In Atlantic County, Democrats are trying to pry the only Republican county executive seat in the state out of GOP hands.
That seat belongs to Dennis Levinson, a former history teacher in Atlantic City who’s facing Democrat Sheriff Jim McGettigan in a race that might be the best show of the summer if you’re into political mudslinging. With over three months to go before the next election, the race has already seen its fair share of volatile exchanges, including Dick Cheneyesque moment and a Nazi comparison.
South Jersey Democrats see taking Levinson’s seat as a natural progression. They’ve been encouraged by a number of party defections and by coming within a few hundred votes of winning a majority on the freeholder board. Levinson, who’s served since 2000, went unchallenged in the last election.
“In a way there’s been a change in the last four years in Atlantic County,” said Ron Ruff, the county’s Democratic Chairman. “We’ve become more energized.”
But Republicans insist that their woes in the last election were mainly due to an anti-Bush backlash, and imply that McGettigan is a tool of the South Jersey Democratic machine.
"Most of the releases we’ve seen come out from him are preprinted stuff that’s been regurgitated before by the Camden County political handlers who are trying to tell him what to do and say," said Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis.
Each candidate insists that his opponent is desperate. Levinson often repeats of McGettigan, “The only time he opens his mouth is to put the other foot in.” McGettigan, for his part, says that Levinson’s campaign is in a “tailspin.” The personal animosity between the candidates is palpable, with charges of pension padding, misuse of public resources and incompetence flying back and forth on a daily basis.
The most recent volley came from McGettigan, who issued a press release decrying the county’s hiring of Eric Bernstein,a labor lawyer who also represents the adult industry – McGettigan’s in-house counsel since 2002, as it turned out (he denied knowing of Bernstein’s other line of work).
How it got to this point depends, of course, on which candidate you ask. Both Levinson and McGettigan say that they did not intend to enter into such a nasty race.
“I tried to start off this campaign as a gentleman. I told him I was not going to have a negative campaign,” said McGettigan, who had his own words used against him by Levinson after admitting he was doing a good job as County Executive on a local radio show. “I told him he was doing a good job. I also told him that Sears has three brands of paint: good, better and best, and he is far from the best,” said McGettigan.
Levinson scoffed at McGettigan’s recollection of events, saying the exchange never happened, and pointed out that his opponent’s first press release insinuated that he lacked integrity. Levinson insists that all he’s done is respond to McGettigan’s attacks.
“The day he was nominated, he accused us of being dishonest and untrustworthy,” said Levinson. “Does that sound like a positive campaign if you’re going to restore integrity and trust?”
In March Levinson compared the way McGettigan was being run to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. A few months later, McGettigan told a local internet reporter, Virginia McCabe, that Levinson could “go ____ himself.”
Levinson said that the reason he ran unopposed in his last election is simple: he’s been an effective county executive. Spending in Atlantic County, Levinson said, is well below the state average, with the last the budget increase at 3.5 percent vs. the state’s seven percent average. The county has a $20 million surplus, and was named the “greenest county in New Jersey” by Kean University, and has increased the amount of open space land set aside.
To hear Levinson tell it, McGettigan knows he’s doing a good job and is running against him because of a personal vendetta. Levinson denied him a pay raise and then took away his county-issued gas credit card when McGettigan refused to fill his government SUV up at county pumps. He also accused McGettigan for what he said was exploiting a loophole to receive a $51,000 a year pension, and not understanding the budget of his own sheriff’s office.
“This election is no longer on who’s qualified to be county executive,” said Levinson. “This election is now about whether he’s qualified to remain sheriff.”
But McGettigan pointed out that Levinson has received a raise for the past several years, and said that his pension was from his 15 years as an Atlantic City policeman. He noted that Levinson also receives a pension from his teaching job.
Democrats are casting McGettigan as a tough guy from a non-political background, who’s out to bring down county spending, even if it has increased below the state average. McGettigan sees in Levinson’s vaunted surplus a chance to cut taxes, which he noticed when his own portion of the county property tax spiked by 14.4 percent.
“Well, he freely admits that he overtaxed you by $20 million,” said McGettigan. “Why do you have a $20 million surplus? Are you expecting lawsuits or natural disasters, or some catastrophic thing to happen in Atlantic County that’s going to cost $20 million? I would think a $10-12 million comfort zone is adequate.”
According to the last ELEC repots Levinson has about $408,000 in the bank. McGettigan has $580, though he’s expected to be well funded by the county’s Democratic party. Still, both candidates say they expect to be outspent by three or four to one margins. Stay tuned, because once the money starts pouring into the coffers, this one is bound to get even nastier.