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Piscataway Mayor Faces Challenge in Race For Township’s Top Office

Republican Damon Montesano Challenges 16-Year Incumbent Mayor Brian Wahler
Wahler and Montesano
Brian Wahler and Damon Montesano

PISCATAWAY, NJ—On November 8, Piscataway's mayor election will pit Democratic incumbent Brian Wahler against Republican challenger Damon Montesano.

Mayor Wahler has been a lifelong resident of Piscataway with his wife and three children.

He graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University in 1984, and served as a Piscataway councilman from 1992 to 2000.  He also works as the Director of Economic Development at the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, and serves on the Piscataway Planning Board.

Wahler has also served as a member on the Piscataway Zoning Board, the Piscataway Traffic Advisory Commision, and as the township's Public Safety Director.

Beyond government jobs, Wahler was a management assisant at the New Brunswick Bindery before the 2000 mayoral election and a member of the Piscataway Lions Club. 

But town residents have accused the Piscataway Democrats, including Mayor Wahler of political corruption and favoritism in the past few decades.

Montesano, a 51-year old lifelong Piscataway resident, is challenging Wahler for the Mayorship, which Wahler has held since January 2001.

Montesano also has plenty of experience in Piscataway, serving the community through various programs including the Civil Emergency Response Team (CERT), Piscataway Clean-Up Day, and by organizing the protests against the township's red light cameras.

Montesano's experience includes serving in the Navy after high school in Piscataway and working as a procurement manager with a degree in marketing and management from Middlesex County College.

Neither man responded to outreach from New Brunswick Today.

Montesano has an ambitious platform he plans to achieve in the 4-year term, according to published reports.

His platform includes a move to make a park on the old Cornell farm, and recording all Planing Board & Council Meetings for broadcast on Piscataway Community Television.

Montesano also wants to hold a "Business Roundtable" meeting to review zoning & ordinances, and develop better relations with surrounding towns in the hopes of entering shared service contracts.

This review will "improve the business climate for small businesses and come up with incentives for the property owners of empty buildings to invest in the needed changes to accommodate the different business models today," according to the Piscataway Republican's comments to TapInto.

He also wants to implement a fee that Rutgers will have to pay for making Piscataway its home. Currently, Rutgers live-in professors and faculty send their children to public schools for free. Montesano believes that this puts the burden on all residents and that needs to end.

The selection of an Officer by a review board to be the next Police Chief. Montesano believes no politician has the knowledge or experience to hold Director of Police. "That would jeopardize all our safety, especially in the times we find ourselves in now", concludes Montesano.

Finally, Montesano states that under a Montesano administration "all township businesses will get preferred status for bids, not political friends."

It's far from the first time someone has accused the Demcratic establishment of favoritism towards certain businesses.  The town has had Democratic mayors for 3 decades. 

In 1994, the Democratic Council in Piscataway approved $795,000 in tax credits to Union Carbide after the township reached a settlement with corporation to reduce its assessed value of $35.7 million in 1992 and $33.1 million in 1993 to $20 million for both years.

This major tax rebate for Piscataway's third-largest taxpayer at the time coincided with a hike on property taxes in 1994 and several other times since for Piscataway residents.

In 2000, then 71-year old Piscataway Mayor Helen Merolla refused to run as a Democrat again after seeing perceived nepotism and political favoritism in the Party. 

According to her, then-Councilman Brian Wahler, had been nominated by the Party because Wahler "already received the blessing of his father-in-law, David Crabiel, the Middlesex County freeholder director, and Ellen Smith, the local party chairman and wife of State Assemblyman Robert Smith, a country Democratic powerbroker." 

In that election, Middlesex County Democrats raised nearly $1 million for their mayoral candidates and along with the Piscataway Democratic Organization, raised a whopping $250,000 for Wahler's campaign. 

Wahler denied the charges of nepotism and political favoritism, and handily beat Helen Merolla, who ran as an Independent, and Christopher Lombard, who ran as a Republican. 

In 2004, charges of corruption were thrown at Piscataway Democrats again.

When politically-connected developer Jack Morris, whose company received approval for development projects from the Piscataway Planning Board, donated $1 million to a foundation headed by township Mayor Brian Wahler, Piscataway Republicans were frustrated.

"It just doesn't look right," said Republican Chris Lombard, who lost to Wahler, a Democrat, in the 2000 mayoral race. Developers, he said, "made a lot of money from this town, and it looks like they're trying to give some of it back. But who knows what it's tied to or what promises were made."

But, a separate incident in 2004 sealed the deal. 

A 75-acre farm off Stelton Road, which was owned by the Halper family, was set to be taken by the government via eminent domain for a pricetag around $4 million. Except, the Halper family had not agreed to that price.

Larry Halper's brother-in-law, Mark Halper, became an informant for the U.S. Attorney's Office in an attempt to stop the township from condemning the property. Secretly recorded tapes made by Mark Halper led to the indictment of a David D'Amiano, a Democratic fund-raiser, who pleaded guilty to fraud.

In the secretly recorded tapes, D'Amiano agreed to set a higher price for the family farm in exchange for a $40,000 donation from the Halper family to the Piscataway Democratic Organization, using the code word "Machiavelli" to cut the deal.

This was the last straw for the Republicans. The campaign of Helen Merolla, GOP candidate for Mayor in 2004, chose a red-and-white color scheme for their municipal campaign lawn signs.

But it's their message that had local Democrats seeing red. 

"Bribery. Corruption. Indictment. Had enough???" the lawn signs read, accompanied by a graphic of a brush sweeping away dust. The signs, alongside Democratic placards, bunched up near major intersections across the township.

This prompted a failed lawsuit against the Piscataway Republicans on charges of libel.

Piscataway residents, including Rutgers students on Livingston and Busch campuses will be able to vote on Tuesday, November 8th.