After a brutal reelection campaign, Louis Magazzu can put a new title on his resume: survivor.
"It's easy to be cocky now, but certainly there were some people who really thought I was on the ropes – particularly the Republicans and the renegades," said Magazzu, the Cumberland County freeholder director and county Democratic chairman. "Two elections in a row they've made a referendum on me: last year, when I wasn't on the ballot, and this year, when I clearly was."
There were eleven candidates running for freeholder this year: three Democrats (two of whom, including Magazzu, were incumbents); three Republicans; three independent former Democratic freeholders (The "renegades" Magazzu referred to) and two other independents. But the election was really just about Magazzu, whose outsized personality and iron grip on local politics have made the central player in this relatively small, rural and often overlooked county.
Magazzu has consistently been the top vote-getting freeholder over the years, but in the run up to this year's election things appeared to be shaping up differently. The Cumberland County Republicans, smelling blood, savaged Magazzu with daily press releases over the $81,000 fund he set up to pay for an unsuccessful bid for a leadership position in the National Association of Counties (NACo), even calling for an investigation from the Attorney General's office. And threatening to splinter Magazzu's Democratic base were the candidacies of the former freeholders who hit him on his "awful vindictive and vicious management style."
Add to that a political climate that was far less favorable to Magazzu's party than in 2008 when, running with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, Democrats took 7-0 control of the freeholder board. Back then, Magazzu talked up taking out County Clerk Gloria Noto, the last remaining countywide elected Republican – a prospect that fizzled as Magazzu's own prospects appeared less certain (Noto wound up beating Democrat Lauren Van Embden by about 1,200 votes).
But Magazzu finished on top last month, bringing Nelson Thompson – an incumbent who was recently appointed to the board – with him to fill an unexpired term. One Republican freeholder candidate, Tom Sheppard, narrowly edged out newcomer Democrat Wayne Sjogren to win a seat on the board. The independent candidates did not break the single digits.
"This was the fifth time I've been top vote-getter," said Magazzu. "I've had a lot of people tell me since the election — a lot of Republicans and independents – that they were voting for me because they like my brand of fiscal conservatism and yet I'm socially progressive. And I am outspoken, but generally it would appear that I'm on the right side of the issues at the end."
Magazzu has made his share of enemies over the years, some of whom he has patched up relations with, like incoming Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford). Recently, at least two anti-Magazzu Web sites have popped up: Magazzuwatch.com, which critically tracks Magazzu's actions in county government; and Stoploumagazzu.com, which says it is paid for by "Citizens who know Lou Magazzu is a piece of garbage. All rights reserved."
Jane Christy, one of the independent Democratic candidates, is among those enemies. She served with him on the freeholder board before leaving last year, citing difference with him.
"If other people don't step up, he is going to be there forever. Nobody else wants him. Why doesn't he have a plum state job somewhere?" she said.
According to Christy, Magazzu won by simply overwhelming everyone else with funds for an intensive get out the vote operation, promoting early voting and driving voters to the polls.
Between the Democratic candidates' joint accounts and the Cumberland County Democratic Committee, Magazzu and his allies raised hundreds of thousands of dollars – much of it from labor unions and prominent South Jersey politicians, like Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) and Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees), who each chipped in $37,000 from their own campaign accounts.
Christy, along with running mates Jennifer Swift (formerly Jennifer Lookabaugh) and Bruce Peterson, raised just over $14,000 – most of it from their own pockets.
"Compared to that money, we just didn't have it. He just hit the street with organized voting. I think that's probably what it was, and I don't know that we got the word out to enough people," said Christy.
To say that Christy and Magazzu do not have a good relationship is an understatement. Christy says Magazzu Cumberland County Improvement Authority Executive Director Steve Wymbs out of his job weeks after the election. She faults him for supporting a political ally, former Millville Democratic Chairman Brendan Kavanaugh – who managed the Democrats' campaigns – to become county solicitor.
"If we had not been there, Steve Wymbs would not stayed through the summer. Magazzu wouldn't have dared do it before the election with us out there," said Christy.
Cumberland County Republican Chairman Bob Greco, who welcomed the independent Democrats into the race back in May, thinks they may have had the opposite effect than convention wisdom dictated. Instead of splitting the Democratic Party, he said, they may have sapped anti-Magazzu votes from the Republicans (Magazzu, noting that Corzine's vote totals in the county were higher than the freeholders by about the same number of votes that the independents got, argued the opposite, and said that Sjorgren would have won if it was strictly a two-party contest).
Greco was not ready to give up on what Republicans dubbed NACo-gate, saying that the Attorney General's Office has been interviewing local insiders about it. And Greco said Republicans have momentum after winning a freeholder seat and cutting into the Democrats' margin of victory.
"All those things aside, in this election cycle Democrats were wounded," he said.
The Republicans ran a campaign that tried to kill Magazzu with a thousand cuts, as one GOP operative described it before Election Day.
"Except they were using plastic knives," said Magazzu, who said the Republicans made a mistake by waging an internet-heavy campaign.
"The internet is not the most effective way to communicate in Cumberland county," he said.
But Magazzu has a take-no-prisoners attitude to the former freeholders, who he said were "worthless members of the board." Christy, he said, was "repudiated and humiliated."
Magazzu said that he has been offered several jobs during the Whitman and McGreevey administrations, including judgeships and a prosecutorial position. There were others, he said, that he would prefer not to disclose.
"Jane Christy lives in a place where the X-Files meets the Twilight Zone. She is just a deluded, pathetic individual," said Magazzu.
But when asked whether that type of rhetoric helped inspire so many challenges to him, and whether he has considered toning it down, Magazzu said that he can "turn off the politics like a switch." For instance, he noted, he has been cordial to Sheppard, helping prepare him to take a seat on the board. But he did not feel any compulsion to make amends with Christy.
"The reality is I took 11 months of personal abuse of the worst kind from these people," he said. "I don't have any reason to hold back."