By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
As Democrat Councilman Patrick Simon mulls whether to run for mayor, party insiders who might have seemed like possible supporters of his already have lined up behind incumbent Mayor Liz Lempert.
Mayor Lempert has enlisted the help of backers of her nemesis, Councilwoman Jo S. Butler, who last year won a bruising primary against a Lempert-backed candidate.
Some of Ms. Butler’s allies from that race — notably attorney Walter Bliss, former township Democratic municipal chairman Dan Preston, former borough Mayor Mildred Trotman and Leticia Fraga — are all in Mayor Lempert’s camp for her re-election bid in 2016. In the words of one Princeton Democrat, that was a “very savvy move” on the mayor’s part.
Ms. Fraga is her campaign chairwoman, while Mr. Preston is also working on the Lempert re-election team as vice chairman. Some within the party rejected the notion that supporting Ms. Butler last year meant automatically opposing Mayor Lempert in 2016.
Mr. Preston said Thursday that he has supported Mayor Lempert from the “get-go” and beieves she would run on her “strong record” as a “progressive Democrat.” Mr. Bliss, meanwhile, said Thursday that he had made it known to Mayor Lempert “some time ago” that he was supporting her. He said residents should “rally around Liz.”
This could leave Mr. Simon in a tough spot. Should he run, he will have to line up enough support — financial and operational — from others within the Democratic Party to unseat the incumbent who coasted to victory in 2012.
Her organizational support enabled her to defeat then Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes in the Democratic primary and then Republican Dick Woodbridge in the general election. She is completing the third year of a four-year term.
In a brief interview Friday, Mayor Lempert said Mr. Bliss and Mr. Preston “were huge parts” of her first run for mayor that year. “And they’ve been supportive all throughout my term as mayor so far. And they are some of the people who’d reached out and said they’d be happy to help in any way,” she continued.
For a while, she had declined to say whether or not she would seek re-election in 2016, although it was widely assumed within political circles that she would do so. Last month, she ended any speculation by saying she was running for a second term.
Mr. Simon subsequently said he was considering a run for mayor but did not go beyond saying he is thinking of getting into the race.
“It was a politically savvy thing of her to do. It shows that she is hungry for another term and is willing to work hard to get it. And I respect that,” Mr. Simon said Friday of some of the people Mayor Lempert had assembled around her.
In Princeton politics, the Democratic primary acts as the de facto general election given how Republicans are dwarfed in registered voters. That has played out before, and did so again last year.
The 2014 council primary was seen as a fight between two factions within the local Democrat Party. On one hand, Mayor Lempert made an early endorsement to support a slate composed of incumbent Bernard Miller and former Township Committeewoman Sue Nemeth in a year when two seats were up.
Ms. Butler, on the other hand, ran alone. While Mr. Miller finished first, Ms. Butler won the second spot by fewer than 10 votes in an election that was not decided until provisional ballots were counted.
The outcome was seen as a blow, politically, for Mayor Lempert. In public, Democrats have tried to move past last year.
“Princeton’s a small town,” Mayor Lempert said. “And I think it’s important to be able to, whether it’s an issue or a campaign or whatever it is, you fight for what you believe in and then you move on.”
For her part, Ms. Butler on Friday refused to comment for this story. “I don’t want to say anything,” she said.”
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer