South Jersey Democrats have their eyes on a coveted prize: overtaking the most staunchly Republican district in Burlington County.
Eighth District Democratic candidates Tracy Riley and Chris Fifis are running on an ethics platform, sounding themes of fiscal responsibility that ring of conservatism and putting the blame for high taxes squarely on the shoulders of local Republicans. They’re facing off against three new Republican candidates – Burlington County Clerk Phil Haines for state Senate and his Assembly running mates, Dawn Addiego and Scott Rudder.
But while lowering taxes and cracking down on corruption may resonate with local voters, the candidates may also have a hard time figuring out how they will reconcile their support for Gov. Jon Corzine with popular opposition to his toll roads privatization plan.
Today the two Democratic Assembly candidates held a press conference in front of the county’s Republican headquarters to decry what they said was rampant corruption and cronyism in the Republican dominated district
“I’ve had the opportunity to witness cronyism first hand,” said Riley, a 38-year-old law clerk who was the first Democrat elected to the Mount Laurel council in over two decades. “There has to be an end to cronyism. It’s costing residents way too much money.”
The Democrats seized on three recent scandals to woo local voters: the state Attorney General’s investigation into state Senator Martha Bark’s two alleged no-show county government jobs; Republican lobbyist Bob Stears bilking of the Burlington County Bridge Commission out of about $1 million; and the creation of a part-time job for a municipal Republican Chairman that paid nearly $200,000.
While Bark is not running for re-election, Riley and Fifis said that the current Republican candidates, two of whom have served on the county’s freeholder board, did not give proper oversight to the bridge commission and failed to keep county spending and taxes down. Rudder's father, they said in their press release, was supposed to act as Bark’s supervisor for her alleged “no show” jobs.
“Haines and Addiego looked the other way and did nothing to recoup this multi-million dollar loss to taxpayers,” read the release.
The Eighth District legislative race is shaping up to be a peculiar one. The Democrats aren’t expecting to score many points on ideology – in fact, the top of their ticket, Assemblyman Fran Bodine, was recently booted off the district’s Republican legislative slate. Bodine hasn’t changed his ideological tune since being welcomed into the Democratic fold — he’s still pro-gun, pro-life and anti-civil union. His two running mates describe themselves as “moderate Democrats.” They’re left of Bodine on social issues – both are pro-civil union and pro-choice – but they downplay those views, instead sticking to a theme of ethics and fiscal responsibility.
To say that the district leans Republican would be an understatement. Democrats haven’t won a legislative seat in there since 1973, when John Sweeney rode the national anti-Republican, anti-Nixon wave to a seat in the Assembly, only to be defeated by future Congressman Jim Saxton two years later.
“The biggest problem is we’ve been out-communicated,” said Fifis, who ran for Freeholder on a reform platform and lost in 2004. “Our chairman has done a phenomenal job communicating our message, and I think it’s resonating. People are tired of all these ethical challenges that they face, and ultimately it drives up property taxes.”
Both candidates said they would be happy to have Corzine campaign for them, even if his plan to sell toll roads is unpopular in New Jersey, let alone their staunchly Republican district. Fifis said that it was hard to pass judgment on a plan he hasn’t seen, but noted that he would not support leasing out the turnpike.
“We’re dead set against selling the turnpike,” said Fifis.
That prompted a press release response by the Burlington County Republicans, whose Executive Director, Chris Russell, watched the press conference.
“Are you for the sale of state assets like the Turnpike or are you against it?” said Addiego in the release. “Tracy Riley and Chris Fifis can’t have it both ways. People in New Jersey want leadership, not indecision and pandering.”
Russell said after the conference that as long as Bark is under investigation the Democrats should not presume she’s guilty. He also noted that the Municipal Chairman that the Democrats were attacking, Michael Mouber, sought an ethical legal opinion on his job and was given the green light.
While Russell acknowledged that Democrats often do well in Burlington County in statewide elections, he said that they could not count on the same support in local government. He noted that while Bush lost the county in 2000, Republican freeholders still won.
“The people always come back to Republican county government, and I think that’s no accident,” said Russell. “They see they get good government at low cost to the taxpayers, and they have a special quality of life here that certainly in surrounding counties like Camden they do not enjoy.”