In last year’s election for Atlantic County executive, Sheriff Jim McGettigan, a Democrat, lost to incumbent Republican Dennis Levinson by a margin of nearly 2-1.
The race was largely seen as a disaster for McGettigan, who despite being well-funded by Democrats hoping to topple the state’s only Republican county executive, made one campaign misstep after another. He wound up losing by a margin that he had won by in his five past sheriff’s races.
This year, Republicans are hoping that the unsuccessful county executive race took enough of a toll on McGettigan’s popularity to put his 15 year hold on the sheriff’s office to an end. And they’ve fielded Pleasantville Administrative Captain Frank Balles, who’s never sought elected office before, to make it happen.
“It definitely made him more vulnerable. It exposed him,” said Balles, who started mulling the sheriff’s bid before McGettigan announced his county executive candidacy. “The problem is that the common citizen has no idea what the sheriff’s department actually does.”
Balles, 46, referenced a letter that McGettigan sent out to voters during his first run for a three year term in 1993 saying that the department was underutilized.
“It’s all the same things I’m talking about,” he said.
During his tenure, Balles said, McGettigan did away with patrols in the western part of the county – in towns that can’t afford their own police departments and now rely on the state police, who are facing their own financial crunch. Small municipalities also have to devote two officers to transporting their own prisoners to county jail, something Balles thinks should be under the purview of the sheriff’s department. The county’s jail, emergency management services, and park police are all under the authority of the Director of Public Safety – a position he said was created because McGettigan’s department couldn’t handle the jobs.
And as a an instructor at the county’s police academy, Balles said, he’s witnessed students move into the sheriff’s office only to feel dejected about doing the jobs the sheriff’s department does instead of doing actual police work. He noted that the academy graduated 10 students into the sheriff’s department a year ago, six of whom have moved on to municipal police jobs.
“It’s like mass exodus, and morale is definitely low,” he said.
One thing working in McGettigan’s favor is having presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. Presidential years tend to favor the Democrats here, and Obama could turn out the votes from heavily Democratic areas in towns like Atlantic City and Pleasantville. But Balles argued that, having worked in dominated Pleasantville for the last 23 years, he’s established connections with local Democrats who are already working behind the scenes to help him.
“They’ll come out publicly and say they’ll support McGettigan, but they’re doing a lot of things for me which are very nice,” he said.
To McGettigan, Balles’s arguments only underscore a lack of understanding about how the sheriff’s department operates. For instance, the sheriff recruits leaving for municipal police departments are just following the money.
“It’s a problem state wide, where officers will come into Sheriff’s office and move into other agencies because traditionally the Sheriff’s office is very low paying,” McGettigan said. “I think that’s a very inadequate and irresponsible statement to make on behalf o the recruits.”
And McGettigan has heard complaints about patrols in the western part of the county from past vanquished opponents. He pointed out that he’s looking into the issue, and that two towns in the region have applied for a $20,000 grant to study the feasibility of having sheriff’s patrols.
“We can’t simply step in to do any such thing because the state police would have to acquiesce their authority to the sheriff’s office,” he said.
McGettigan takes pride in “bringing the sheriff’s office into the 21st century” by setting employees up with computers and technology that have saved millions over the years in postage and fuel costs. He’s cut the office’s payroll in half by downsizing it from two to four employees, and has formed the Office of Community Affairs to reach out to youth and the elderly.
This will be the second challenge McGettigan has faced to keep the post this year. Last month, he easily defeated primary challenger Dennis Munoz, 63% to 36%. It was only the second primary challenge McGettigan faced in his career.
Dennis Levinson, who during the county executive race frequently questioned McGettigan’s fitness for the sheriff’s office, said that the primary challenge showed that even a significant portion of Democrats – 3,000 of whom voted against McGettigan – were clamoring to get rid of the incumbent Sheriff.
“The tell-tale was the primary he just went through with a virtual unknown who was buried on the ballot,” he said. “The only thing I can see that McGettigan has going for him this time is the fact that it’s a presidential year. The dissatisfaction for George Bush may carry over. That may be his charm. But without that he’s yesterday’s news.”
Levinson also said that McGettigan played a major role in the loss of incumbent Democratic Freeholder Joe Kelly, who last year was underneath him on the ballot. This year, he said, the Democratic county candidates are “basically holding their noses and hoping he wins.”
But McGettigan, who blamed Levinson for sparking the negativity in last year’s especially nasty race, suspects that Munoz was recruited to damage him by Republicans.
“I would say that Mr. Levinson is certainly misled in his thinking. The worst kept secret in Atlantic County is that Dennis Munoz was nothing less than a plant for the Republican Party,” said McGettigan. “Every time Mr. Levinson has a chance to put a chink in my armor, he will. Now that the election is over, he should put it to rest.”
Munoz, for his part, denied that he was fielded or funded by Republicans (he signed a form with the Election Law Enforcement Commission pledging to spend less than $3,500 in the race). Still, he said, he will support Balles and, if that doesn’t work out, will challenge McGettigan again in 2011.
“I’m not a plant, and I’m not going away either. I’ll be back next time, and I’ll run a better campaign,” said Munoz.