Cumberland County Democratic Chairman and Freeholder Director Louis Magazzu came out of the November elections on a high.
Democrats — partly capitalizing on the Obama wave – swept out a Republican sheriff, a surrogate, and won 7-0 control of the freeholder board in this traditionally competitive county.
Even though Magazzu wasn't on the ballot, a significant amount of the Republicans' campaign rhetoric last year turned on his contentious personality. So after the results came in, he invited Republicans to make his personality a campaign issue again, and set his sights on beating the last county-wide elected GOP official: County Clerk Gloria Noto.
What Magazzu did not predict was that he would help motivate three former Democratic freeholders to run against him, potentially jeopardizing even his own freeholder seat in a year when Republicans are hoping to capitalize on public sentiment hostile to Governor Jon Corzine.
In May, former freeholders Jane Christy and Jennifer Swift announced that they planned to run as independents for three-year terms. Christy left the freeholder board last year over differences with Magazzu. Swift, formerly Jennifer Lookabaugh before her remarriage, is a former freeholder director who served on the board from 1989 to 2000.
Shortly after they announced, former Democratic Freeholder Bruce Peterson, the current mayor of Upper Deerfield Township who also left the freeholder board just last year, joined them to run for a one-year unexpired term.
To top it off, Vineland City Councilman Chuck Griffith – another former Democratic freeholder – offered to be their campaign manager. They accepted.
Magazzu is running with Bridgeton businessman Wade Sjogren and incumbent Nelson Thompson, a labor leader who was appointed earlier this year to fill the unexpired term of Douglas Rainier when he became surrogate.
Republicans fielded Lawrence Township Deputy Mayor Tom Sheppard, former Vineland City Solicitor Rick Tonnetta and Vineland businessman Sam Fiocchi for the unexpired term.
Also running for freeholder as an independent is former Vineland Councilwoman Sheena Santiago, a beauty salon owner who was recently a Republican.
The race Magazzu hoped to make central to this election cycle – an attempt to topple Noto with attorney Lauren Van Embden – has been pushed to the background.
Christy admits personality conflicts with Magazzu, but said that her reasons for running were grounded in more important issues.
"It's much larger than that," she said, noting that Cumberland County is the poorest in New Jersey, with a teen pregnancy rate that dwarfs every other county.
"I don't understand why that is, but we've tried to work on issues like that when I was a freeholder, and we got very little cooperation from Freeholder Magazzu," she said.
Christy said she felt the urge to run from seeing county employees mistreated by Magazzu.
"There's a lot of fear here. There's a lot of nervous people because they fear for their jobs. They have mortgages and kids they want to send to college, and he stands to really hurt them," she said.
Christy specifically mentioned Steve Wymbs, the executive director of the Cumberland County Improvement Authority. She accused Magazzu of stacling the authority's board with anti-Wymbs appointees in an effort to force him out of the position.
Christy said she and her running mates chose to run outside of the party structure because they knew they wouldn't have a chance. Magazzu, she said, is a "master at manipulating a room."
The independent Democrats' announcement was greeted cheerily by the county's new Republican chairman, Bob Greco, who ran the freeholder campaigns last year and took over the troubled GOP after Douglas Sorantino retired from the post.
A golden opportunity appears to have fallen into Greco's lap, but he argued that it was not entirely a fluke. Republicans, sensing Gov. Corzine's unpopularity in Cumberland County, were already gearing up for a competitive election.
"There's been a lot of excitement because it's an anti-Corzine year, which has become an anti-Magazzu year as well," he said. Still, Greco acknowledged that the independent Democrats may help create a "perfect storm."
But Greco stressed that his candidates will talk about the issues — about problems with the county jail in Bridgeton, or the court house that is "crumbling" despite millions of dollars in improvements.
And both the Republcians and independent Democrats hit Magazzu for not immediately securing federal stimulus money for the county, although Magazzu notes that he's secured about $50 million for local transportation projects.
To Magazzu, the independent Democrats are nothing but a foil to get Republicans in office. Swift, he notes, is the stepmother of Millville Republican Chairman James Swift, who ran for freeholder last year.
"This is a group of people who are really nothing more than a Trojan horse for the Cumberland County Republicans," he said. "This is nothing more than vindictiveness towards me. They just don't like me, so they're running as independents."
Aside from the four former Democratic freeholders going against him, Magazzu claims to have every current and former Democratic official from Cumberland County on his side. The party has been united by the challenge, he said. He's even managed to get public support from state Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), whom he's had a checkered relationship with.
Magazzu said he felt confident about his own reelection. He listed a number of accomplishments he said would pull him and his slate to victory.
"We are going to run in a county with the lowest tax rate in a 40 year history. We've cut taxes by about 5%, we've cut the budget by about $600,000, we've cut the levy by $1.3 million," he said. "We have a $50 million motor sports park, and we have a prescription drug program that has saved our county's residents hundreds of thousands of dollars, a $40 million expansion of our county college, no layoffs, furloughs or reduction of services."
If the party split in Cumberland is more pronounced than Magazzu says it is, then Gov. Corzine's people might want to help patch things up, according to Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute's New Jersey Project.
"In a very close race, any kind of dissension like this in a Democratic county is not something they would want to have," said Reed, who grew up in Cumberland County.