Cumberland and Salem are two of the most politically competitive counties in the state, but Democrats have maintained majorities on Freeholder boards in recent years in these two small counties.
Right now, Democrats have a 6-1 majority in Salem and a 5-2 majority in Cumberland. Come November, even if Republicans sweep all four of the upcoming freeholder races in those counties, they’ll still be the minority in both. Democrats, on the other hand, have an opportunity to completely shut out Republicans in Salem.
Countywide races in Cumberland and Salem tend to be close, with ticket splitting the norm. It’s not unusual for each party to win a Freeholder seat. In 2006, Tom Kean, Jr. beat Bob Menendez for U.S. Senate in Salem County, while Menendez carried Cumberland. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry in Salem but lost in Cumberland.
In Salem, Democratic Freeholder Director Lee Ware is up for re-election, along with Republican Julie Acton, who was appointed six months ago when veteran Freeholder Susan Bestwick retired. The Republicans have fielded Alloway Mayor Joe Fedora as a challenger, while the Democrats have tapped Pete Voros, the Mayor of Pittsgrove.
Just four years ago, Republicans controlled the Freeholder board in Salem County, which has the smallest population in the state — about the size of Bayonne. Then Freeholder John Kugler switched parties, giving control over to the Democrats. In 2005, the remaining Republican freeholders were hit with a character defamation lawsuit by then-board director Chuck Sullivan, who they had claimed said county taxes were “not my problem” in a piece of campaign literature. Sullivan won the case, which members of both parties admit was a crushing blow to the Republicans.
“It probably should have never gone to court,” said Salem County Republican Chairman Paul Reed, who’s became party leader in February. “If it was up to me I would have dropped it.”
It’s unfortunate, Reed said, because the county government has grown under Democratic control while residents complain about taxes. Acton, the lone Republican on the freeholder board, would not criticize her Democratic colleagues. But, she said, she’s happy to work as a check to them.
“I want to be the watchdog. I don’t think we should have a 7-0 board,” said Acton, who said she planned to look carefully at county spending for areas to make cuts.
But Voros, the Democratic Challenger, said that he will work to create more jobs in a county that has been wounded by cutbacks from DuPont, historically a big local employer. If elected, he said he’s work to create an industrial park to attract employers.
“We have great school systems, but after everyone gets educated there’s nowhere to get a job so everyone moves out of the area,” said Voros.
In Cumberland, Democratic Freeholder Director Doug Rainear is up for reelection, as is GOP incumbent Mary Gruccio. Rainear is running with Millville Board of Education Vice President Joseph Pepitone, while Ian Roberts, a paramedic from Millville, is aligned with Gruccio.
Unlike its neighbor, Cumberland County’s freeholder board has been pretty consistently controlled by Democrats, coming under Republican control for only one year since 1972.
“We’ve always tried to provide a strong minority voice,” said Cumberland County Republican Chairman Larry Pepper. “People understand the importance of oversight and having a minority voice and I think that will be important again this year,” said Pepper.
Pepper said that the GOP candidates this year have a better shot than in 2006 because there will be fewer “outside influences,” like the national anti-Republican climate during the last election.
Pepitone, the Democratic challenger, acknowledged that high taxes were a serious concern of residents, but said that more important than cutting government services was to attract more business to the county to increase the tax base.
“I think having we need a plan to say ‘How are we going to crack this nut not only now but down the road? How can we replace business?” said Pepitone.