Last year, Ben Laury, a councilman in the tiny Borough of Elmer, came within seven votes of becoming a Salem County Freeholder.
This year he’s trying again, with one important difference: there is no presidential race that will drive Democrats to the polls in the same numbers as last year.
“It’s one day at a time,” said Laury, who is running with political newcomer Stacy Jennings, a professor at Salem Community College. “I’m not going to be overconfident at all.”
Salem County, as usual, is competitive this year. Democrats are playing defense on the freeholder board, where two of their incumbents – Beth Timberman and Jeffrey Hogan — are up for reelection, putting their 5-2 control of the board at stake. But Democrats are making a play against 10-year incumbent Gilda Gill, running Diane Wood, a Lower Alloways Creek resident who was recently appointed to the county’s Board of Social Services.
Republican sheriff Chuck Miller got a pass, since the Democrats’ recruit to take him on — former Pennsville Police Chief Pat McCaffrey – could not run because of a Hatch Act violation (McAffrey, Pennsville’s Office of Emergency Management coordinator, applied for a $5,000 grant from FEMA). Democrats did not bother to field an alternative candidate.
While Republicans are happy to run under GOP gubernatorial nominee Chris Christie, who has been consistently leading the polls, they know that in Salem County – which at 67,000 residents is the least populous in New Jersey – personal interaction means more than party affiliation.
The same goes for Democrats, who don’t rest on their large registration advantage (13,547 Democrats to 8,933 Republicans, though a more accurate turnout model might use the numbers from 2007, when there was no national election: 9,639 Democrats to 7,187 Republicans).
“I think most people in the county split the ticket,” said Laury.
Statewide politics are expected to factor into the election in some ways. Republicans point to Governor Corzine’s attempt last year to eliminate the Department of Agriculture – an unpopular move in this mostly rural county. Democrats counter that Corzine created goodwill by appointing former Assemblyman Doug Fisher (D-Bridgeton) – who is not from Salem County but represented it in the legislature for seven years – to become Secretary of Agriculture. Democrats point to the fact that Steve Lonegan outpolled Christie here by about 140 votes in the Republican primary, suggesting that a significant number of Lonegan loyalists will vote for a different gubernatorial candidate.
When asked how much money it will take to run his campaign, Laury said “more than we have.”
“I would venture to say they’re spending three times what we are,” he said.
The Republicans’ number one campaign issue is taxes, and Laury cautions that the Democrats’ boasting about the 13 cent reduction in the county tax rate doesn’t mean taxes have gone down.
But Salem County Democratic Chairman Steve Caltabiano argued that, even if taxes are going up, they’d be even higher without the tax rate reduction.
“If the Republicans want to talk about spending, our budget was down from this time. The county budget was down in ’09 compared to ’08,” said Caltabiano. “I understand there may be more raised by taxation. There was ratable growth, which I’m not denying has helped very much.”
Caltabiano said that the incumbents helped save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars by merging the county’s Utilities Authority with the Improvement Authority, eliminating 13 patronage positions.
Caltabiano is especially passionate about unseating Gill, a former freeholder who is up for her third five-year term as clerk. She has had an especially contentious relationship with the freeholder board.
In November, 2008, Timberman said that “[Gill’s] incompetence became our emergency” after the board had to dip into the county’s Social Security fund to pay for the February, 2008 “Super Tuesday” presidential primary, which Gill had not realized would be separate from the regular June primary.
And Gill brought a failed court action against the freeholder board after they took $27,000 out of her budget to pay for a contractor who was updating the office’s recording and imaging systems. Gill felt that the contractor the board chose was not acceptable, despite being the lowest bidder.
“She thumbs her nose at the freeholders, including the freeholders in her own party,” said Caltabiano. “She’s got the worst attitude I’ve ever seen.”
According to Caltabiano, the suit cost the county $16,000.
Gill, however, disputed Timberman's contention that she was not aware of the the presidential primary. She said she sent a memorandum to Freeholder Director Lee Ware, AdministratorEarl Gage and Finance OficerJoanne Bill in July, 200 about the primary, indicating that it would cost an additional $35,000.
"Apparently, Freeholder Timberman was not advised of this matter or does not recall same," she said.
Gill also disputed that the $16,000 the county spent on the court case was necessary.
“It didn’t need to cost money. If it cost them money that was their decision. They have full time counsel on staff who were paid no matter what,” she said. "As to my attitude, you must be aware that Constitutional Officers make the decisions for the best operation of their departments. It is not in the best interest of the community that Freeholders force decisions of which they have minimal knowledge. That was the casewith my disagreement with the Freeholders. The public does not wish the County Clerk to be simply a 'pawn'."
Gill said that she “thinks outside the box” and has made “great advancements” in improving the office’s technology over the past decade. In addition to her regular clerk duties, she said she has organized tributes to veterans and has paid special attention to exhibiting the county’s historic records.
“I’ve become sort of the unofficial historian of the county,” she said.
“We go beyond what it is just to be a county clerk.”
She said she was baffled as to why she is the main target of Caltabiano, who is in his second year as the Democratic chairman.
"I don't even know Mr. Caltabiano," she said. "He hasn't been around very long in politics that I know of, so why on earth he decided to target me I don't know."