Incumbent Democratic Councilwoman Jo Butler widened her slim win over challenger Sue Nemeth in the Princeton Council Democratic primary race today after provisional ballots were counted by the Mercer County Superintendent of Elections.
The Mercer County Board of Elections reviewed the 11 provisional ballots that were cast in the race and validated five of the ballots. A provisional ballot is a ballot provided to a voter whose eligibility to vote is not immediately established on election day.
One ballot was thrown out because the seal was broken on the ballot bag. Two ballots were rejected because the voters were registered Republicans. Three ballots were rejected because the voters were not properly registered to vote in Princeton.
Four of the five votes that were counted were for Butler. Nemeth received one of the five votes.
Bernie Miller was the top vote getter in the Democratic primary with 1,602 votes. Butler has 1,547 votes and Nemeth won 1,541 votes. The total includes absentee ballots and the provisional ballots.
Nemeth conceded to Butler after the provisional ballot count and said she would not contest the results.
“She was very gracious today and I certainly appreciated it,” Butler said in a phone interview tonight. “Bernie Miller also emailed me today to offer his congratulations.”
Miller is out of town and could not be reached for comment. Butler said she has not heard from Mayor Liz Lempert, Councilwoman Heather Howard or Councilman Lance Liverman yet.
In an unprecedented move, Lempert, Howard and Liverman backed Miller and Nemeth as a slate. It is the first time residents recall a Princeton mayor so openly backing a candidate in a Democratic primary. Lempert encouraged residents to vote for Nemeth and Miller on Facebook and Twitter. Lempert, Liverman, Howard and a few school board members also endorsed Nemeth and Miller in newspaper ads.
Lempert, Miller, Howard and Liverman control the majority on the Princeton Council, with Lempert breaking ties and voting along with the three whenever a vote on the six-member council is a split vote.
Nemeth, Miller, Lempert and Liverman all served on the former Princeton Township Committee together. The culture of Princeton Township meetings was drastically different from Borough Council meetings. Borough Council meetings were run like a New England town hall meeting, with open debate between elected officials and lots of comments by residents during public comment periods. The meetings often lasted several hours. In contrast, the public portion of Princeton Township Committee meetings lasted about an hour on average, and the committee almost always voted unanimously with little or no discussion.
“Collegiality” was a buzzword in the election, and Butler’s opponents characterized her as an obstructionist. Butler has voted with the majority 97 percent of the time, but her opponents say she has delayed decisions by asking too many questions.
The first Princeton Council meeting after consolidation, the governing body was asked to approve professional contracts, sight unseen. Butler questioned the practice during the packed Jan. 1 meeting and angered some Democrats, who felt she was raining on their consolidation parade. She then scrutinized the professional contract with the town’s lawyer and called for better oversight on legal bills. She also called for a strict conflict of interest policy, questioning whether Lempert should be able to vote on Princeton University issues and negotiate a voluntary payment from Princeton University to the town when Lempert’s husband is an employee of the school. She has challenged other proposals and policies, recently voicing opposition to a budget amendment that included a salary increase for the mayor and council.
Even though Butler came in last place at the Princeton Community Democratic Organization endorsement meeting, she said it is not in her nature to quit, and said she was encouraged by the fact that the vote at that endorsement meeting vote was so close given that she was running against a slate backed by the mayor and two other council members. During the month leading up to the primary, Butler aggressively worked to win votes by distributing campaign literature, knocking on doors and attending meet-and-greet sessions in residents’ homes. Her supporters also flooded the press with letters endorsing her.
“It’s been a long haul,” she said. “I received a tremendous amount of support by so many people who made the win possible. I couldn’t have done it without all their hard work. We had quite a big team.”
As recently as Monday, an email circulated that claimed that Butler was an opponent of public education. The attempt to characterize her as such may have backfired. Some voters said the email was a major turn off and they voted for Butler because of it.
“I did try to run on my track record and take high road,” Butler said. “It was difficult at times because there were some shadow issues, including a mischaracterization of my position on public schools. It was really upsetting and disappointing. We are trying to forge some new ground with the schools that will be advantageous to the entire community, such as employee sharing. We are looking to find cost savings where we can.”
There are no Republicans seeking Princeton Council seats in the November general election. It is unclear how the governing body will be able to work together and move forward after one of the most divisive local elections in recent memory.
“I feel like there is a lot of damage in the wake,” Butler said. “We will move forward, but it is not going to happen overnight.”
Butler said in the coming months, the Council needs to update ordinances for the consolidated Princeton, work through historic preservation issues and parking issues, and hire a new town administrator to replace Robert Bruschi, who will retire later this year.
“We have a ton of work to do,” she said. “People do care about transparency and expect to see more of it, and I hope my victory shows that it is an issue that resonates with the people of Princeton.”