Odd coalitions make Toms River mayoral race worth watching

Toms River has been around since the 18th century, but this year’s mayoral race will only be the second ever in this Ocean County town of 89,706.

That’s because the town, which until last year was officially named Dover Township, changed its form of government in 2003 from a Township Committee that appointed the mayor to the more common mayor/council setup. Since then, odd alliances and rivalries have taken shape, giving way to a Democratic mayor, Paul Brush, and a council controlled completely by Republicans.

Now that Brush is not seeking a second term, Democrat Richard Strada, a former committeeman who served a brief stint as Mayor under the old system in 1978, is facing off against Republican town council President Gregory McGuckin. Councilman Carmine Inteso, another Republican, is trying to enter the race as an independent along with a slate of three council candidates, but his petition has been challenged in court.

Democrats hope that Inteso’s candidacy will split the Republican vote, ushering in another Democratic mayor to replace Brush, who ran in the 2003 election as an independent. They also hope to pick up a few council seats, since there are Democratic, Republican and independent candidates for all three council seats that are open.

“Taking into account now that you have Inteso throwing his hat in to the ring, we see the machine starting to crumble,” said Tom Rogers, Strada’s campaign coordinator.

The Democrats would take a lot of pleasure in keeping the mayoral seat and gaining some council seats in the hometown of powerful Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore.

But Gilmore said that Brush’s victory in 2003 was a freak occurrence. That race was also three-way until just before election day, when Brush’s Democratic challenger, John Furey, dropped out.

“I think that the moon and stars lined up and allowed that to happen. You’re not going to see it again.”

Now, even with Intenso’s run, Gilmore isn’t so sure it will hurt Republicans. Both Strada and Inteso are Italian-Americans, he noted, who make up a major ethnic group in the town.

“They have a tendency to support people of the same heritage assuming the candidate is qualified,” said Gilmore. “I don’t know if he takes more votes from the Republicans because he’s a former Republican or if he takes more votes from the Democrats of Italian heritage.”

Strada, 63, currently Dean of Social Science, Education and Public Service at Ocean Community College, is trying again for elected office. He last held a seat on the committee 26 years ago. Since then, he’s run two long-shot campaigns — in 1995, he unsuccessfully ran for state Assembly and in 2002 put his name up against Rep. Jim Saxton. (Strada was undergoing chemotherapy at the time for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at the time and did not campaign actively and came away with about 34 percent of the vote).

But Strada thinks he has a real shot of re-occupying Town Hall. His motivation: seeing a 44 percent increase in municipal taxes over the last four years.

“It was time for somebody to do something,” said Strada, who said he would deny part-time elected officials health benefits if elected.

Republicans do tend to dominate Toms River, at least in national and statewide elections. Tom Kean, Jr., Doug Forrester and George W. Bush all won the town by large margins. But despite the numbers, Strada doesn’t think Brush’s victory four years ago was a freak occurrence.

“I don’t think this is really a Republican community. I think this is a community at the tipping point that can go either way,” said Strada.

McGuckin, a 46-year-old lawyer in his second term as a Councilman, said that he’s not to blame for the rise in taxes. Ever since the town changed its form of government, he said, the mayor draws up the budget and the council passes it. He noted that he challenged Brush’s budget twice as council president, and said that the lack of tax increase for the last one stemmed at least partially from his prodding.

“Quite frankly our major disagreements with the incumbent mayor are financial,” said McGuckin, who said he was running on the theme of fiscal responsibility, but touched on one theme that’s become common in legislative races: asset monetization. Toms River depends on the Garden State Parkway, he said, and he doesn’t want tolls raised on his constituents.

“Our residents are going to have to pay more money to go the state and Trenton will receive that income. It will be no benefit for us,” said McGuckin.

Odd coalitions make Toms River mayoral race worth watching