Salem GOP eyes control of Freeholder board

A competitive race for control of the Salem County government is shaping up, with Republicans hoping to take a majority on the freeholder board for the first time in eight years. 

So far, the Republican slate is forming earlier than that of the Democrats, although by later this month, both parties will likely have a better idea of who’s going to run for what office.

Currently, Democrats have a 4-3 majority on the freeholder board.  Two incumbents are up for reelection this year: Democratic Freeholder Director Lee Ware and Republican Julie Acton.  The Democratic county surrogate, Nicki Burke, is also up for reelection. 

Three Republicans have expressed interest in for Ware’s seat: Chapman Vail, the president of the Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional Board of Education; Stacy Jennings, an adjunct professor at Salem Community College who narrowly lost a freeholder bid last year; and Sean Elwell, the deputy mayor of tiny Elsinboro. 

Attorney Helen Petrin has put her name in to run for surrogate, but Jennings has left open the possibility of running for that seat instead of freeholder. 

“I’m not worried about either one of those candidates, to be honest with you,” said Salem County Democratic Chairman Steve Caltabiano.

Caltabiano said that the Republican Party is focused on a “two-year plan” in which a candidate runs, loses narrowly, and then comes back to win in the next election cycle.  It worked for Freeholder Ben Laury, who was just sworn in last month, but Caltabiano said he’s seen it fail at least as often.  And Ware, he said, is a particularly strong candidate.  He has been on the board for 10 years, and his brother preceded him with a 26-year tenure. 

Caltabiano  would not say who has expressed interest to run on the Democratic ticket, but said that Lee Ware that he is “99% certain” that Lee Ware will seek reelection.

Several Democratic names have been floated to run against Acton.  Local party sources point to three Salem County Democrats who interviewed to take over Doug Fisher’s assembly seat when he became secretary of agriculture:  Dave Bailey, Jr., CEO of Ranch Hope, Inc, which runs a number of Christian faith-based programs; Sherman Wood, a Lower Alloway Creek committeeman; and Otis Sistrunk, a manager at PolyOne corporation.

Democrats have also tried to recruit Chris Widger, a Pennsville High School baseball star turned Major League Baseball catcher, to run for local office several times of the last few years.  If he is interested in running for freeholder, he would be a contender, they say. 
Salem County GOP Chairman Michael Facemyer, who plans to start interviewing potential candidates this week, said that Republican Gov. Christopher Christie’s victory in November lends a sense of momentum to his party, “but you’ve got to qualify that by saying people change their minds very quickly.”

“The thing that we hear from the constituency is that the Democratic controlled freeholder board have basically given their authority away to the bureaucrats,” said Facemeyer, who said that the board is ceding too much authority to the Salem County Improvement Authority and other semi-autonomous agencies.

Although rural Salem County, with only about 64,000 residents, is the least populous in the state, a shift in control of its freeholder board could have implications for Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s 2011 reelection campaign, according to one observer.  The county makes up about one-third of Sweeney’s district, which is one of the more conservative districts that are held by Democrats.

Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, expects to see state Republican money poured into tiny Salem, as well as money from Sweeney, his allies and the Camden County Democratic machine.

“You’ll have Norcross’s money plus Republicans targeting it and it will look like a congressional race,” she said.

Salem County Republican Chairman Michael Facemyer, for his part, put off speculation as to whether this year’s race could mean anything for Sweeney.

“We’re no looking ahead to the senate and assembly races,” he said.  “I think it’s premature to talk too much about what’s going to happen in that race.”  Salem GOP eyes control of Freeholder board