Dual office holding debate unleashes the 2nd district

Republicans say the Democrats have fashioned a weak-kneed bill that does away with dual office holding but for those elected officials currently in office.

To that the Democrats have an answer: Republican State Sen. (and Egg Harbor Township Mayor) James “Sonny” McCullough, who is in a battle in the 2nd district to hold onto a seat he filled earlier this year for retired Sen. Bill Gormley.

"Frequently in politics I’ve been criticized because I’ve supported a bill that people say doesn’t go far enough," says McCullough’s challenger, Assemblyman Jim Whelan. "But Sonny McCullough has an opportunity to make an impact right away."

Whelan wants McCullough to immediately step down from one of the dual offices he holds. McCullough calls Whelan’s and the Democrats’ entreaties "a joke."

"I said on the day I was elected in a special election that if I win a four-year term I’m stepping down as mayor," says McCullough, who’s served as mayor of Egg Harbor Township for 17 years.

But Democrats insist on crying hypocrisy, particularly in the face of a GOP onslaught in the Assembly last week that labeled as compromised anything less than full commitment to a hex on dual office holding.

Whelan, a high school swim coach and mayor of Atlantic City from 1990 to 2001, says he’s never held dual offices and never intends to hold dual offices.

Every issue underscores what’s likely to be a dogfight here in the 2nd – given the stakes. The Republicans have watched their historically weaker rivals in this county disintegrate into intra-party warfare over the last decade only to re-emerge with Whelan leading a blue-collar, back to the roots charge. The GOP don’t want to lose their grip, but with Gormley’s retirement the Democrats see an opening.

Both McCullough and Whelan hoped for endorsements from the AFL-CIO last week and both came away empty-handed, as the labor organization opted at its convention to stay neutral in their district 2 senate race.

The two leaders with executive ties to the district’s two biggest municipalities will fight it out with their own local endorsements lining up behind them.

And their own particular brand of outside influence.

The district is essentially broken into a Democratic Party base: Atlantic City and Pleasantville – and a Republican Party base: Egg Harbor, Hamilton and Galloway, with the hinterlands and smaller towns traditionally consolidating power in the hands of Republicans.

Whatever voters see in Whelan and McCullough – they will see the long shadows of powerful others stretched across the landscape in the coming campaign cycle.

As a prelude, the Democrats delighted in watching McCullough run away from a fund-raising event last month when President George W. Bush came to town to pump up the coffers of the state GOP.

"It's time to choose sides," Ron Ruff, chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Party, called to McCullough and the Republicans. "Either they're going to stand with President Bush's failed agenda that has cut funding for programs that help middle class families, or they're going to stand with us in saying enough is enough. The people of Atlantic County deserve to know."

McCullough, meanwhile, fears Atlantic County becoming absorbed into the machinery of Camden County and Democratic Party boss George Norcross, and says his candidacy is about independent representation for the 2nd district.

Democrats are going to hang the tortured albatross of Bush around McCullough even as the Egg Harbor Township native who grew up in Atlantic City hopes to stay positive.

"I was mayor before he (Whelan) was mayor," says McCullough. "We worked together on a number of things. The fact is, these consultants are like bounty hunters, and they come in here and don’t care what they say about the opponent because they don’t have to worry about bumping into someone on the street the way you do when you live in a place."

Right now on the issue of dual office holding, Whelan says he believes it’s fair to throw a punch.

"As a practical matter, it’s a bill that can get support," he says, "And the grandfathering clause I don’t completely find offensive."

Already passed in the Assembly, the dual office-holding bill goes to the Senate tomorrow where Democrats have the votes and the reluctant backing of Republicans who don’t want to appear to be impediments to anything bearing the words "dual office holding ban."

But the fight in the 2nd district goes on. Dual office holding debate unleashes the 2nd district