We've all seen these characters before -- shoulder angels or devils, depending on your point of view. For Assemblyperson Gail Phoebus, her shoulder conservative was Bill Winkler, and her shoulder liberal -- Dan Perez.
It was Winkler, along with Ginnie Littell, who recruited Phoebus to run for Sussex County Freeholder -- her first countywide office -- in January 2012. They met with the future Assemblyperson at her country club/golf course and convinced her to take the plunge. And it was Winkler who charted Phoebus' early course as a conservative "reformer" -- word for word.
Meanwhile, Dan Perez was gaining notoriety in Sussex County as the wingman of then Skylands Victory SuperPAC founder Kevin Kelly. The two lawyers were involved in the lawsuit that broke Republican Party hegemony in Vernon Township. And Perez was instrumental in ending the careers of a couple Republican members of the Board of Sussex County Community College.
Both Perez and Winkler are outsiders to Sussex County, although Perez has taken up residence here in recent years. Where they differ most is in their ideological perspective: Winkler is a conservative and a 1980 delegate for Ronald Reagan for President, while Perez is a liberal who contributed to Barack Obama.
There they sat on Phoebus' shoulders, Winkler on the right and Perez on the left, each trying to sway the ever swayable Phoebus. One issue in particular was a point of contention: Abortion. When Winkler pushed Phoebus to take a tough stand on funding for Planned Parenthood, Perez called Roe v. Wade a great legal decision.
So it was no great surprise when Phoebus ally George Graham (Sussex County's Freeholder Director) and two Phoebus committeemen from Andover Township angrily approached Winkler at a recent GOP event where he was handing out information packets on the 20/20 Vision Project -- an ecumenical Pro-Life effort organized by the Roman Catholic archdiocese. The goal of the 20/20 Project is to pass legislation to address the scientific fact that unborn babies are pain-sensitive at 20 weeks. Every other country on earth recognizes this fact except North Korea, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Canada, and the Netherlands. Senator Steve Oroho is the prime sponsor of 20/20 legislation in the State Senate. Similar legislation has been passed in 15 states and 2017 has been designated as the year of the big push to bring our laws into line with the rest of the civilized world.
With the patronage of Phoebus and Graham, Perez has been moving up the political ladder in Sussex County. He recently landed a plum political appointment as a Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority (SCMUA) commissioner and he has made it known that he has his eyes set on an appointment as a Superior Court Judge.
Of course, as a conservative, Winkler would oppose elevating such a liberal to a high court. For that reason, Winkler had to go. And it could also explain why Phoebus, after less than six months in office, began making moves to oust conservative incumbent State Senator Steve Oroho -- who had backed Phoebus when she ran for Freeholder and for Assembly. Even by New Jersey standards, the short time between Phoebus' taking Oroho's support and then screwing her benefactor was remarkable. It was real Hudson County Democrat stuff.
When Phoebus summarily fired longtime conservative staffer Lou Crescitelli as her chief of staff, the die was cast. Crescitelli, a career civil servant and lifetime Pro-Life and Pro-Second Amendment activist, was popular across party and ideological divides for his kindness and gentlemanly behavior. Unfortunately, he was just too conservative for the new Team Phoebus. They only want people around them who think like them.
Back in the Reagan Administration, they had a saying: "Personnel is policy." What that means, of course, is that to advance a conservative agenda it is necessary to hire staff who supported conservative policies, and who work to achieve conservative objectives rather than to undermine them. It is clear that Gail Phoebus has chosen a different course.