Early this year, prospects for Burlington County Democrats looked their best in decades.
Democrats Chris Brown and Mary Ann Reinhart were sworn in as freeholders after ousting two Republican incumbents in the November election, narrowing the board’s GOP majority from 5-0 to 3-2. To make matters worse for the GOP, the two Republican incumbents up for reelection – Bill Haines and Jim Wujcik – opted to retire, leaving those two critical seats open. All this came after Democrats built a voter registration advantage of 26,000 over the GOP.
The pieces were in place for Democrats, represented by Mount Holly Councilwoman Kim Kersey and electrician/labor leader Jim Bernard, to take control of the freeholder board for the first time since the 1970s. But then the party fell apart and reversed fortunes with the GOP.
The county’s Democratic chairman, Rick Perr and its treasurer, Jeff Meyer, bowed to pressure to resign over their involvement in a PAC that was formed to help South Jersey campaigns but donated money to several North Jersey ones, including arrested Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano. That muddied the Democrats’ ethics-charging message in a county where Republicans have seen their share of corruption scandals.
Then news broke that Kersey and Bernard might be fined by the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) for filing their 20-day post primary report 69 days late and for not putting a “paid for” disclosure on their Web site.
On top of that, until recently, Governor Corzine, who sits at the top of the ticket this year, was trailing badly in the polls – a sharp contrast to the 2008 Democrats’ good fortune to have Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.
“The Democratic Party in the county right now is in disarray, and I think their campaigns reflect that since the Perr fundraising scandal broke. They lost whatever footing they may have had,” said GOP strategist Chris Russell, who is running the freeholder campaigns of Republicans Bruce Garganio and Mary Ann O’Brien. “We had a very good summer, and their summer was plagued with bad headline after bad headline… If you want to keep score on who won the summer, I think it’s pretty hard to say we didn’t win.”
As for last year, well, that was a unique set of circumstances, according to Russell.
“There were a lot of factors that contributed to Democrats being successful at a county level,” he said. “We put last year in a box and put it away.”
Democrats acknowledge that Republicans won the summer, but they note that the environment has changed a great deal since then. Governor Corzine’s deficit statewide has narrowed to just three or four points in the two most recent non-partisan public opinion polls. And internal polling that once put Corzine nine points behind Chris Christie now shows him running two points ahead there, according to one source.
The county organization, under the temporary control of long-time Vice Chair Alice Furia, is trying to get itself back on track. In late August, A.J. Sabath – a Democratic lobbyist who used to be Chief of Staff to Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) – stepped into the freeholder campaign’s leadership void to help run the campaigns of Kersey and Bernard (hiring a key ally to Codey in the backyard of his arch rival, South Jersey power broker George Norcross, raised some eyebrows).
“The county organization has had its troubles, but as far as my race is concerned, it’s right on track,” said Kersey, the Democratic freeholder candidate who is the niece of state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrenceville) and works as corporate counsel to CMX Engineering – a company that made an appearance in the Perr fundraising scandal over its contracts in Hoboken.
‘The actions, whether they’re true or false, about leaders of the party, they’re not direct reflections on us as candidates,” she said.
Some Democratic insiders acknowledge that the prospects for winning here are not what they once were, but nobody is willing to give the race up for dead. A clear impediment to Democratic victory, however, is fundraising. The latest financial disclosures available for the county’s two major parties are from July. They show the Democrats in debt, while the Republicans are kept afloat by their controversial approach of having an inner circle of 20 people guarantee large loans.
“Let’s face it, just like working families find ways to save money and reduce expenditures, big business and even PACs have experienced those same strains,” said Jim Bernard, the other Democratic freeholder candidate. “It has been a little more difficult than I think in years past.”
Bernard described his own party’s troubles as “bumps in the road” compared to the GOP’s scandals over the years.
“People are tired of the corruption and scandal in the GOP,” he said. “As soon as you mention Bridge Commission to people in Burlington County, their ears perk up.”