Cumberland County Republicans are considering running two familiar faces from Vineland for freeholder this year: businessman Sam Fiocchi and attorney Rick Tonetta.
The two men both ran last November, losing by relatively narrow margins. Tonetta placed third in a field of eight candidates vying for two freeholder seats, finishing about 900 votes under fellow Republican Tom Sheppard, who last night was sworn in as the only Republican on the freeholder board. Fiocchi came about 1,100 votes short of unseating Democratic incumbent Nelson Thompson, who had been appointed to fill the vacancy left by Democrat Doug Rainier after he became county surrogate.
This year, Thompson will seek reelection for a full three-year term, while Deputy Freeholder Director Joseph Pepitone will run for a second full term.
One motivating factor for the two Republicans is Sheppard, who lost by a wide margin in 2008 but used the name recognition he built up in that race to help propel him to victory this year – a friendlier election for Republicans, even if Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine still carried the county.
“That’s one of the things I considered, that I now have a little bit better name recognition on the western side of the county,” said Sheppard, who acknowledged that he is considering running again but left the decision up to the party.
“I really believe it’s going to be whatever the party decides. If they feel I’m the candidate that could win in the next election, I’m sure they’ll consider me. If there are better candidates, I’m sure they’ll consider them. I’ve not closed the door on it,” he said.
This often overlooked, semi-rural county – the poorest in New Jersey — has trended Democratic in recent years, but local elections are traditionally competitive. Democrats’ 2008 sweep of county offices, which gave them 7-0 control of the freeholder and left County Clerk Gloria Noto as the only countywide Republican official until yesterday – was an anomaly.
So far, local politicos can only speculate as to what the electoral environment will look like next November.
“The loss of Jon Corzine and it being an off election year I think levels the playing field a little bit, and the fact that the Republican Party has a governor who can stump for the party as well,” said GOP county chairman Bob Greco.
Greco said that the county’s $4 to $8 million budget deficit will help convince voters to elect Republicans as well.
And the GOP might have some help from two of the three former Democratic freeholders who ran last year: Jane Christy and Jennifer Swift. Their candidacies were initially seen as jeopardizing the Democratic candidates, but their actual effect on the race is still being debated.
Democrats contend that they managed to fend off a Republican sweep despite having three members of their party sapping votes. Republicans, however, hold that the independents may have simply drawn away votes cast against Freeholder Director and Democratic Chairman Louis Magazzu, whose outsized personality and firm control of local politics has made him the focus of the last two elections.
“I think Jane Christy and Jennifer Swift are going to possibly play a role for the Republican Party in this possible election,” said Greco. “We’ve developed a friendly rapport and have common ground… that creates some friendly allies.”
Greco said he was not worried about lack of geographic diversity from having two Vineland candidates. He said there has been talk of other potential candidates, but did not want to name them.
Magazzu said that he could not predict the political landscape ten months from now.
“I have no clue what this November will look like. There are dynamics where I could argue we hold two, lose two or split. Although rarely a split – for the most part, teams win in a group in this county,” he said. “I like our chances. Thomson is extraordinarily hard working. Pepitone is hard working and really well-liked.”
Magazzu said that the Democratic Party has been able to dominate because they’ve established a brand of fiscal conservatism and social progressivism. He also credited his working relationship with two top South Jersey Democrats from outside of Cumberland County – state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis) and incoming Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) — with helping make gains.
“Clearly the three of us have made a really good combination, and we’ve recruited really good candidates,” he said.
It remains to be seen if the election will again hinge on Magazzu, who likes to point out that he won re-election despite having been the center of two campaigns – including in 2008, when he was not on the ballot.