Castillo enters stage left; Merhi stage right?

With major attention in northern New Jersey focused on the Republican primaries in Bergen County, and to a lesser extent the GOP County Committee contests in Passaic County, the Democrats in Passaic County still managed a bit of drama on Election Day.

Sami Merhi, the once-nominated-then-rejected Democratic Freeholder nominee, who last week brought suit to the Passaic County Democratic Party led by Chairman John Currie, decided to team up with 2005 Gubernatorial candidate Hector Castillo (or Dr. Castillo, recalling his yard signs). According to Paul Brubaker at the Herald News:
Merhi and Hector Castillo of Paterson filed petitions to be independent freeholder candidates on the November ballot, running against the Democrats and Republicans and possibly siphoning off Democratic votes.

Merhi said he had asked Castillo, who ran independent campaigns for mayor of Paterson in 2002 and governor in 2005, to join him last week, although the two had been discussing forming a political alliance for some time.

"We believe in the same things. Politics is about serving the public," Merhi said Tuesday afternoon.

Castillo said that the all-Democratic freeholder board was part of the motivation for his candidacy.

"There's no opposition," Castillo said. "Including all the groups and all the parties is beneficial to the entire population of Passaic County."
No doubt an interesting development. Merhi, at least in the short to medium term, has burned a bridge with the Passaic County Democratic Party that he had supported with time, effort, and money for 26 years.

However, as Brubaker pointed out, Merhi and his running mate, as independents, will still have appeal to voters who otherwise would have voted for the Democratic candidates. The high media profiles and political abilities of both Castillo and Merhi may make them factors in the race.

Could Castillo and Merhi match the 7800 votes, or 4.5%, earned by former Freeholder Georgia Scott in 2002, when she ran as an independent after getting booted from the Democratic Party line? Interestingly, 2002 is an almost exact analogue to 2006, as a non-presidential year with a US Senate race at the top of the ballot.

But Scott's showing was not enough to hurt the Democrats, who defeated Republican nominees Fran Tufaro and Bill van Gieson that year by comfortable margins. 2006 could be different. If the popular former County Clerk and GOP nominee Ronni Nochimson remains on the ballot (rumors suggest she might not), if Senatorial nominee Tom Kean, Jr. runs strong in Passaic County, and if Corzine continues to have budget difficulties, the race could be closer than the Democrats anticipate. This is especially true in light of the bizarre version of musical chairs they have been playing on the ballot, for which they have yet to name a replacement for Joanne Graziano! Judging by the confusing portrayal of Graziano's status advanced by Currie and his attorneys last week, the Democrats seem to be in a bit of disarray.

If Merhi's decision to team up with Castillo and run as an independent slate ends up being a spoiler and helping Nochimson and her running mates, it would be quite a poetic justice and irony at the same time. Sami would have somehow gotten payback for Currie's betrayal. On the other hand, despite 26 years as a loyal Democrat, and an ideological predisposition decidedly against the Republicans, Merhi may have inadvertently entered the race - stage right.


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