By most measures, Gloucester County should be a politically competitive place.
Its towns are mostly rural and suburban, it has a large blue collar population, and it only went for John Kerry over George W. Bush by about 6,000 votes in the last presidential election.
But over the last decade, Democrats – aided in part by George Norcross’ powerful political machine in neighboring Camden County, the political prowess of native son Stephen Sweeney and plenty of Republicans willing to switch parties – have had little trouble holding on to full control of the county’s government and taking over the majority of most towns’ elected offices.
Maybe they say it every year, but Republicans feel that this time they may be able to pry at least one county-wide seat out of the Democrats’ grasp: the one that belongs to Freeholder Warren Wallace, whose re-election comes about just as his one-time political ally – former State Sen. Wayne Bryant – faces a corruption trial over a job he held at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), where Wallace worked as associate dean for academic and student affairs for School of Osteopathic Medicine before being dismissed over accusations of unethical behavior. In 2006, he was accused of shredding documents while the school was being investigated.
In May, Wallace filed a lawsuit against the school, charging racial discrimination over his firing. But he may be called to testify at Bryant’s trial as a “person of interest” – further associating him with the former state Senator.
“We absolutely have a real shot at it,” said political consultant Steve Kush, who this year is running the Republican freeholder candidates’ communications shop. “The proof is in the pudding.”
Republicans Phyllis Scapellato, Larry Wallace and Dan Roberts are running against Democratic incumbents Wallace, Sweeney (the state Senate Majority Leader who reconsidered his decision not to run for freeholder again) and Frank DiMarco. Roberts replaced Frank Stellaccio, who dropped out in June.
The pudding, according to Kush: a letter Democratic counsel Timothy Chell sent to Gloucester County Republicans, warning candidates not to use several claims about Wallace recently outlined in a Philadelphia Inquirer article. He thinks its proof that the Democrats are running scared.
“Any use of the factual inaccuracies published in the Inquirer will be considered actionable by the Gloucester County Democratic Party and Dr. Warren S. Wallace personally,” wrote Chell.
Chell pointed to what he said were three inaccuracies in the article: Wallace’s salary at UMDNJ of $600,000 (it was actually $166,000); that Wallace pressured staff to interview and accept his daughter into the medical school, which Chell said the federal monitor’s report on the school never mentioned; and that Wallace helped secure a no-bid cafeteria contract at the school for a friend.
Today, Gloucester County Republican Chairwoman Loran Oglesby responded to that letter, saying they never did intend to use the $600,000 figure, but that the other claims were indeed either outlined in the monitor’s report or in several previous press accounts.
“Three different lawyers have reviewed your letter, laughed, made some Warren “Shredder” Wallace jokes and told us to do whatever we wish so long as we continue to discuss only factual information,” she wrote. “…To be completely honest I cannot figure out why the Gloucester County Democratic Committee circles the wagons around Mr. Warren S. Wallace, nor do I care. What I do care about is the Gloucester County Democratic Committee’s attempt at intimidating our candidates with this type of harassment. Any further harassment of our candidates will be forwarded to legal counsel and dealt with accordingly.”
But even if Republicans feel vulnerable on the Wallace issue, Republicans know they can’t compete with their money. Oglesby noted that Democrats held a fundraiser last month that she said netted $400,000. ELEC reports won’t be available to verify that until next month.
“We’ve done a lot better than we have in the past two years, but we know we can’t chase their dollars and we don’t even try,” said Oglesby.
Gloucester Republicans had about $23,000 on hand as of June 30th, while Democrats had $115,000 – after spending $158,000 during the last reporting period.
And the Democrats’ advantage has, over the years, managed to attract many Democrats over to their side.
In Washington Township, the largest municipality in Gloucester County, nearly equal party registration – and a narrow win for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004 – makes it one of the most politically competitive towns in the state. Council President Michelle Martin, once a Republican rising star. But she switched parties, and the town is now under complete Democratic control.
Republicans have turned Democratic in places like Westville and Franklin Township. In Logan Township, Mayor Frank Minor is a Republican-to-Democrat convert.
County Clerk James Hogan was a Republican when he ran for Sheriff in the 1980’s, and remained one until 2002, when he became a Democrat. He said that the frequent shifts in Republican county leadership helped contribute to it, as did what he said was the county Democrats’ job performance and his personal background as a Democrat before he ran for Sheriff in 1985.
“When your job is how you pay your bills, you start looking at things. And you cannot ignore the fact that historically I was a Democrat,” he said.
Oglesby blames the conversions on patronage positions that the Democrats can offer converts’ “friends and family” but the Republicans can’t – and won’t. Jeff Morris, the county party’s former executive director who was recently elected as the Washington Township Municipal Chairman, said Sweeney is largely responsible for it by using his political clout to help the towns whose officials turn Democratic.
“The Democrats control the county and the state, and they seem to be able to offer some of these elected officials perhaps more enticements for their town than republicans, since they’re out of power,” said Morris. “In most cases, Senator or Freeholder Director Sweeney seems to be able to offer their towns some enticements. As an elected official, you should treat all towns equally. The political makeup of the town shouldn’t matter…but apparently some of these people who are switching have been enticed.”
Just as Republicans feel the county may be in play this year, Morris said Washington Township just might vote for Republican mayoral candidate Theresa Lappe and the two Republican council candidates: Joseph Bowe and Giancarlo D’Orazio – partly because they’re not facing any incumbents on the ticket. Mayor Paul Moriarty, who also serves in the State Assembly, is not running again.
Morris also thinks the town will go heavily for John McCain this year, helping his down-ballot candidates.
“Whether Democrats stay home or just decide to vote Republican, I think it will help our ticket that Washington Township is going to go for Republicans at the top of the ticket,” he said.
After Wallace, Sweeney is the Republicans’ other major target. They beat him up for reneging on his pledge not to run for freeholder again, but spend more time tying him to Gov. Jon Corzine, whose anemic statewide approval ratings they insist are probably much lower in Gloucester County.
“All he’s managed to do is link himself nice and tight with Jon Corzine and pass things that hurt Gloucester County families,” said Oglesby.
Sweeney, of course, sees things differently. While he supports Corzine, he challenged Republicans to find a Democratic legislator who has quarreled with him over legislative issues more than he has. In 2006, he sided with Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts in his feud with Corzine that ultimately led to the state government shut down, and he opposed Corzine’s once-cent sales tax raise.
“Trying to tie me to Jon Corzine? I’m not ashamed that he’s tackling tough issues, but I don’t think anyone has been a bigger pain in his rear end than me,” said Sweeney.
And while Sweeney admits that he went back on his promise not to run for freeholder again, he noted that he donates his entire freeholder salary to the United Way and doesn’t take health benefits. Meanwhile, he has a bill pending in the state Senate to do away with the pensions he’ll get from the freeholder and state Senate jobs.
Moreover, Sweeney disputes that his party has done anything untoward in converting the county. In 1996, when he first ran for office, 17 of the county’s 24 towns were controlled by Republicans. Today, 18 towns are controlled by Democrats.
“Did we put a gun to peoples’ heads to register Democratic when they live in Gloucester County? I don’t think so. But what’s basically happened is over the years the Democratic Party has worked much harder than the Republican Party at establishing itself,” he said.
And Sweeney brushes off the Republicans’ criticism that county spending has risen 66% over the last five years. He admits that’s the case, but only because the county has regionalized services that were once under the purview of the towns.
“Sure we’re spending more. They’re spending less,” he said.
Wallace could not be reached for comment, but Sweeney said that fact that a prosecutor as able as U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie investigated him and did not charge him clears his name.
“We have probably one of the most successful U.S. Attorney in this country. He’s been a big success in prosecuting people. Warren Wallace was looked at thoroughly. If he had done anything wrong, he would be on trial right now,” said Sweeney. “He didn’t do anything wrong, but they’re trying to create this air that he did something. The fact that he wasn’t indicted by the U.S. Attorney to me says he’s got to be pretty straight.”