Death of GOP Surrogate could mean battle for control in Burlington

The death of Burlington County Surrogate Elton Conda has the potential to threaten Republican control of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders this November. Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, can appoint someone to to serve as Acting Surrogate, with the advise and consent of the Democratic-controlled State Senate. (There are no Special Election Conventions for Surrogate, Sheriff or County Clerk.) He can’t pick Thomas Marshall, the Democratic candidate for Surrogate — state law requires the Governor to appoint a replacement from the party that currently holds the post. The right move for the Democrats may be for Corzine to appoint the Republican candidate, Vincent Farias, as Acting Surrogate. To assume that post, Farias would have to resign from the Freeholder Board — creating a November 2006 Special Election for the remaining fourteen months of his term. That would mean three of the five seats on the Burlington Freeholder Board would be up for grabs in an election year where the political environment may not be best for the Republicans. The GOP has controlled the Board of Freeholders for more than twenty years in a county that has become politically competitive at all other levels. Voter registration in Burlington is just about even: 52,930 Republicans and 51,837 Democrats. Corzine won Burlington by 6,513 votes in 2005, and John Kerry beat George W. Bush in Burlington by 14,475 votes. For that reason, Republicans may not want Farias to assume the post early. They might be happy letting the Deputy Surrogate, Linda Cushing, run the office until January. But Farias’ refusal to step up might hand the Democrats an election issue. It would be hard for the two Republican Senators from Burlington County — Diane Allen and Martha Bark to block Farias’ appointment as Acting Surrogate while their party is asking voters to elect him to the post for a five-year term. GOP incumbents William Haines, Jr. and James Wujcik will face New Hanover Councilwoman Sharon Atkinson and physician Gail Cook. This opportunity comes just as Rick Perr, a South Jersey lawyer, Law Professor and political operative, appears poised to become the next Burlington County Democratic Chairman. Perr has strong fundraising connections, and if control is at stake in a possibly bad GOP year, it might make the idea of playing in Burlington far more appealing for the cash-heavy Democrats. If Corzine names Farias as the Acting Surrogate, both county committees from both parties will need to hold a Special Conventions to pick a Freeholder candidate to run for an unexpired term in November. Possible GOP contenders include: Cinnaminson Mayor Joseph Donnelly (who ran for State Assembly in the seventh district last year); Burlington GOP Vice Chairwoman Dawn Lacy; former Medford Mayor Scott Rudder; Medford Mayor Lisa Post; former Burlington GOP Vice Chairwoman Amy Webb; and Lois Downey, a Moorestown attorney. One Democratic source suggested that Chris Fifis, the owner of Ponzio’s Diner and a Freeholder candidate in 2004, could emerge as a leading candidate for Farias’ seat. Other possible Democratic candidates include: Burlington City Councilman James Fazzone ; Evesham Councilman Michael Schmidt; Moorestown Democratic Municipal Chairwoman Kate Gaskill; Medford attorney Gary Boguski; and Superior Court Judge Marie White Bell , who will retire from the bench at the end of August. Bell was the first African American to win election as Mayor of Willingboro.2B:14-5. Filling vacancy in Surrogate’s office. If a Surrogate does not take office within 30 days after the end of the preceding term or a vacancy occurs in the office of Surrogate , the Governor, with advice and consent of the Senate, shall fill the vacancy from the political party of the person last elected to the office. The person appointed shall serve until election and qualification of a successor. Election of a successor for a five-year term shall occur at the next general election unless the vacancy occurs within 37 days before the election, in which case it shall occur at the second succeeding general election.

Death of GOP Surrogate could mean battle for control in Burlington