Part Jersey Devil and backwoods Piney, part Philadelphia lost weekender and backyard barbecuing ex-urbanite, Burlington stands at the battlefront right now as Republicans attempt to turn back Democrats looking to take control of county government.
At the center of that showdown are two lawmakers, veteran Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-7) and his cross-the-aisle rival, Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-8).
Conaway’s been through the furnaces: as an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in the Third District in 2004 and as a successful incumbent who’s withstood vigorous Republican efforts to dislodge him, most aggressively recently in 2011.
He’s seen his county run by the GOP for decades.
“I think there is real opportunity there,” he said of the efforts of Tom Pullion and Mike Schmidt. “We have seen a number of excellent freeholder candidates over the years, including Aimee Belgard and Joanne Schwartz. This is another excellent team this year, who are very well received wherever they have gone. Both of them have great support from the county chair and a number of people from across the state. We believe the polling and modeling we’ve done show us in a great position to win. It’s a question of getting the machinery running.”
Part of the dynamic working in Dems’ favor, Conaway argues, is the presence at the top of the Democratic ticket of incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who was just in Willingboro last Friday leading a rally.
“Willingboro has been the key to Democratic victory in legislative races and in county races,” said Conaway. “It’s an important part of any big win, without question. If you analyze the 2008 race, for example, Jon Adler’s race in particular, the extraordinary turnout in 2008 was the difference between winning and losing. The strategy we have now is aimed at reproducing the Adler margin.”
The assemblyman says competitive races in Evesham and Mount Laurel will add to the Democrats’ vote totals.
Conaway said he believes CD3 Republican candidate Tom MacArthur is also a plus.
“Just look at his message,” the assemblyman said. “It is one that says he would not vote for equal pay for women; it’s one of a wealthy man who has failed to pay the wages of the people who work for him – fair wages to the people who work for him. Also, when you look at the fact that he is a carpetbagger here and the way he has made his made his wealth in property casualty and insurance when we have so many people who are still not in their homes, it’s no wonder he is struggling in a district that is reliably Republican. You simply can’t be that out-of -touch.
“I think people are excited to see a change in the county,” Conaway added. “It doesn’t make sense to have one-party rule for that length of time, and there is a real opportunity to change the direction.”
For his part, Brown said Conaway’s the one who’s out-of-touch.
“People are extremely tired of paying higher taxes and the Democratic candidates have no problem talking about raising taxes,” Brown said. “The middle class can’t afford it anymore. When I was on the Evesham Council I voted no on that budget that Mike Schmidt voted yes on, and he’s still calling for the same tax increases for the county. We as legislators have to do a better job of eliminating unfunded mandates.”
Brown used to be a Democrat. He ran as one, in fact, and won on a Barack Obama wave in 2008.
But times have changed, he argues.
Now Obama is part of the reason the Democrats will sink in Burlington, he says.
“Aimee [Belgard, MacArthur’s opponent in the CD3 contest] can hide all she wants saying she’s not supporting Obamacare but I was there when she was yelling at the late John Adler about Obamacare, urging him to support it. There’s a clear contrast.
“The premise that he’s [MacArthur’s] not polling well is ridiculous,” Brown added. “Look at the endorsements he’s received: unions and small business. He’s able to appeal to both. That says right there to me that a wide range of voters find him extremely appealing.”
Burlington Republicans are pouring $1 million into ensuring the re-election of Freeholder Bruce Garganio and his running mate Mary Ann O’Brien.
The association with Obama inevitably hurts Schmidt and Pullion.
“People are seeing the effects of Obamacare,” Brown said. “Democrats can talk about Tom not appealing or not but they are destroying the middle class with all these entitlement programs. When you marry yourself to the Obama name you are just looking for a loss. Of course, they are hiding from the President’s policies right now and our job is to let the voters know they stood with those policies. It’s a completely different race from 2008. Having Obama at the top of the ticket was helpful then, when I was a Democrat – different now.”
Numerous Democratic sources delight in pointing out the fact that freeholder candidate Schmidt shares the same name as the Hall of Fame Phillies third baseman.
“I think they don’t think much of the electorate if they believe people are going to confuse Mike Schmidt the baseball player with Mike Schmidt the candidate,” Brown said. “My name, Chris Brown, is the same as the rapper Chris Brown, and I don’t think people vote for me because I remind them of the rapper.”