Democrats taking aim in Atlantic County

The list of potential challengers to Republican State Senator Bill Gormley continues to grow with the announcement this week that Paul D’Amato, a former GOP Assemblyman and Linwood Mayor — and once a staunch Gormley ally — has switched to the Democratic Party. Booeyed by victories in ’05 races for State Assembly, Surrogate and Freeholder, Atlantic County Democrats are anxious to mount strong challenges to Gormley and GOP County Executive Dennis Levinson in 2007. D’Amato and newly-elected Assemblyman James Whelan, the former Mayor of Atlantic City who ousted Kirk Conover last year, are at the top of the Senate Democratic recruitment list. Other possible candidates against Gormley and Levinson are Sheriff James McGettigan, County Clerk Michael Garvin, and Alisa Beth Cooper, another former Republican (her mother was longtime GOP Assemblywoman — and Gormley foe — Delores Cooper) who unseated a GOP Freeholder last November. Freshman Assemblyman D’Amato may challenge Gormley in GOP primary By STEVE KORNACKI PoliticsNJ.com ATLANTIC CITY, October 23, 2002 – Freshman Assemblyman Paul R. D’Amato (R-Linwood) is likely to challenge veteran State Sen. William L. Gormley (R-Margate) in the Republican primary next year, several top Republican leaders confirmed yesterday. D’Amato, reached at home last night, declined to comment on his potential Senate candidacy, but sources close to the freshman Assemblyman and former Linwood Mayor said that he has told them that he intends take on Gormley, the Co-Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This would not be the first time Gormley has been challenged during his lengthy and controversial tenure in the Senate. He’s shown a willingness to buck his own party on key Senate votes. In 1997, Gormley beat back a primary challenge from Atlantic City police officer Donald Hurley. In 1991, Dominic Cappella, a jitney driver, came within 847 votes of beating him in the GOP primary. Gormley has also lost primaries for Governor (1989), Congress (1994) and U.S. Senate (2000). But a Trenton insider said that the prospect of a D’Amato challenge has the outspoken Gormley worried, and that the senator dispatched several envoys to D’Amato’s home over the weekend in an attempt to dissuade the onetime Gormley ally from mounting a challenge. Today, though, Gormley would not address specific questions about a possible primary, saying he’s focused on helping Republicans in the November election. But he said word that D’Amato is dissatisfied with him is a surprise to him. “Paul’s never picked up the phone and told me anything like that,” Gormley said. “All he’s said publicly is that I am the finest legislator in New Jersey. I’m not saying that about me, he did.” Gormley added that he’s been supportive of D’Amato in the past, particularly in the Assemblyman’s campaign last year. “If Paul has a problem with me, after I knocked on 3,000 doors with him last year when I was unopposed, then he should pick up the phone and tell me,” the seven-term Senator said. Atlantic County observers said today that Gormley has always generated controversy, but that he has endured for so long in part because of his ability to deliver state money to his district. In the last ten months, Gormley has come under increased fire among his fellow Republicans because of his tie-breaking vote in the Senate to confirm Governor James E. McGreevey’s nomination of Joseph Santiago as Superintendent of the State Police. The controversial Santiago stepped down late last week amidst lingering questions over his background and frequent squabbles with his own troopers. He’s also taken heat recently for backing an executive order that put a moratorium on building in Atlantic County. Harry Hurley, an Atlantic City radio talk show host and longtime Gormley critic, said the controversies surrounding Gormley extend to the Senator’s leadership style. “I believe this county is terribly unhappy with Gormley’s heavy-handed political style, the way he retaliates against people,” Hurley said. “Gormley is a divide-and-conquer type of person who refers to himself as ‘The Emperor of Atlantic County.’ I think the people deserve a more benevolent leader.” Gormley discounted Hurley’s words, saying the talk show host holds a grudge against him. Gormley defeated Hurley’s brother in the 1997 GOP primary. “He’s been an isolated critic for the last few years, and anything I say, he takes the extreme opposite position on,” Gormley said. The GOP in-fighting was good, if not surprising news to Atlantic County Democrats. Democratic County Chairman Chuck Chiarello said he has heard rumors of a D’Amato challenge for months, but didn’t give them much regard until the last few weeks. “The waves are hitting the rocks pretty hard,” Chiarello said. “There’s a growing discontent with the Gormley operation.” Describing Gormley’s style as “dictatorial and commandeering,” Chiarello speculated “if the Republicans ever had somebody who could take him on, it’s probably D’Amato.” The Democratic chairman said the 2nd district is a tough one for his party. But, he said, a bruising Gormley/D’Amato primary might make the winner vulnerable for the Democratic candidate, who he said will probably be Tom Swift, a teacher from Egg Harbor Township.

Democrats taking aim in Atlantic County