Butler Ekes Out a Win in Princeton Council Democratic Primary (Updated)


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.”


  1. Congratulations Jo! A VERY well deserved win. Constant unanimity in decisions is not the mark of a strong government but a weak one!

  2. Congratulations Jo!
    Let’s hope that’s the end of divisive, mean-spirited political strategies in Princeton–clearly, they don’t work.

        1. Yes, corrected the error. Thanks. Note to self: Be careful posting stories from iPhone. Thanks again.

  3. Congratulations to those who worked for Jo. Anyone who pulled in six or more votes for her can say they won her the election!

  4. Krystal– if Jo was ahead by 3 votes and won 4 provisional, why didn’t she win by 7?

  5. Congratulations to Jo, who can come back to Council knowing that her tenure has been validated by the Princeton voters. Commiserations to Sue Nemeth, who was a strong challenger. It’s good to have a primary, especially when the Republicans can’t even find a candidate.

  6. Big congratulations to Jo!! Meanwhile, it’s surprising and somewhat disconcerting that the Mayor, who earlier today said that officials need to show “mutual” trust and respect and “be kind to one another,” has yet to reach out to Jo to offer her congratulations. Perhaps the word “mutual” was a misquote, and the intended word was supposed to be “unilateral”.

    1. I’m happy to say that the Mayor did offer congratulations to Jo today, so my prior comment can now be retired.

  7. Jo Butler won one for the people of Princeton. Democratic principles only work best when ideas for governance are criticized, edited and perfected in the crucible of open and transparent forums. As there is 97% consensus on the issues, I believe this election was more about ensuring the high quality of the Council’s work product by preserving an open and democratic forum. Thanks, Jo.

  8. Krystal thanks for the updated article. Do you know the essentials of the differences between a Borough form of government and a Township form? Is one of them that in a borough form of government individual Council members interact more with municipal staff?
    I’ve noticed that there does not seem to be a widespread understanding that the Princeton municipality currently has a borough form of government (this was the legal form given to the municipality on consolidation)— for instance in the Trenton Times the municipality is called the “township” and the “township” vocabulary is also what is used at Council meetings.

  9. I’m not comfortable with the idea that disputes on Council are a result of ‘township’ vs ‘borough’ ways of doing things. It doesn’t even make sense- Heather Howard was Borough, and she also endorsed Nemeth. Let’s please move beyond seeing things through a borough/township prism. Consolidation has happened, we’re all one town, let’s make it work.

    1. My question had to do with the form of government we have. There are some legal differences between a borough and a township (for instance the number of Council members, whether or not you have an elected mayor). I was wondering if there are statutory differences in how Council members interact with municipal staff in the borough and township forms of government — I thought I remembered there were statutory differences, but perhaps not.

    2. I agree that we need to move beyond township vs borough, but the reality is that the voting was very much along the lines of township vs borough (or more accurately, in-town community vs further-out-of-town community). Here is a rough color-coded Princeton map; green indicates districts that Jo won (i.e. ahead of Bernie and ahead of Sue); yellow indicates Jo came in second; and red indicates that Jo came in last. https://crumiller.com/jon/2014ColorCodedDistrictMap.jpg. As we can see, Jo won all Borough districts except District 7, the Princeton University district, that had only 52 votes anyway (major societal problem – students don’t vote!)

      1. Jon, to the extent that the figures support the idea of in-town vs peripheral voting patterns, which is itself questionable, it is hardly a surprise based on the campaign coverage. Certain people, including most recently Krystal’s piece above, have portrayed the election as a clash of old Township vs old Borough values. It was not. It was a vote of confidence in Jo, and she passed it, which was not a surprise to me, because I have always found her to be a capable and reasonable representative of the town.

        To the extent that there are factions on Council, they are not defined by old Township or old Borough. If they were, then what’s up with Heather Howard? Other outlets have suggested that the factions can be defined as a Jon Crumiller faction and a Liz faction. That’s something that we’ve never read about on Planet Princeton. Care to comment?

        I don’t care what faction a politician is in as long as they do a good job. I hope the next election focuses more on ideas and policies instead of personalities and allegations of treachery. There are lots of pressing questions facing the town and it’s important to face them as one community. There may be a certain inexorable political logic in playing off one neighborhood against another and keeping the focus on geographical identity politics, but that will not help anybody in the long run.

        1. Heather is shameless opportunist. She claimed during the campaign that she would not run again if Jo were elected. I am deeply hopeful she keeps this one promise. She’s also not particularly a good legislator, and when you lift the hood on her political experience, it’s all just fluff.

          Moreover, your denial of the clear voting patterns is just the wish being father to the thought. You’re wrong and Jon’s right. See how all the green sections cluster in the middle. You’re denying reality. End of story.

          Liz factionalized, conspired with Sue, Bernie, Lance, and Heather to gang up on Jo. And, so, Liz, “Hey — How’s that working out for you?” Fact is, Liz is a terrible mayor, and I’m hopeful she follows Heather out the door. That is, if Heather keeps her promise.

          1. Whereas to some extent it is not surprising that a candidate from the Borough did better in the former Borough, the data do not support a simple Borough/Township or close-in/far-out interpretation. Jo did best in my neighborhood- in the former TOWNSHIP. +21 point lead here. She also won in several other former township neighborhoods, whereas Nemeth/Miller carried the Western Section part of the former Borough. So the idea that voting was along the lines of township vs borough is at best a gross over-simplification.

            What the data really show is that the slate candidates and Jo had remarkably uneven results in different neighborhoods. A more plausible explanation is that strong bandwagons got rolling in different neighborhoods, with groups of neighbors geeing each other up to vote one way or another. The wild swings in the results are all consistent with a policy-lite campaign, with a strong personality dynamic, and relatively small numbers of people voting.

            But instead of considering that, what we are getting is the hoary old cliche of ‘Borough v Township’. It’s a gross over-simplification, but it suits some people who would prefer us not to ask tough questions of our elected officials, but instead to think in terms of tribal affiliation. I’m not buying it. It’s mistaken, and it has a divisive intent.

            Finally, in your comment, Mr DramShopLouie, you insulted both Heather Howard and the Mayor, and you also tried to close down an entirely reasonable discussion about how to interpret the electoral data. Please note that I won’t be bullied, but I am aghast at how negative the commentary on Planet Princeton has become.

            1. SFB — What district are you in? I’m attaching the unofficial election results here.

            2. SFB, in your derisive tone and in your impugning the motives of those illustrating geographic voting patterns as being intentionally divisive or “tribal” you are not exactly a paragon of commenting virtue here, although admittedly others are worse.

              It seems likely that where a person chooses to live may be correlated to some extent with where he or she stands on local issues. Those who choose larger lots, newer houses and more time spent in the car over the smaller, older and often in-need-of-repair houses or apartments in our walkable neighborhoods may have slightly different priorities. Some have said “in town” folks choose to live with less privacy and more “togetherness.” This may not be easily provable but it is at the very least plausible.

      2. I’m interested in why the three candidates split the vote so evenly. Bernie Miller had 34% and Jo Butler and Sue Nemeth each had 33%. And then there was the virtually 50%-50% split between Jo Butler and Sue Nemeth. Is there something about human psychology that just makes one person say blue when the other says red?

  10. One final negative note, if I may: I’m shocked that “As recently as Monday, an email circulated that claimed that Butler was an opponent of public education.” This was the charge that Sue Nemeth already apologized to Jo Butler for making. Nemeth’s apology — or if not the PCDO president’s explanation — was apparently supposed to be sent to the PCDO membership. If that had been done, would this last-minute email have been sent?

    1. That’s the part I found shocking about this campaign. Sure, people want to run and be a part of the council, so we have an election. That’s part of the game.

      But for one side, a side with the mayor and 3 council members on it, to continually send out misleading and incorrect attacks on one of their peers is disturbing. If it were based on facts, that would be one thing. But the emails were attacks based on nothing at best, wrong information at worst, and it seems the senders knew this.

      Why didn’t Mayor Lempert, Bernie Miller, or Sue Nemeth ask their supporters to stop sending out wrong information? Do they think the ends justify the means?

      I really respect Jo, who I don’t know at all, for running a campaign with integrity and without negative attacks.

  11. Thoughts on vote distribution and factions on Council:
    [1] Vote distribution: a study of Obama’s election results revealed that the vast majority of his support came from people who lived within a few miles of a Thai restaurant. Any analogy with Jo?
    [2] Factions on Council: Heather Howard, Bernie Miller, and Liz Lempert, in order, work for the University, have a spouse who DID work for the University,

    1. Sorry, didn’t finish the post (Krystal, please delete my previous entry)

      Thoughts on vote distribution and factions on Council:
      [1] Vote distribution: a study of Obama’s election results revealed that the vast majority of his support came from people who lived within a few miles of a Thai restaurant. Any analogy with Jo?
      [2] Factions on Council: Heather Howard works for the University; Bernie Miller’s spouse DID work for the University; and Liz Lempert’s spouse DOES work for the University. During her tenure as mayor, Liz Lempert’s spouse was promoted from associate to full professor.

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