Control of two county governments at stake

On the county level this election cycle, Democrats are on the offensive.

The biggest battlegrounds this year are Monmouth and Atlantic Counties, where beneath competitive legislative races in the 12th and second districts, control of county government is up for grabs. The former is also seeing a competitive race for Sheriff, and the latter for County Executive.

In both counties, Republicans are left defending their territory, while Democrats are also looking to bolster their minorities in Burlington and Somerset Counties, with the potential to put them in play next year.

Monmouth County may be the one place Democrats can benefit from Christopher Christie’s recent corruption busts. Several of the “Operation Bid-Rig” defendants, most of them former Republican public officials, are scheduled to be sentenced this week. State Democrats are taking special notice of the district, hoping to turn the tide by delivering a message that the Republicans’ grip on power has led to widespread corruption of the type seen in Operation Bid rig.

“The Republican dominance in Monmouth County has come to be called club Monmouth. The people want change,” said Assemblyman Joe Cryan, the Democratic State Committee Chairman

But at least one Republican leader isn’t buying it.

“I am happy that Democrat donors would waste their money in a futile attempt to overturn the will of Monmouth County voters,” said Monmouth County Republican Chairman Adam Puharic. “Burning their money in Monmouth prevents it from being used in other counties around the state which is good for the entire New Jersey Republican Party.”

One of the central Monmouth County races for Democrats is the sheriff race, where Belmar Chief of Police and Public Safety Jack Hill is squaring off against former federal prosecutor Kimberly Guadagno, who’s now the Monmouth Beach commissioner of public works.

“We’ve got to thank the county Republicans for any sort of climate in the county that’s anti-Republican,” said Hill.

Hill only had praise for the current popular Republican Sheriff, Joseph Oxley, who’s retiring this year. But so far the race to succeed him has not been so cordial. Just recently, Guadagno’s campaign put up a site detailing a pending sexual harassment lawsuit against Hill and several others. Hill, for his part, says that Guadagno simply doesn’t have the law enforcement experience.

“She has the skill set to be an attorney, or an Assembly candidate or possibly a judge – but she doesn’t have the skill set to be a law enforcement officer or executive,” said Hill

“When the chief of police calls me up, we already have a relationship. It’s not him calling the sheriff up, it’s calling Jack up, because he’s a cop.”

Hill said that he could bring 27 years of law enforcement experience to the job, and that if elected will start by instituting a top-down audit of the department to figure out where they can save money. He also hopes to work on sharing services with other departments, and creating a co-op purchasing unit with other New Jersey sheriff departments to negotiate with car and equipment suppliers.

Guadagno acknowledged that corruption is a major issue amongst Monmouth County voters, but that she’s not part of the problem – that her experience as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and as a prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office bears her out.

“One of the key reasons they invited me to run for this office was because of my background as a former fed prosecutor who did high profile corruption cases,” said Guadagno, referring to her prosecution of former Democratic Essex County Executive Tom D’Alessio and Republican Somerset County Prosecutor Nicholas Bissell. “One of the messages they’re trying to send is that the Republican Party needs to change and move in a new direction. And I am that direction, quite honestly.”

Hill, she said runs a small police force that triples its size over the summer, when beachgoers flock to town, making him less qualified to manage an office with a $60 million budget.

The county’s freeholder board is currently 4-1 Republican, but with two Republican seats up for reelection, the Democrats have an opportunity to take over. Republican Freeholder Robert Clifton is up for re-election, while Republican Jeff Cantor is vying to take over the seat of Anna Little, who was forced off the party line after breaking with Chairman Puharic. Democratic candidates John D’Amico, Jr. and Stephen Schueler are hoping that the election of fellow Democrat Barbara McMorrow last year signals a Democratic trend.

“There is a national and a local shift toward the Democratic party out of dissatisfaction with the performance of the Republican party but in Washington and Monmouth,” said D’Amico, a retired Monmouth County Superior Court judge who served on the freeholder board in the 1980s and in the state Senate from 1988 to 1990, replacing Frank Pallone after he went to Congress.

D’Amico points to the very building where the freeholder board sits as a symbol of failed government – the Hall of Records renovation, which is being performed by a business associate of Freeholder Director Bill Barham and is over due, over budget and “built on sand and leaning towards starboard,” according to D’Amico.

D’Amico talks about his time on the freeholder board in the 1980s as its golden years, touting environmental progress made at the time and the founding of a transportation department.

“I give three reasons for my candidacy. Number one is that I flunked retirement. Secondly my wife told me to get out of the house and do something constructive. The third is a want to restore honesty, integrity and responsibility to county government,” said D’Amico.

Neither Republican Freeholder candidate could be reached for comment after multiple attempts, but incumbent Robert Clifton gave minutes from a 1986 board meeting to the Asbury Park Press that showed D’Amico voting yes to hire Anthony Palughi to head the county motor pool. Palughi, most recently the county’s Superintendent of Bridges, has since been convicted of bribery and is one of the bid-rig officials to be sentenced next week.

“It was represented to me that he was qualified for the position he was presented for so I didn’t dissent,” said D’Amico.

In Atlantic, the contest – or, rather, fight – for county executive has attracted a lot of attention, but beneath the Democrats’ attempt take the down Dennis Levinson with Sheriff Jim McGettigan, the only Republican County Executive in the state (a race which Democratic sources admit they have not made much progress in), control of the freeholder board is also at stake.

In the last three years, Democrats have won three seats on the board, where Republicans currently hold a 5-4 majority. This year, three seats are up, and two of them are Democratic. In freeholder district four, Republican Rich Dase, a Galloway Councilman, is running against Democrat Jill Foley, who works in the insurance industry. A first district seat has also opened up, where Republican John Bettis is facing Democrat Charles Garrett, but the Republicans will have a tough time taking on a Democrat in a district that incorporates Atlantic City and Pleasantville.

Perhaps the most competitive freeholder race is for the at-large seat, where Democrat Joe Kelly is up for re-election after finishing up his first term. His Republican challenger, high school history teacher/part-time landscaper Joe McDevitt, is reaching for the coattails of Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson in an attempt to “stop the bleeding.”

“I want to strengthen our position on that board. We’ve lost three elections in a row, and it’s time that we turn the tide,” said McDevitt, who has pledged to opt out of the job’s insurance benefits and give the $20,000 salary to charity. He raises the Republicans’ campaign cry in Atlantic County – that they’re just waiting to face the onslaught of Camden County money, which will make Democrats beholden to interests outside of the County.

McDevitt may not have the same blue collar union credit as Kelly, a machine mechanic. But his brother is Robert McDevitt, president of UNITE HERE! Local 54 (which has remained neutral in this race). McDevitt has repeatedly criticized Kelly, a member of Local 68 Operating Engineers, for not joining striking with Local 54 in 2004.

“It’s funny. Everybody says he’s a nice guy, and I think he is,” said McDevitt. “It’s one thing to be a union leader and having to feed your family, its another thing to be a politician and help the unions and basically cross a picket line and help the casino run while those 16,000 went without food, shelter and insurance during that time period.”

To Kelly, that’s the one attack that stings.

“I got a little mud thrown on me the other day, but it was the first time,” said Kelly, who said that his union has a no strike clause with other unions, as does Local 54. He pointed out that McDevitt’s brother had to work in the 1980s, when another union went on strike.

Kelly, who takes pains not look like a politician or attack his opponent, finds himself in the middle of the larger, nastier battle for County Executive.

“I never try to say anything negative about anything,” said Kelly. “I don’t think you have to to win an election.”

When McGettigan criticizes Levinson on budget issues, Levinson says that he’s betraying Kelly, who sits on the freeholder board’s budget committee.

“They use me, and I asked to be taken off the budget committee in July because of it. I asked Levinson too. They both said I was doing a good job and left me on there,” said Kelly.

The potential shift in party control in traditionally Republican districts, combined with Democrats inching in on former Republican strong-holds like Burlington and Somerset counties, is particularly telling, say analysts.

Democrats have a huge monetary advantage, and candidates like Gov. Corzine saved millions by self-funding their races. But overall, progress on a county level is indicative of demographic shifts in the state, where former residents of urban cores of both New Jersey and neighboring states are making their way into the once solidly Republican territory.

“In locality after locality, county after county you see Democratic inroads,” said Marbach. “I think that’s a reflection of changing demographics, the movement of people from urban areas to the suburbs.”

Control of two county governments at stake