Bill Layton says he must have been in diapers when the Democrats had a freeholder in Burlington County.
"It was the early 1980s anyway," said the Republican Party chairman, who unanimously won re-election at his party’s re-organization meeting last week and champions GOP Freeholder Aubrey Fenton and his running mate, Stacy Jordan.
The history doesn’t dim the enthusiasm of Layton’s rival, Rick Perr, chair of the Burlington County Democratic Organization, who believes this is the year his candidates for freeholder, Chris Brown and Mary Anne Reinhart, can win.
"Looking back on 2007, it wasn’t a good year for Democrats," admitted Perr. "We assumed the anti-Republican sentiment we saw in 2006 would build up to a crescendo."
It didn’t happen.
It never happens, says Layton, who wearily recounts how the Democrats always summon a game-changing reason why they will at last breach the barricade and land one of their own on the freeholder board.
"Rick has to do that," he said, acknowledging that a woefully unpopular President George W. Bush in particular has provided a steady ammo flow for the Democrats.
Al Gore won Burlington over Bush in 2000. John Kerry beat him in 2004.
Last year, the Democrats believed the unique combination of Bush torment, a state Senate candidate who had been a Republican legislator and switched up to run with his former rivals, a strong freeholder candidate, and the Burlington County Bridge Commission scandal would finally break GOP control.
"They said it was going to be the break through year," said Layton, "and they got trounced."
Admitted Perr, "Voters didn’t end up looking at it our way, and with the exception of Whelan and Van Drew (in senate races in the 1st and 2nd legislative districts in South Jersey), Democrats statewide didn’t do well. But Burlington County is right on track for us this year. The change in administration, and an unpopular war in Iraq work to our advantage."
This year, Perr and the Democrats say the difference-maker could prove to be the "fired-up, ready to go" candidacy of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, in addition to the fact that veteran U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R-3) won’t be on the ballot.
"There’s a big difference between the energy and enthusiasm generated by John Kerry, let’s say, and Barack Obama," said Perr, who noted the 200-300 party members who showed up to re-elect him at the Democrats’ reorganization meeting last week.
"They were psyched," the chairman said.
Indeed, as elsewhere, Obama helped raise Democratic Party voter registration in the county, which was 51,000 pre-Feb. 5 and 83,000 after the primary. That compares favorably to the Republicans’ new numbers: 51,000 pre Feb. 5 and 62,000 post GOP primary.
"Obama creates a lot of challenges for us," Layton said. "Obama will do well in some of the swing towns, but our freeholder candidates always outperform throughout." Layton’s reasoning in part is that even Bush at his worst still didn’t produce enough of a trickle down of angst to oust freeholders – and now he’s not on the ballot anymore.
Then there’s the absence of Saxton, who is supporting Medford Mayor Chris Myers in a race against Democratic state Sen. John Adler (D-Camden).
"Having Jim Saxton at the top of the ticket always meant great thing for us," said Layton. "He was always able to pull people back to the line. But if you look at Chris Myers, he will play very well in Burlington. He represents a brand voters are accustomed to. If you look at some of the towns where (GOP primary candidate Jack) Kelly competed here in Burlington, he didn’t get a single vote."
Perr says the fact that Fenton has only served one term in office and Jordan’s newcomer status make his party’s chances that much better to capitalize on above ballot changes.
"There is an opportunity for Democrats to put a dent in one of last GOP strongholds in the state," said the Democratic Party chairman, who acknowledges that at the very least, his party’s amped up efforts in Burlington could keep the Republicans occupied – with money and energy- and consequently pinned down.