In Cumberland County, the local races this year revolve largely around an officeholder who isn't on the ballot: Freeholder Director Lou Magazzu.
Magazzu is wearing three hats this year: in addition to being the freeholder director, he's the chairman of the dominant Cumberland County Democrats – who control the freeholder board 6-1 – and he's the coordinated campaign chairman of the Democratic county-wide candidates.
Republicans see Magazzu's multiple roles as a volatile mix that has led him to politic from his freeholder pulpit and argue that he's alienated even members of his own party.
"It's sort of his way or no way, and he has no qualms about going after anybody who doesn't agree with him. He's not somebody who likes to engage in debate in a professional and fair manner," said Cumberland Republican Chairman Doug Sorantino.
Magazzu welcomes a campaign against him, but has tried to focus his ticket not on himself, but on Freeholder Douglas Rainier, who's running for surrogate this year.
"We're actually calling it Team Rainier," said Magazzu. "I'm not on the ballot. I have made the Republicans very clear as to what my whole strategy is. If they want to talk about me, God bless them."
Three freeholder seats are up for grabs this year. One belongs to short-term incumbent Bill Whelan, who was sworn in just this month to replace former Deputy Director Bruce Peterson. Peterson left office to take a committee seat in Upper Deerfield Township, where he used to be mayor. Democratic Freeholder Jane Christy's seat is also up for grabs. She was up for reelection this year, but opted not to run over her differences with Magazzu. The board's only Republican, Jeff Trout, also decided not to seek reelection, citing personal reasons.
In addition to Whelan, Democrats are running Vineland realtor Jane Jannarone and James Dunkins, a pastor from Millville. Republicans have fielded former Freeholder Jim Sauro, a plumber from Vineland; former Lawrence Township Mayor Tom Sheppard; and James Swift, an attorney from Millville.
Democrats this year have the opportunity to take complete control of the freeholder board while taking over two of the county's three constitutional offices: sheriff and surrogate. Rainier is challenging Republican Surrogate Arthur Marchand in this year's election. Republican Sheriff Michael Barruzza is facing a challenge from Democrat Robert Austino.
"We're really running it as a county campaign and not as a freeholder campaign, which is a departure from the past," said Magazzu.
Magazzu's party has held on to control of the freeholder board for most of the last 25 years, except for one year of Republican rule in 2002.
Republicans blame that on the Democrats' monetary advantage – they typically outspend them 3-1 – though they acknowledge some culpability for their own losses. This time, they insist, it's different.
The Republican freeholder candidates have already held three town hall meetings in the county, and have a fourth planned Wednesday night. There they illustrate what they say are the Democrats' false claims.
"We're actively showing that we have a plan, that we're going to go after them, that we're going to bring their voting record to the forefront," said Sauro.
Republicans, under the new leadership of Sorantino after 33 years of Larry Pepper, are hoping to gain more than one seat at the table to institute dual party rule and take on what they say is excessive spending and no-bid contract abuse by Democrats. For Sauro, who served as a freeholder between 2000 and 2002, the solution is simple.
"Property taxes will be reduced when you cut spending and stop no-bid contracts," he said. "I will challenge anybody on the freeholder board or any government entity to tell me there's not money being wasted. If you look, you will find money being wasted."
Democrats have put out a four point plan as well, which Sauro disparages for its dependence on ratables from new businesses entering the county. In this economy, he said, that's a weak source of revenue to fall back on.
"When things get tight, we have to find a way to cut expenses but not cut service," he said. "We have to get creative. And I believe at this time the Freeholder board controlled by Democrats is not doing this."
Republicans also complain about a 13-year-old courthouse expansion that turned out to be faulty. Democrats are now suing, but Republicans charge that the case is likely to get thrown out because the statute of limitations passed three years ago.
Moreover, the Republicans feel that the county freeholders didn't put up enough of a fight when the state sought to do away with the Department of Agriculture – which plays an important role in this predominantly rural county — and gave into harsh budget cuts in the agency.
Of course, none of the candidates Sauro is running against have been in office more than a couple weeks. But he thinks it's easy to paint them with the same brush as Magazzu, since he said Magazzu typically does the talking for them.
"Lou Magazzu is the race… In Lou's campaign, you don't talk to their candidates. Lou sets up the press conferences, tells them what to do," he said.
Sauro mentioned a press conference in which Austino, the Democratic candidate for sheriff, attacked his opponent for allegedly handing out no-bid contracts. When a reporter asked how he got his information, Austino pointed to Magazzu.
Jane Jannarone did take a call from PolitickerNJ.com without prior authorization from Magazzu, however.
"Lou's a very controversial figure, but he's been very instrumental in a lot of the positive things that have happened in our communities," she said. "Why are they running against Lou Magazzu when he isn't on the ballot?"
Jannarone argued that, as a business owner in Cumberland, she's experienced the positive effects of Democratic freeholder rule, and hopes to be part of it. She blamed the Republicans for not understanding the tax system.
"I haven't seen any plans from them on any issues, which we have brought out, nor do I see any solutions to the tax problems," she said. "Every politician since the day of the dinosaurs has said they promise to lower taxes. Remember the Bush read my lips, no new taxes?"
Property taxes, Jannarone argued, can't be blamed on the freeholder board.
"They seem not to understand that the county budget did drop, but it's up to the municipalities."
But James Swift, who carries a chart with him to his campaign's town hall meetings that explains his own rising tax bill, said that 40 percent of municipal taxes go to the county, and that it's the county that is largely responsible for those municipal property tax increases.
"Here in Cumberland County, my taxes that I pay to the county have increased 82 percent over the last five years. And our county, over six years, has raised their tax revenues 92 percent," he said. "I know I haven't gotten a 100 percent increase in my income over that period of time, and that's why people are hurting."
Magazzu, for his part, welcomes the Republicans' challenge, and doesn't parse words when talking about Sauro or what he calls the "Patty Duke" ticket because of what he says is a lack of diversity.
"Jim Sauro is literally the dumbest person I've ever met in politics," Magazzu said, "and you can quote me on that."
Magazzu said that freeholder races he's run in the past haven't always gone negative. But this time, he makes no bones about it.
"Had trout run we wouldn't go negative against him. These guys are bad people who would screw up the county," said Magazzu.
And while the Republicans rail against spending, Magazzu burnishes his own weapon – the Republicans' support of past pay raises for the constitutional officers and their deputies. Republicans consider that peanuts compared to the other programs that could be cut, but Magazzu thinks the issue will resonate with voters.
"Three Republican elected officials and three of their political deputies have made $3.1 million in salary since 2002 – they've had $890,000 in raises since 2002. This is a direct result of legislation that Sauro supported – and I have the letter – as an incoming freeholder director, and was supported by the constitutional officers," he said.
Magazzu argues that the Republicans haven't cited which specific cuts they would want to make to the budget.
Nevertheless, Magazzu invites the Republicans' attention to his personality – at least if it keeps Republicans from focusing on the candidates. It's the same strategy, he said, that former Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan used to employ.
"He had his opposition so angry at him by game day that they forgot about the players on the field. Let's just say I have Buddy Ryan's playbook," said Magazzu. "These guys foam at the mouth when they talk about me, and I love it."