By Matt Friedman | October 2nd, 2008 - 3:13pm
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In often overlooked Salem, a competitive freeholder race.

Republicans in New Jersey’s least populated county have an opportunity this year to take back a majority on the freeholder board that’s been controlled by Democrats since 2002, but they’ll need to sweep the election to do it.

“We’re counting on it,” said Salem GOP Chairman Paul Reed.

It’s not impossible.  While Democrats hold a 6-1 majority on the board, Salem is a true ticket-splitting swing county.  National and statewide voting trends don’t always correlate with local election results in this county of 64,000, where voters tend to judge local candidates by personal interaction rather than the letter next to their name.

And the county’s votes on national and statewide elections are unpredictable.  Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute for New Jersey Politics, noted that the county went for Al Gore in 2000 by six points and George W. Bush in 2004 by the same margin.  In the 2005 Assembly races, it picked Democrats over Republicans 58% to 42%.  But Jon Corzine only edged out Doug Forrester by two points.

In 2007, Salem elected one Democrat and one Republican to the Board of Freeholders -- each by comfortable margins.  In 2006, voters elected a Republican Sheriff and two Democratic Freeholders.  And in 2005, Sullivan won his Freeholder seat by exactly one vote over GOP incumbent David Sparks.

Having Joe Biden on the ticket could help swing the county -- which is just across the Delaware Memorial Bridge from Wilmington -- towards Barack Obama on the presidential level.  And it’s had a large increase in registered Democrats since the primaries.  But that won’t necessarily translate down to the county ticket.

“I think it’s really hard to know which way it will go,” said Eagleton Institute Director Ingrid Reed.  “It’s that kind of county where people get to know the candidates more personally.”

All three seats up for reelection are held by Democrats – leaving them no opportunity to further bolster their majority.  Freeholder Deputy Director David Lindenmuth and Freeholder Bruce Bobbit are seeking re-election.  Democrat Chuck Sullivan is retiring, and Penns Grove Council President A.J. Crescenzi is the Democratic candidate to fill his seat.

Republicans have given their campaign a theme of business know-how, introducing candidates Evern Ford, who owns a management consulting business; Benjamin Laury, an engineer who runs a heating company; and PSE&G technician Dale Cross, who touts a B.A. in finance.

Meanwhile, two Democrats who have been rebuffed by their own party are running on an independent ticket: former Penns Grove Mayor Ken James and former police officer Ed Spinelli Sr.

Paul Reed said that leadership with business acumen is what the county needs to cut down on spending.

“Salem County needs business people to run the county. We’ve got school teachers, nurses, tow truck drivers.  I just don’t think that these people know how to do business,” said the GOP Chairman.

That offended Bobbitt, the “tow truck driver” Reed referred to.  He’s has owned his own auto repair shop for 26 years and believes that demonstrates his own business credentials as well if not better than anyone on the Republican ticket.

“I have my own business here, I’ve been self-employed for 26 years.  Don’t tell me I’m a freaking tow truck driver.  He can kiss my ass,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think Cross’s schooling qualifies him as a businessman.

“I don’t call him a businessman… A businessman is a guy who owns his own business, works every day, gets it done,” said Bobbitt.

Paul Reed, however, said that the Democrats’ reign has been characterized by waste, noting a county office building that was vacant for some time while the county continued to pay rent and some of its utility bills.

“Usually when you take ownership of a building or agree to rent one, you actually go in and occupy it.  They’ve been paying rent on it for about a year,” said Reed, who couldn’t remember exactly how much rent had been paid, but said “it’s not cheap.”

Reed also pointed to a nursing home that last year was taken over by the Salem County Improvement Authority.  Under Republicans, he said, it was self-sustaining.  Under the Democrats, he said, it’s running on a deficit.

Reed went on to argue that Democrats were running up expenses with positions like Clerk of the Board.  When Democrats took control, he argued, they bumped up the clerk’s salary and added several assistants.

“Over the past five or six years, they have increased the size of government farther than the Republicans ever even thought they would,” he said.

But Bobbitt argued that salary and staff were added to the Clerk of the Board position because they combined it with the County Administrator’s duties.

As far as the county government’s lease on the office building, he argued that unforeseen circumstances caused a delay in occupancy, and that several county departments have already moved in.

“It’s just business. We all want everything to go very smoothly, but these things happen. If I want to build another bay on my garage, I might estimate $15,000, and it winds up costing $25,000,” said Bobbitt.  “It’s easy for the guys that are doing nothing to sit back and throw stones at the guys who are doing stuff.  It’s easy to ridicule and point fingers.”

Bobbitt said that the freeholders are working on getting some of those rent payments reimbursed.

What Republicans fail to note, he argued, is that the county Democrats have stabilized the tax rate, and while constituents are complaining about paying higher taxes, it’s due to property revaluations.

“We are here to serve the people, cut taxes, save the people of Salem County money, and we’re doing all we can to do it,” he said.

Bobbitt was defeated last year in his re-election bid for Pilesgrove Township Committeman, but doesn’t think that makes him any more vulnerable for his freeholder spot.  He noted that the town is historically Republican.

“I was actually shocked that I didn’t get reelected, because I don’t know of any reasons someone wouldn’t vote for me. I guess it’s just got to be a D and R thing,” he said.

Neither major party thinks much of James and Spinelli, who they seem to regard more as gadflies than potential competitors.  And while both are Democrats, neither party thinks they’ll siphon votes from the controlling party.

James was recently arrested over an argument he had at Penns Grove Borough Hall with Crescensi and Mayor John Washington, after he called Washington a “phony and a liar” while being escorted out of the council meeting after an argument over taxes.

James said that the freeholders’ contention that they’ve kept tax rates stable is disingenuous, since property revaluations have allowed the tax rate to remain stable while county spending has increased.

“The worst thing is that they don’t tell the truth to people, and having been there for many years I understand everything that’s going on and the misrepresentations they make,” he said.

Spinelli, for his part, said that he’s glad that no major party candidates are taking his candidacy seriously.  He’s a strong supporter of municipal consolidation, saying that local politicians aren’t thinking of the common good but rather are hesitant to give up their fiefdoms.

“They are thinking like that, and I want them to think like that.  But I’m doing things they’re not doing: going out to the country, into the woods and talking to people, and they’re al saying the same thing – ‘I’ve never had a politicians come here before,” he said.

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