Atlantic County Democrats have a chance to take control over the freeholder board this year, but they'll have to defy expectations to do so.
The nine member board – under Republican control since the 19th century with the exception of a brief period in the 1970's – has three seats up for re-election that are currently held by Republicans. If Democrats can sweep the election to join their two Democratic colleagues on the board, they can take a 6-3 majority.
But that is unlikely. Although elections are typically competitive in Atlantic County, which is split roughly equally in party registration, two of the three seats up this year – District 2 and 5 – represent traditionally Republican areas. The other seat up in November is at-large and belongs to incumbent Frank Giordano, who was elected three years ago as a Democrat but switched sides and became a Republican in early 2008.
Angelo DeMaio, a 42-year-old fire captain, is challenging the 51-year-old Giordano for the at-large seat. For District 2, where Republican incumbent Thomas Russo is retiring, Atlantic City School Board member John Devlin is running against bakery owner Frank Formica, 57. And in District 5, Freeholder Chairman James Curcio – on the board since 1994 — is up against 38-year-old blueberry farmer Salvatore "Sam" Mento III.
In this case, the traditional campaign roles are reversed, with Democrats taking Republicans to task over county spending and taxes.
"I think we need some young, new leadership that has some independent thinking, that is willing to work together to resolve our tax issues and our spending policies in Atlantic County and try to curb the spending," said DeMaio.
Republicans brush off that criticism by noting that they have one of the lowest tax rates and overall tax burdens in the state. But DeMaio says the tax rate is one thing, and spending is another.
"They're tying in the tax rate and saying they cut the tax rate eight out of the last nine years when spending has almost doubled," DeMaio. "In 1998, our current county purpose tax budget was $91 million, and in 2008 it was $154 million.
Where Democrats see a need for new blood, Republicans see another incursion by the Democratic machine in Camden – South Jersey's politically dominant county. Or they at least want the public to see it, tying the rival candidates to comments made by Democratic freeholder Jim Schroeder — who is not up for reelection –made about borrowing some budgeting ideas from Camden County.
"I think it's interesting that the Democrat leadership keeps saying that Atlantic County has to be run like Camden County," said Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis, who pointed to comments by Democratic Freeholder Jim Schroeder. Camden, Republicans note, has a much higher tax rate.
Curcio, who by dint of elected experience is leading the Republican ticket, said that county government is run effectively. It gets good bond ratings, he said, "spotless audits" and they controlled down even when the economy was good.
"There's no question our budgets have gone up, but I think anyone who tells you you're going to look back over 10 years of budgets and say they haven't gone up, they will be trying to deceive you," said Curcio.
Democratic and Republican fundraising shows that both parties are taking the race seriously. Combined, the three Republican candidates have raised $105,275 and have $51,221 on hand as of their last filings with the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). The three Democrats have kept pace with the Republicans and have more on hand, having raised $101,718 with $84,801 left over.
The county's Democratic Party is raising more money than the Republicans, however. So far this year the Atlantic County Democrats have taken in $108,251 and spent $62,966 to the Republicans' $63,376 raised and $38,753 spent.
Republicans think that the gubernatorial race could help them a bit, although they acknowledge that many county voters are ticket splitters. Curcio said that many Atlantic County residents are still bitter about the 2006 state government shutdown that forced casinos to close shop. He also said that the Gov. Corzine's flirtation with the idea of putting slot machines in the meadowlands does not appeal to Atlantic County residents.
That line of attack, however, is logically incongruent to Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie's attack on Corzine for having a stake in a hedge fund that shares a name and an headquarters with a company that as a stake in Atlantic City casinos.
"I would say regardless of what his personal holdings and personal fortune is, the policies of his administration, either through just not knowing what they're doing they have damaged that industry at a time it needs help," said Curcio.