In Ocean and Burlington Counties, Republicans have all held the county clerk seats for as long as anyone can remember. This year, buoyed by the surge in Democratic registrations, Democrats have a crack at both of them.
Among the most surprising competitive races this cycle is in Ocean County – one of only six New Jersey counties where there are still more registered Republicans than Democrats.
Five year incumbent Carl Block is fighting to win his second full term against Berkeley Mayor Jason Varano in a place where no Democrat has won county-wide since 1989. But Varano has seized on expenditures Block made from the county clerk's trust fund, which is drawn from fees from mortgage, deed and passport applications. He's even up on cable television and radio with advertisements – unusual for an Ocean County Democrat.
Varano has hit Block on his office's expenditures of nearly $25,000, on trips to several locales across the country, during which Block was often accompanied by his deputy and a confidential aide. He's also gone after him on an overpriced framed picture of Freeholder Jack Kelly, an expensive clock repair bill and a plasma screen television in the main office. Block has been bloodied in the local press for these expenses, with the Asbury Park Press writing several articles on the subject. The paper endorsed Varano, saying that block's "self-interest, partisanship, entitlement, slackness with tax dollars and violation of the public trust" make him unfit for another term.
Still, Block has spent three times the amount of money Varano has to date. In solidly Republican Ocean County, he remains the default favorite, and rather than argue against the charges one-by-one, he faulted Varano for what he characterized as a completely negative campaign.
"The candidates think enough to say what are each of our qualifications, experience, knowledge base, understanding of the office and the vision for the future. For the most part of this election," he said. "I've heard none of that, except from me. I've gone around talking about what I've done: record numbers, performance, going into rerecording, technology upgrades, and service outreach."
Block said that the trust fund expenditures were all part of the state procurement process and were all filed with the Department of Community Affairs.
"Most of what I've heard [Varano] saying is it shouldn't have been charged to the trust account that it should have been charged to a different account. Not once has he said it shouldn't be spent," said Block. "To that end, I did ask for a clarification if that's what the interpretation of the statute is. If it should have been charged to a different account, absolutely I have no problem with that."
Block said that he's most proud of the office's advances in electronic recording and its mobile County Connection. Varano, he said, has not talked in detail about what he would do differently.
Varano, who is entering his 10th year as Berkeley Township Mayor, would have to give up that post. He would also quit his full-time job at the Department of Environmental Protection. Block, who is also mayor of Stafford Township, was grandfathered in under the state's recent dual office-holding ban.
Varano denied that his campaign has exclusively focused on attacking Block. He said that he's laid out four main areas he would reform: he would devote himself full-time to the job, cut down on the overtime for office employees, address the office's budget and "bring accountability to the dedicated trust fund."
"They brought over $1.5 million into the account over the last five years. We found $250k items that shouldn't have been spent," he said. "$400 on a picture of a Freeholder? That's ridiculous."
While still in the minority in Ocean County, Varano feels a Democratic surge coming on. Republicans he's talked to, he said, are demoralized, and many won't come out to vote. On top of that, the Democrats have cut their registration deficit from over 32,000 to a little over 21,000. His own party's polls show him up, Varano said, while the Republicans' advertisements have convinced him that they're scared.
"The economy is on our side, George Bush is on our side, and many republicans I talk to aren't going to come out and vote," said Varano. "There's not a Democrat who's not going to want to come out."
In neighboring Burlington County, the clerk seat is wide open. Incumbent Republican Phil Haines left in January to move up to the State Senate, and Acting Clerk Wade Hale is not running.
And while this is a traditionally Republican county, Democrats have not been relegated to the political wilderness as they have been in Ocean. In fact, there are now 26,000 more Democrats there than Republicans, whereas last year there were still a few hundred more Republicans.
The Republicans have tapped Gary Woodend, a real estate lawyer and former Medford Lakes councilman. The Democrats are running Tim Tyler, a teacher at a juvenile detention center and councilman in tiny Fieldsboro.
Like in Ocean County, this race has gotten pretty nasty.
The Democrats have run a message that Woodend left on the answering machine of former Acting Burlington County Republican Chairwoman Dawn Lacey, who was feuding with former Chairman Glenn Paulsen and his allies and hoped to get Woodend to run for county chair against Bill Layton. In an internet ad, the Democrats imply that Woodend sold out to the Paulsen side, agreeing not to run for the unpaid chairman position in exchange for getting the party nod to run for the paid county clerk seat.
Woodend said that he could have chosen his words more carefully, but that the Democrats were taking the message out of context. More importantly, he said, is that he has crucial experience that lends itself to the job, while Tyler does not.
"The position requires somebody with a sound business background and knowledge of legal documents that are handled by the clerk's office," he said, burnishing his legal experience and master's degree in business."
Woodend sees his task as continuing Haines's work in updating the office's technology and expanding its services. He thinks that he can even help municipalities by converting clerk's office data electronically and freeing up physical space for municipalities to store documents.
Tyler, who could not be reached for comment, has outlined similar proposals.
"The focus is on bringing the county clerk's office into the 21st century. It's been under Republican control for decades, and in that time a lot of things haven't been done. There are minimal online services. It's not accessible," said Burlington County Democratic Chairman Rick Perr, who added that they wanted to open the office later and send employees to municipalities around the county so that residents won't have to travel to Mount Holly, the county seat.
But Woodend complains that the Democrats are merely running with his own ideas. He noted that Tyler initially proposed opening four County Stores – until he realized that it would cost $1 million, then scaled back the idea.
"You should look at their literature. That's not what their literature says. They've basically modified their platform to fit mine," he said.