Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Patrick D’Arcy, who succeeded Ronald Ruff as county chairman in June, seems to have inherited the helm of the party during at a fortunate time.
Democrats, for the first time ever, outnumber Republicans in Atlantic County – and by a lot.
“This is certainly a traditionally Republican area. Everyone can have philosophical differences, but Obama has energized people who have never been involved before. You’re talking about a 20,000 swing in one year. Last year there were 10,000 less Republicans, now there are 10,000 more,” he said. “When you’re looking at it pro-rata, that’s an insane amount.”
D’Arcy sees that number as a sign that Democrats are going to make up for the freeholder seats they lost last year, after which they’ll be able to make gains on top of it to eventually take control of the board.
Republicans, however, argue that Democratic incumbent Alisa Cooper is vulnerable on a number of fronts, including a still-unsettled lawsuit against her, and that Atlantic County voters are known for ticket splitting.
Either way, control of the Atlantic County Freeholder board is not at stake this year, but it is one of the most competitive and hard fought county races in the state this year.
Atlantic County Republicans, who have long held a majority on the board, last year widened their narrow 5-4 majority to 7-2 by defeating first-term incumbent Joe Kelly and accepting the defection of Frank Giordano to their side in a year known more for the opposite type of defection.
This year, the best the Democrats can do is claw their way back to a 5-4 majority. The best the Republicans can do is knock Cooper off the board while electing a Republican to replace retiring GOP At-Large Freeholder Joseph Silipena and keeping Freeholder Frank Sutton in office in the traditionally Republican 3rd District.
Seeking first terms on the board are Democrats Jim Schroeder (At-large), a former teacher turned NJEA lobbyist, and Gene Maier in 3rd District. Republicans have fielded Fulsom Mayor Tom Ballistreri and financial analyst Manny Aponte for the two At-Large seats.
Balistreri thinks that the Democrats may have gotten too cocky. Before engaging in a candidate’s forum last night, Balistreri and Aponte said that Schroeder approached them and complained about their negative advertising.
“’He said we’re not even going to bother going negative, putting out mail. We’ve got it in the bag,” recounted Balistreri.
Ballistreri, who’s held Folsom’s top office from ten years, takes pride in his town’s rating as the 19th best place to live in the state by New Jersey Monthly.
“I think I had a lot to do with that. I think because of the way we’ve been able to hold the line on taxes, our quality of life issues,” he said.
Ballistreri said he was on the “ground floor” in the fight against forcing small towns to pay for police patrols – a part of the budget that was just overturned.
“As a mayor, and not even a sitting freeholder, just yesterday I saved 5 communities in Atlantic County $1 million by getting the state police mandate beat down in the committees,” he said.
Ballistreri went after Schroeder for having that dirty “lobbyist” word attached to his name – specifically for heading up a PAC that made significant campaign contributions to now-indicted politicians like former State Sen. Sharpe James and former Assemblymen Al Steele and Mims Hackett.
But the harshest attacks were reserved for Cooper, who is still in a legal battle over charges of nepotism she made against a public employee during her first freeholder run three years ago.
“I don’t think that’s the way to come into county office, and to this day she hasn’t produced the document she said she has to prove it,” he said.
He also criticized Cooper for voting against the county budget in 2006 despite its tax cutting measures, and for abstaining on absentee ballot reform and on a vote on whether freeholders could opt out of the pension system.
Aponte, for his part, said that his financial expertise would help him take a “red pen” to county spending proposals.
If elected, Aponte, who was born in Puerto Rico, would be the first Hispanic-American on the freeholder board.
“I feel that I’m a qualified candidate, first and foremost, but there has never been a Latino ever to be elected in Atlantic County,” he said. “Here in Atlantic County we have the opportunity to make history.
Both Republicans acknowledged that the Obama surge complicates their campaigns, but noted the county’s history of voting all over the ticket.
“If you look at the last couple years, it’s been an al la carte menu of who they wanted,” said Aponte, noting that Republicans Vince Polistina and John Amodeo won for State Assembly last year, while Democrat Jim Whelan beat out Egg Harbor Township Mayor Sonny McCullough.
Cooper and Schroeder could not be reached for comment.
D’Arcy, for his part, said that they’re trying to keep the race civil.
“We’ve stayed positive the whole time, talking about what they can do as opposed to about them. Everything we’ve put out has been positive. That’s what the country and party and everybody wants,” he said.