Laboring on both sides

The Democrats in District 2 beefed up their union cred today with the addition of labor leader Joe Wilkins, a move that can’t help but have nose-to-nose implications when considering that one of the men lining up on the other side of the grid is a rank-and-file crane operator turned lead engineer, former Linwood City Councilman John Amodeo.

A man who began his union career in 1956 as an apprentice with the plumbers and steamfitters local 121, Wilkins of Galloway Township joined the ticket as a replacement candidate today in a packed room at party headquarters in Linwood and vowed to help make life here more affordable for working families – which is just what Amodeo says he wants to do, incidentally.

Wilkins made it clear he’s running as a fiscal conservative.

“I was getting a coffee in Wawa and a guy told me he was going to West Virginia, that he’s getting taxed out of the state,” said Wilkins, who resigned yesterday as the state’s assistant commissioner of labor to pursue the Assembly seat in place of Egg Harbor City Mayor Joe Kuehner, who abandoned his efforts as a candidate to care for his father, who is ill.

“I come from a household where my folks didn’t go on vacation unless they had the money to do so,” said Wilkins – and so it goes with state spending, which he vowed to rein in and re-direct on behalf of hard working residents in this seaside 2nd District, where the economy is anchored by the casinos, of course, and all the construction and other labor associated with them, in addition to the profusion of home and commercial building in the hinterlands and their attendant tradespeople. You can pull up behind a rack body truck at a stop light down here and almost count on seeing a union bumper sticker that includes some variation on the word “proud.”

Make the fiscal conservatism mantra ditto for Amodeo, who’s running on the Republican ticket for Assembly with engineer Vince Polistina of Egg Harbor Township, and state Senator James “Sonny” McCullough.

“There’s too much state government,” said Amodeo, 57, who grew up in Margate and lives there with his wife. “There’s no animosity for me that Joe Wilkins’ is running. I respect him and the organization he comes from. I don’t see this as a setback. The Democrats did what they have to do to be more competitive. I’m going to continue to get our message out of fiscal responsibility.”

The state AFL-CIO is staying neutral in District 2’s combative Senate contest, but leaders of 15 Atlantic County locals enthusiastically backed Wilkins today, including Local Union President Robert McDevitt, Ray Cushing of Boilermakers Local 28, Tom Pedrick of Roofers and Waterproofer Local 30, Bill Candelori of Painters District Council 711, and others.

They will all have to add up against Amodeo’s organizationally strong blue collar credentials.

On his website, the Republican candidate boasts that he has received the “grand slam” of union endorsements with the New Jersey AFL-CIO (comprised of both blue collar and white collar union members), the New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council, and the Atlantic County Building and Construction Trades Council.

“I went to both labor conventions as a guest speaker, I filled out their questionnaires,” said Amodeo. “On that basis, I received their endorsements.”

Assemblyman Jim Whelan, a public schools swim coach and former Atlantic City mayor who is running for state Senate at the top of the ticket that includes Atlantic City attorney Blondell Spellman and now Wilkins, said he’s happy to welcome the 71-year old Atlantic City native.

“He brings labor, it’s true,” Whelan said of his new running mate, “but the underlying reason for his presence on this ticket is the integrity that Joe Wilkins brings.”

At the top of the countervailing ticket, Sen. McCullough said in response to Friday’s announcement by the Democrats that he doesn’t care who his opponents are, and that he’s known Wilkins for years.

“The issue is still that my opponents are using Camden County money in an Atlantic County race,” said McCullough.

Wilkins, who joked that today was the first day in his career that he didn’t have a job, later spoke directly to the integrity issue. He’s the former business manager of Local Union 322, and former secretary treasurer of the 20,000-member strong South Jersey Building Trades Council. He served in the latter position for over ten years, according to party spokesman Raiyan Syed.

“When you have the large membership that we do, enough people are watching you and what you do has to come naturally, and in my case it comes from how I was raised, by my parents,” said Wilkins, who was introduced to a crowd of around 60 people by the current business manager of Local Union 322, Jim Kehoe.

“He is indeed a class act,” Kehoe said of Wilkins. “In a short time, when we were able to talk to people about this in the union movement, it (support for Wilkins) was pretty much unanimous.”

Of Kuehner’s departure, Spellman said, “I am disappointed he is not going to run,” said Spellman, “but he has reminded us of the importance of family.”

Of her new running mate, Spellman added, “He (Wilkins) will bring the extra dimension of support to us from labor. We are definitely excited.”

That dimension of labor support is already solid on the other side in the person of Amodeo, not as well known as Wilkins, but who for the past 8-10 years has been a foreman in charge of manpower and equipment for bridges and roads projects. Like Wilkins, Amodeo started and spent his working life in the union, and will now have to convince voters that he can hold elected office in Trenton – and make it work.

Laboring on both sides