HAMMONTON – If you head south on 206 out of Hamilton, eventually youreach a town called Hammonton, which might feel as far flung as Eufaula, Alabama, but for the fact that this is South Jersey’s Little Italy, where every third or fourth young woman looks closer than the third or fourth cousin of Monica Belluci, and where you might even think you’re in Nutley but for the local population’s omission of “Do you know what I mean?” at the end of almost every sentence.
As a town regularlyacknowledged as the most Italian – percentagewise – in the country, they welcomethe Italian references here, and also celebrate their rural, Pine Barrensheritage as blueberry capital of the world.
This year there is a contest in Hammonton, pop. 14,000,and every event brings with it a political context as RepublicanAnthony Marino, Democrat Joe Ingemi, and Hammonton First candidate Steve DiDonato all vie to be the town’s next mayor.
ASaturday night drizzle has minimized turnout at the 1950s car show and curtailed the number of flashy old roadsters competing for attention on Main Street, but the headquarters of two rival operations – Hammonton First and the Hammonton Democrats – eagerly try to outshine each other.
One of the founding members of Hammonton First – an alliance of Independents, Republicans and Democrats,MayorJohn DiDonato is not runningfor a second term – butthe DiDonato name is still at the top of the local ticket.
“People were unhappy with the direction the town was headed in before Johnny became mayor,” saysthe mayor’solder brother, mayoral candidate Steve DiDonato, owner of KMD Construction and a member of the local Board of Ed., who stands with his maroon-shirted running mates on the sidewalk in front of their headquarters where volunteers distribute bags of freshly popped popcorn to passersby.
“Johnny supplied the direction -we’ve had four years running with zero tax increases – and we’ve promised a zeo percent tax increase for 2010,” says Steve DiDonato.
Hallmarks of theJohn DiDonato years include construction of a new town hall after years of Republican-Democratic infighting stalled the project, completion of a $5.9 million community center and adowntown revitalization effort that transformed Main Street from withering ghost town into a thriving toast town, where the upscale Wine Bar anchors a block of new and upbeat storefronts.
“The locals couldn’t even go downtown at night,” says John DiDonato, who says he’s not running because he wants time to spend with his nine-year old son.
The DiDonatos’ opponents complain that the mayor and his confidantes have benefited personally from the town’s transformation, but John DiDonato says, “We didn’t hide anything. This downtown was dying and people were frustrated because the two parties wren’t doing anything about it. I said before I was elected that I was going to buy buildings downtown and that we would, all of us, have to chip away to restore Main Street, one building at a time.
“My brother is the only businessman running for mayor of the three mayoral candidates in the race,” adds the mayor, by way of an endorsement. “And people here know and appreciate that the town has to be run like a business. You can’t spend more than you take in.”
A few storefronts up on the other side ofMain Street stand four men attired in matchng bright, light blue shirtscomplete with Donkey patches over the left breasts, andfrom thecenterof these men, Joe Ingemi emerges and shakes the handof a passerby.
Nothing personal, but the DiDonato brand fails to impress him.
“They have a brand and we have a plan,” says the Democratic Party mayoral candidate, a technology consultant and retired U.S. Army officer who served two tours in the Middle East. “We can’t have family dynasties in a small “D” democratic society,”
He and his running mates – Michael Ammirato, James Scarpato, and Carmen Villani – grill burgers in front of their headquarters and offer them to prospective voters as they pass. Ingemi appreciates the DiDonato effort downtown, but argues the effort is more symbolic than substantive as he sizes up Hammonton’s larger economy.
“We want to reform the tax abatement program to create incentives for manufacturers to set themselves up in Hammonton,” the candidate writes in a letter to the editor of The Hammonton News. “We will work with the U.S. Department of Commerce to designate our industrial park a ‘free-trade zone’ so items can be assembled wihout the burden of tariff. Finally, we will take part in the New JerseyManufacturing Extension Program so local manufacturers can gain insight into methods that increase productivity.”
Ina Republican-leaning town (2,573 R’s to 1,782 D’s to 3,723 undeclareds) celebrating the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s visit here when hedeclared, “I don’t think you in South Jersey believe your families were put on this earth just to help them make government bigger,” Ingemi has a battle in front of him on a ticket with incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in a hard knock year for incumbents.
In his fight with the well-connected DiDonato ticket, he receives financial help from the State Democratic Committee, which senses an opportunity in a legislative district where Republicans took a shot when former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt (R-Ocean) resigned this summer to fight federal corruption charges.
On the other end of Main Street,in a big office building, Republican headquarters is closed.A Chris Christie sign stands in the windowalong witha photograph of Anthony Marino, an engineer with theNew Jersey Department of Transportation.
The DiDonatos admit they’re both registered Republicans, as are two of Steve DiDonato’s running mates – Jerry Barbiero and Mickey Pullia. A third running mate, attorney Tom Gribbin, is a registered Democrat and proud to be on the ticket.
“Joe Ingemi supported John McCain for president,” he says of the rival team’s quarterback.
But if Marino runs on the ballot under Christie and Ingemi runs under Corzine and each mayoral candidate suffers or gains thoserespective associations, the DiDonatosinsist on staying away from gubernatorial endorsements.
Steve DiDonato and his team will occupy their own, unaffiliated space on the ballot.
“We promised each other that we don’t discuss politics other than local politics,” saus Steve DiDonato. “It’s a rule of our party. We’ll hold to our independence. We’ll either win or lose but we’ll stick to that game plan.”
Adds his brother, the mayor, “We concentrate on Hammonton.”