sweden, Turkey, Venezuela, Italy, Austria, the Dominican Republic, Haiti. He took the foreign service exam after hearing former President John F. Kennedy’s familiar inaugural address words, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Shortly thereafter, he left his job as a social studies teacher in California for Washington D.C. to become a career foreign service officer.
Like many of his fellow committee members, Sipprelle describes himself as an Eisenhower Republican. He said he believes strongly in four guiding principles: individual responsibility, personal accountability, the free enterprise system, and limited government. Wearing a checkered shirt tucked into khakis and thin-rimmed square glasses, Sipprelle encapsulates the idea of constancy amid change. Both his political ideology and style of dress have remained the same for decades. When Sipprelle and his wife Linda, also a State Department employee, retired in 2005, they decided to move to Princeton Borough.
“Being lifelong Republicans, we looked and looked and tried to find a Republican party here,” Sipprelle explained. “It wasn’t easy however.” After some investigative legwork, Sipprelle discovered that the Princeton Republican Committee had been designated inactive since it was no longer running candidates or holding meetings. Realizing that the committee had no leadership, Sipprelle decided to take matters into his own hands. He called the Mercer County Republican Party and expressed interest in re-fashioning the Borough’s Republican Committee into a real political organization. Seeing that no one had taken interest in quite some time, the Mercer County Republican County did not hesitate, naming him the Borough’s chairman almost immediately. The Borough, which encompassed the University and much of today’s downtown Princeton, would later go on to consolidate with the area surrounding it — namely, Princeton Township, on Jan. 1, 2013. On the same day, Sipprelle went on to become chairman of a newly consolidated Princeton Republican Committee.
The task has always been a difficult one for Sipprelle. Only 12 percent of registered voters in Princeton are Republicans. Fifty-two percent of voters are Democrats.
“This is an astonishingly high number for New Jersey,” said Sipprelle. “And it is particularly so for a town that has very small minority groups.” If you go to Newark, Camden, or Paterson — cities with large minority groups and inner cities, Sipprelle explained, you find that most registered voters are Democrats. However, according to the 2010 census, only about six percent of residents in Princeton are African-American and nowadays there are about as many Hispanics. According to Sipprelle, despite low numbers of minorities, Princeton has the highest percentage of registered Democrats of the twelve municipalities in Mercer County, one of which is Trenton, the state capital. It also has a much smaller share of unaffiliated voters -- 36 percent -- compared to the rest of New Jersey, quite surprising considering the fact that the largest voting bloc in the state is that of unaffiliated voters, who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans individually. Though the numbers are against Princeton Republicans, Sipprelle has a plan, and he is working daily to make it a reality.
A Trumpian Pilgrimage
The 2016 election continues to loom large on the psyche of Princeton Republicans. To many on both sides of the political spectrum, Donald Trump represented a subversion of political norms and accepted political behavior. To Sipprelle, Trump’s campaign posed a serious threat to the “traditional” Republican party. It was only after the Republican primary that Sipprelle was forced to come around on Trump and support his party’s nominee.
“Mercer County was the only county in the state that didn’t endorse Donald Trump in the Republican primary,” Sipprelle said. “And you ought to know the reason why,” he added, smiling and gesturing towards himself.
At the Mercer County convention held late in the 2016 primary season, Sipprelle led a coalition of Republicans from Princeton, West Windsor, and Hopewell in opposition to Trump. Although he was not able to convince enough convention delegates to switch their votes from Trump to Ohio’s presidential candidate John Kasich, Sipprelle managed to ensure that the Mercer County Republican Party did not make any presidential endorsement. Sipprelle said that many Princeton Republicans felt similarly about Trump, evidenced by the fact that Trump only garnered 14 percent of the Princeton vote. Still, Princeton has its own fair share of Trump Republicans.
The late Princeton-born Lee Eric Newton was a Trump devotee. In many ways, Newton was the antithesis of Sipprelle’s traditional version of a Republican. Newton’s ideas were hard to categorize and could not be boiled down to four guiding principles, as Sipprelle’s can. Most striking, however, was Newton’s desire to return the United States to what it once was, mirroring Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric.
Inspired by what Trump said in November of 2016, Newton decided to enter into state-level politics. In May 2017, he announced that he was running against incumbent Democratic State Senator Shirley K. Turner in the 15th Legislative District. Blue and white campaign signs featuring Newton’s name and those of his running mates — Rimma Yakobovich and Emily Rich — stood prominently in front of his house. To drivers making their way northwest towards Princeton on Alexander Street, the signs were striking. Newton proudly proclaimed that it was even harder to miss his Trump signs.
Well over six feet tall, Newton said he is a distant descendant of Sir Isaac Newton, pointing to his sharp nose and high cheekbones as proof. He said putting up Trump signs was never enough for him. It also wasn’t enough to defiantly nail down new Trump signs after the old ones mysteriously disappeared over and over again. Newton wanted to ensure that his support for Trump was evident. So he began a pilgrimage to the University’s FitzRandolph Gate, or as he called it, “the strategic location at the intersection of Nassau and Witherspoon Street.”
The first stop in his pilgrimage was near his house. Newton began by sitting outside on his porch, near the American flag hanging by his garage. He said he was there to lend additional weight to the Trump signs planted in the grass before him. Soon, Newton moved to sit at the small clearing a few feet from the bridge over the canal. It was the second and penultimate stop in his pilgrimage.
“I realized that if I went to the bridge, people tend to slow down before they cross over it,” said Newton. “There was often a time period where traffic was slow enough that I could see various hand signs.”
The spot had little foot traffic and became dangerous when a car swerved at him unexpectedly. Newton was not hurt. Shortly thereafter, he moved to the one place in Princeton where he felt he was sure to get a convergence of foot traffic: that strategic location at the intersection of Nassau and Witherspoon Street. Newton clarified that this was not a move to what he mockingly refers to as the “hallowed gates of the University.” It was instead the final stop in a pilgrimage he felt extolled the virtues of his candidate and ensured that his voice was heard. Though he did sometimes have “rational” conversations with students, professors, and other passersby, many of his encounters consisted of others resorting to name-calling. “Racist,” “bigot,” and “xenophobe,” were only a few examples. The vitriol did not come to an end with the election however. Two months after Trump won the presidency, first-year graduate student in the Department of Geosciences Matthew Gliatto came onto Newton’s property, broke into the trunk of his car, took out a Trump sign that was inside, and crumpled it up. He then hastily threw it in the trash and began to run down Alexander Street towards Princeton. Newton immediately called the police and caught up with Gliatto near the bridge. Newton said he yelled, “Hey, don’t you move! The police are coming.” Waving towards the cars passing by, Gliatto allegedly began to shout, “This man is threatening me. This man is threatening me.” Both men were upset by the interaction, but Newton was vindicated after Gliatto was eventually fined. In the end, the altercation proved sobering for Newton when one officer asked him, “What would have happened if the sign was in the window of your house instead of the car? Would the guy have snapped and come into your house?”
Although Newton maintains that he is immune to intimidation, he says he worries for his daughter, who has had people confront her about her father’s mental ability. He also worries about other family members who have had to endure similar treatment.
Although Newton was the most visible Trump supporter in the Princeton political landscape, he did not actually live within the borders of the town, residing instead in neighbouring West Windsor. Thus, he did not try to change Princeton Republicans into ardent Trump Republicans. He instead remained across the canal and ran for state senate in that legislative district.
Swinging the Pendulum Back
“I’m a Republican,” explained a wry Sipprelle, when asked to meet in his office. “We have no establishment here. The only office I have is the one in my head.” Considering that the Princeton Republican Committee was entirely inactive when he moved here in 2005, Sipprelle has managed to impressively improve the organization. Since reinitiating the committee, he has attracted new people to the party and repeatedly run Republican candidates. Sipprelle and his cohort have also contributed to the town’s publications, writing a steady stream of letters to the editor on various topics. This is a far cry from the early 1940s, when Princeton local government was dominated by Republicans. The decline in Republican political leadership accelerated in the mid-eighties and early nineties with Republicans ceding control of elected offices throughout the town. Robert W. Cawley was the last Republican mayor of the Borough, retiring in 1984, while Laurence B. Glasberg was the last Republican mayor of the Township, retiring in 1993. Considering the fact that the power to make appointments is delegated solely to the mayor, Republicans in appointed positions fell sharply during the same time period and continued until the present day. In seventy years, the pendulum had decisively swung from one extreme to the other.
“Does a wild bear like honey?” Sipprelle had said when asked whether universities like Princeton contribute to local political shifts. According to him, the slow transformation of Princeton University into an increasingly liberal institution brought the town leftwards, too. Between 1969 and 1998, self-identified liberals consistently made up to 40-45 percent of faculty in American colleges. Self-identified moderates and conservatives remained relatively stable during this time period. In the 90s, something changed. Moderates and conservatives on the faculty began to decline. In the most recent survey from 2013, moderates and conservatives dropped to 27 percent and 12 percent respectively. Meanwhile, self-identified liberals increased to around 60 percent nationally. At the University, 97 percent of Princeton faculty donated to Obama in the 2008 campaign and 99 percent donated in 2012.
The town’s shift leftwards has a real impact, Sipprelle. Increasing property taxes have made the average property tax bill $18,333, making Princeton the twelfth highest-taxed municipality in the highest taxed state in the country. Many families in the former Borough and Township have responded by leaving. Many of the families who have replaced them have some connection to the University. For University faculty members, sky-high property taxes are less concerning. Not only does the University own many short and long-term rental properties, but it also subsidizes housing purchases for faculty members wishing to live in town. Sipprelle and other Princeton Republicans understand that these shifting demographics have played a large role in making Princeton the town it is today. They also feel that the University’s continued expansion will further current political trends.
“Princeton has resources — financial resources,” Sipprelle said, referring to the Republican willingness to support candidates. Chris Christie’s first speech as a politician preparing to run for governor was at Jasna Polana, Princeton’s elite country club, lavishly designed by world-renowned architect Wallace Harrison in the seventies and decorated with neoclassical art throughout. Back then, Sipprelle never imagined that Princeton Republicans would launch a two-term Republican governor. But now he realizes that Princeton Republicans were punching above their weight. Despite their financial resources, Princeton Republicans were few and far between. There were many more well-to-do Republicans in Bergen County, Ocean County, and Monmouth County. During the next eight years, Christie anointed these Republicans as his base. He was never to return to Princeton for a event or fundraiser specific to Princeton Republicans.
This, however, has not diverted Sipprelle from his plan to set politics straight in Princeton.
“In communities where you don’t have party labels, the voter is more apt to listen to a candidate and their platform,” he said. “If we had that in Princeton, we would have Republicans on the town council. We would have had Republicans in two of the last three mayoral elections.” According to Sipprelle, the voter is much more likely to do research about the candidates running when the ballot is non-partisan. Sipprelle said that when he goes to vote in Princeton, he is immediately able to tell if the person in front of him is a Democrat or a Republican. If they are out of the voting booth in 30 seconds, Sipprelle knows that they have pulled the Democratic lever. If they take their time, however, Sipprelle knows that they have researched the candidates and are splitting the ticket.
West Windsor and Robbinsville are two nearby towns which have nonpartisan tickets. In West Windsor, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2,416 registered voters, but Republicans hold control of the town council. In Robbinsville, where there are slightly more Democrats than Republicans, both the mayor and the town council are Republican. Sipprelle strongly believes that right-of-center candidates would have much more success if Princeton were to hold nonpartisan elections. If there was a nonpartisan ballot, Republicans could take a seat or two on the town council and hold the Democrats accountable during closed-door meetings. However, explained Sipprelle, the push must come from a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. It is the only way to make a non-partisan ballot a reality.
Princeton Before Party
On the night of Nov. 8, 2011, two election watch parties convened in two celebrated Princeton locales. The air in both was thick with anticipation about the results of Princeton Borough’s contested mayoral race. The fact that it was competitive at all was notable; the last Republican candidate on the borough ticket was Fred Brodzinski in 1999. Republican candidate Jill Jachera and her supporters had gathered at The Nassau Inn. Democratic candidate Yina Moore and her supporters had gathered at Conte’s Pizza and Bar. Both camps had fought for months and all involved felt that the election was historic. Republicans felt they had finally jammed their foot in the door of Princeton electoral politics.
Jill Jachera said she was always politically apathetic growing up. She was more interested in the fine art than political canvassing. Jachera explained that politics first piqued her interest when she met her husband’s Cuban family in Miami in the early 90s. It was then that Jachera realized that the value of democracy has never been fully impressed upon many here in the States. Hearing her husband’s family talk in detail about Cuba’s political problems was the start of Jachera’s political career, and she’s never turned back.
In the decade after she and her husband moved to Princeton in 1994, politics were mostly discussed at the dinner table with family friends. Jachera met Sipprelle’s son, Scott, who would later run as a Republican in New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District, and his wife, Tracy, in 2001, when the couple moved in down the street. Jachera later met Sipprelle and his wife when they retired to Princeton in 2005. Jachera’s dinner table has remained a place where she and others like her could express her views openly. During one such dinner party, Jachera remembers discussing Mildred Trotman’s performance as Borough mayor with her guests. Unhappy with Trotman’s governance and cognizant of the lopsided odds any Republican would face, Jachera and her guests decided to think of a Democrat whose skill-set would change things up in town. The group quickly settled on Kim Pimley.
“Scott and my husband literally left my living room and went over to Kim’s house unannounced, knocked on her door, and told her that they thought she should run,” Jachera said. “And that was our first foray into Princeton elected politics.”
According to Jachera, both Democrats and Republicans worked together to help Pimley win the Democratic primary. But they faced major setback when the Princeton Community Democratic Organization came out strongly in defense of Trotman and portrayed Pimley as a “Republican puppet.” Trotman ended up winning the primary in a landslide. In trying to elect the most qualified candidate, Jachera said the town’s community failed to put Princeton before party. Four years later, near the end of Trotman’s second term, a group of women then on the board of Princeton’s YWCA approached Jachera and encouraged her to run for mayor. Familiar with her expressed interest in local politics and impressed with her work as YWCA President, the women were convinced that Jachera could provide Princeton with the good governance.
“Quite frankly, I laughed it off as a joke because I had never, ever contemplated getting involved in politics myself,” Jachera said. However, as she talked to more and more people, she realized that a large portion of the Borough community was dissatisfied with the slate of Democratic candidates. In order to prevent another year of perceived ineffective governance, Jachera made the last-minute decision to have her supporters write her in for the Republican nomination, kick-starting the town’s first contested general election in over a decade.
In the 2011 general elections, Borough voters also faced the question of whether or not to consolidate with Princeton Township. If the ballot question passed, the mayoral term would be reduced to one year from four. Strongly in favor of consolidation, Jachera realized that it could also strengthen the proposition she was making to Borough voters. Placing Princeton before party, Jachera built a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters. She even managed to attract the support of several former Democratic mayors of the Borough and the Township. Phyllis Marchand, who served as the Township’s Democratic mayor for 14 years, once explained that “there is no Democrat pothole, Republican site plan, or Independent parking meter.” According to Marchand, all that matters in local elections is choosing the best candidate. Even Jachera’s campaign manager, Judith Scheide, was a progressive Democrat. Jachera did not let these endorsements go to her head however. She knew that supporting a Republican would always be a tough pill to swallow for some Princeton Democrats. Thus, her slogan in many newspaper ads and lawn signs was “Democrats for Jill” and not “Jill for Mayor.” This allowed her Democratic supporters to distance themselves from Jachera’s party affiliation. When the beginning of November arrived, Jachera garnered two major endorsements. The Princeton Packet endorsed Jachera on Nov. 1, asserting that “party politics is what is wrong with government from Washington to Trenton … it doesn’t belong where the issues are local.” The paper wrote that her “skills, intelligence, experience and leadership abilities [were] the best to get the job done.” The Daily Princetonian endorsed her on Nov. 7. The Editorial Board argued that Jachera cared most about student concerns, highlighting Moore’s refusal to appear in any public debates, including the one sponsored by the University’s Whig-Cliosophic Society.
When the results of the mayoral election were finally announced, loud celebratory shouts were heard from the Democratic camp at Conte’s. Moore and her PCDO allies beat Jachera by only 100 votes. At 10:00 p.m., Jachera made her way to Conte’s to wish Moore well. Despite another Democrat’s triumph, Jachera had no regrets then and she has none now. She was grateful for having had an important role in getting consolidation passed, an issue Moore was silent on. Jachera was also grateful for having provided the Borough with a different choice and for making Democrats work for the mayoral seat.
Princeton Republicans persist
The night of Nov. 7, 2017 was disastrous for New Jersey Republicans across the board. Kim Guadagno, Chris Christie’s lieutenant, lost the gubernatorial race by double digits and Democrats added a number of seats to their majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. At 9:35 p.m., Princeton Municipal Clerk Kathleen Brezinksi released the unofficial Princeton results to all town publications. The local candidate whom Sipprelle had supported did not win. Jenny Ludmer failed in her attempt to secure a Princeton School Board seat despite the fact that she had built a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters, just like Jachera before her. The three winning School Board candidates — Jessica Deutsch, Michele Tuck-Ponder, and Beth Behrend — had all been opposed by Sipprelle. Compared to Ludmer, prominent Republican politicians fared even worse in Princeton. State Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman, who has served the 16th Legislative district for over 20 years, did best, capturing just over 22 percent of the Princeton vote. Guadagno and the Assembly candidates, including Donna Simon, did worse. At 10:03 p.m., it seemed as though the Democrats had succeeded in turning the traditionally conservative 16th Legislative District entirely blue. Only Bateman would eventually eke out a victory over his Democratic challenger. Simon, in whom so many Princeton Republicans had placed their hopes, did not unseat Zwicker to reclaim her old seat.
Over in the 15th Legislative District, Lee Eric Newton’s challenge of the Democratic incumbent also proved unsuccessful. Like Newton, Princeton Republicans have not yet been able to cut through the weeds. However, they are not willing to give up their fight. They have already succeeded in providing voters with a choice. Princeton Republicans have also succeeded by injecting diversity of opinion into the current conversation. No matter the amount of political alienation, the town is and will remain their home. Thus, they persevere.
Since conducting interviews for this article, Lee Eric Newton has died. The Daily Princetonian sends condolences to his family, friends, and loved ones.
An earlier version of this article had a number of inaccuracies in the first paragraph. The ‘Prince’ regrets the errors.