No ELEC reports, late rent and an unpaid steakhouse bill: Financial woes lead to Somerset GOP tumult


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The bill was eventually paid, according to Somerset GOP Chair Tim Howes and former Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, who said he interceded to get it done. But the episode shows just how far the party has fallen.

As recently as 2017, Republicans completely controlled the wealthy suburban county, where they had dominated for decades. The county produced Republican Gov. Christie Whitman and even the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2021, Jack Ciattarelli. They also had one of the strongest fundraising operations in the state.

Now, Somerset County Republicans hold no county-wide offices and there isn’t a single Republican from Somerset County in the Legislature.

The party’s financial woes didn’t end with the steakhouse bill. They were months late on rent for their Somerville headquarters and, most alarming to Howes’ critics, the party hasn’t filed a legally-required campaign finance disclosure with the Election Law Enforcement Commission since January 2021, when it reported just shy of $12,000 in the bank.

The lack of disclosure risks major fines for the cash-strapped committee. And some party officials say there’s even less of an excuse for that under the leadership of Howes, an election attorney.

A group of Somerset Republicans including Bateman is now attempting to get Howes to resign and, failing that, to get a detailed accounting of the party’s finances. But Howes, who was easily reelected chair in 2022, plans to stay in office until his term is up in 2024, leaving his critics to see if there’s a way to force him out.

“My interest is just making the Republican Party relevant again in Somerset. It hasn’t been for a lot of reasons. You can’t blame the chairman for everything, but we haven’t won an election in years,” Bateman said in a phone interview with POLITICO.

On April 4, almost two dozen current and former party officials, as well as several former elected officials from the county — including Bateman and former Gov. Donald DiFrancesco — outlined their complaints in a letter to Howes calling for his immediate resignation.

“Your failure to comply with the mandatory legal requirements set forth by ELEC, as well as your utter lack of transparency and your denial surrounding this failure, are indisputable and indefensible,” reads the letter, which accuses Howes of “financial malfeasance and deception.”

The letter claims that the party’s fundraising has dropped to “historic lows,” that it’s six months behind in rent payments for its Somerville headquarters, and notes that all eight countywide Republican candidates during his tenure have lost “by record margins.”

“If you refuse [to resign], we will call a special meeting of the SCRO to remove you from office,” they wrote.

Years of decline beginning with Trump election

Howes, who took on the chairmanship in 2020, can’t be blamed for the drastic political shift in Somerset county. Republican losses there started before Howes took the reins, with the GOP going from holding every county-wide office in 2017 to none by 2021.

“I came in the sixth inning. I was the middle relief pitcher,” Howes said in a phone interview.

Howes said party officials had a “difference of opinion” with Char Steakhouse on how many people attended the holiday party and that “once we settled that, I dropped off the check.”

Howes also said that the party’s rent has since been paid and that he’s “working on perfecting” the overdue ELEC reports now that he has a new treasurer in place, but declined to say why the party has gone two years without filing them.

“As far as an explanation, I’m not there yet,” Howes said. “As far as what happened, we’ll get to that. At some point we’re going to hold a meeting so that everybody’s questions can be answered. I think the committee’s questions need to be answered before they read it on the internet.”

The effort to oust Howes was first reported by New Jersey Globe.

The Somerset County Republican Party’s downfall coincided with the presidency of Donald Trump, whose gains for Republicans in formerly competitive blue collar areas were offset by stunning losses in middle-class and wealthy suburban counties like Somerset, and whose continued presence on the political stage has allowed Democrats to cement their control.

“Can he just go away?” Bateman said. “He’s the gift that keeps on giving for Democrats, unfortunately.”

But Howes’ critics within the GOP don’t believe the party will be in position to stage a comeback under his leadership. The party’s former treasurer, Robert Damiano, resigned on March 30 over the filings with ELEC, according to a letter he sent to Howes.

“You and I have had conversations regarding the accuracy of the records that I need to file correct ELEC reports. Each time, I was told that I would get all the information that we needed. However, that never happened,” Damiano wrote.

Howes did not explicitly blame Damiano, but said “we got back control of our records from the former treasurer.”

“At this point, I took the steps within 24 hours of accepting his resignation of getting a new treasurer with a good reputation, very ethical, hard working and we’ve begun the process of going back to making sure everything was filed.”

Damiano declined to comment.

Howes isn’t up for reelection as chair until 2024, and he says there’s no mechanism to remove him. His critics acknowledge it’s not in the party bylaws, but believe that state laws provide a way to remove him.

Howes said that under his leadership Somerset County Republicans have gained 14 seats at the municipal level and noted that they have performed better in off-year elections, when federal candidates aren’t on the ballot.

“It’s not your mother’s Somerset County. In a D+10 county we still outperformed both by way of margin and by percentage the deficit,” Howes said. “I’m here to win county races. I didn’t come here to be the nice guy that runs good campaigns but we still don’t win. We came very close in 2021 — very close. We intend to win this year and we’ve been moving forward despite this distraction.”

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