Home>Local>Camden>Can anti-organization Democrats in South Jersey win something? Anything?

3rd legislative district candidates Tanzie Youngblood, Mario De Santis, and Robert Fitzpatrick. (Photo: The Good Democrats).

Can anti-organization Democrats in South Jersey win something? Anything?

Lots of contested primaries this year, but little money among progressives

By Joey Fox, May 19 2023 3:30 pm

Every year, a few underfunded progressives file to run off-the-line for office in South Jersey. Every year, they get smoked by the South Jersey Democratic machine, one of the most powerful organizations in the state.

Will 2023 be any different?

In next month’s Democratic primary, more than a dozen off-the-line candidates on at least three distinct slates will appear on the ballot in Camden and Gloucester Counties. At stake are three legislative seats, five countywide offices, and a smattering of local positions, including four seats on the Camden City Council.

Top South Jersey Democrats aren’t acting particularly concerned about any of the races, with good reason. Their track record is near-flawless – outside of nationalized federal races, they’ve virtually never lost in recent decades – and their opponents have next to no money or prominent supporters to get their message out.

But given the diminishment of the South Jersey Democratic organization in recent years, and with longtime boss George Norcross supposedly stepping back, it will be worth seeing just how strong the organization line is – and whether anyone, anywhere, can break through.

The Good Democrats

For decades, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) had a stranglehold on the 3rd legislative district, in both primary and general elections. But now Sweeney is gone, dispatched by a heretofore unknown truck driver, and a group of off-the-line progressives are trying to take his place.

The leader of the anti-organization 3rd district ticket is Glassboro teacher Mario De Santis, who is running for State Senate. He’s teamed up with fellow teachers Tanzie Youngblood and Robert Fitzpatrick on the “Good Democrats” slate; three Gloucester County Commissioner candidates and two Glassboro Borough Council candidates are affiliated with the ticket as well.

They’ll go up against the organization slate helmed by former Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro), who is running for the Senate this year alongside Gloucester County Commissioner Heather Simmons (D-Glassboro) and nonprofit leader Dave Bailey.

Burzichelli and his team are, of course, the heavy favorites to win the Democratic nomination. But De Santis, Youngblood, and Fitzpatrick said that in their conversations with voters, people are tired of the status quo and want new voices on issues like education and affordability.

“We believe that direct voter contact is going to make a difference,” Youngblood said. “The reception that we get from members of the community is just phenomenal.”

Burzichelli, for his part, said that he was happy to have the support of all three county parties in the district, and chided his opponents for not participating in the process.

“We’re unanimously endorsed by all three of the county processes – that means a great deal to us,” he said. “The others, by the way, didn’t participate. We didn’t see them, don’t know them. I know of them, because a couple of them seem to run for something every year.”

Indeed, both De Santis and Youngblood have run prior campaigns, without much success. De Santis was booted off the ballot for State Senate in 2021, and lost to Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) 77-23% in a 2022 congressional primary; Youngblood, meanwhile, took on then-Democratic State Sen. Jeff Van Drew in a 2018 congressional primary, losing 57%-19%.

According to Burzichelli, the 3rd legislative district, which covers all of Salem County and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland Counties, isn’t exactly a hotbed of the kind of progressivism that De Santis and Youngblood have peddled in the past.

“I would not brand us as a left-leaning, liberal legislative district,” Burzichelli said. “[The 2021 elections] clearly tell us that it’s not a progressive-leaning place.”

Team De Santis shot back that it was Burzichelli’s brand of moderate, establishment politics that lost those 2021 elections to begin with.

“Sweeney and Burzichelli and the whole group were too lazy to get out and go see the people and get the vote,” Youngblood said. “That’s the bottom line. They assumed that they’d get that vote just because they were the established Democrats, and were used to people just voting for them. And what happened? The people voted for Ed Durr. These Democrats we’re running against are very good at getting Republicans elected.”

In order to get that message out, though, the Good Democrats need money or outside support; other than an endorsement from the New Jersey Working Families Party yesterday, they have neither. As of pre-primary fundraising reports, the slate’s joint fundraising committee had just $981 in it, while De Santis’ own account was more than $1,000 in debt. (Burzichelli’s team, by contrast, had around $60,000 on-hand.)

The other off-the-line Gloucester County candidates aren’t faring any better. The county commissioner team of Denise Brush, Everet Rummel, and Ted Howell raised a total of $91, while Glassboro council candidates Isha Strasser and Jennifer Courtney raised $45.

“Despite the lesser resources, it’s really about working smart,” De Santis said of the campaign’s fundraising. “It’s really about targeting your resources in a highly effective way.”

But even the smartest possible candidate would struggle to run a campaign on so little money. Unless they can dramatically improve their fundraising in these last few weeks before the primary, the Good Democrats’ lack of resources probably spells the end of this year’s campaign.

Still, Burzichelli said that he’d be happy to see his opponents join forces with the South Jersey Democratic organization in their future endeavors.

“If I get to meet them, I’d certainly want to encourage them to become more involved with the operation in general,” he said. “We’re always looking for candidates.”

South Jersey Progressive Democrats

One county over, Camden County progressives have their sights set on the board of county commissioners – again.

At this point, it’s routine for Camden County to host a Democratic primary for county commissioner. With the exception of 2020, there has been a contested commissioner (or freeholder) primary every cycle since 2016, a rather remarkable feat; there are probably some New Jersey counties that haven’t even had one contested commissioner primary in that entire time.

And every year, the off-the-line candidates get crushed. In 2022, for example, Commissioners Edward McDonnell and Carmen Rodriguez got a combined 75% of the vote against two challengers despite the fact that Rodriguez had quietly resigned from the commissioner board four days before the primary.

Even the most optimistic of New Jersey progressives would be foolhardy to think this year will bring anything but more of the same. But two challengers, Kate Delany and Sam Sweet, have stepped up to run anyways against incumbents Louis Cappelli and Jonathan Young.

Delany, the president of South Jersey Progressive Democrats, is probably the most prominent figure in the Camden anti-organization apparatus. Back in 2019, she scored a major upset in the race for Democratic county committee in Collingswood, deposing the party-backed committeemembers and becoming the new municipal Democratic chairwoman.

It was a remarkable high point for South Jersey progressives, and it also didn’t last long. In May 2021, Delany’s campaign to flip control of the Collingswood Borough Commission fell well short; a month after that, the Camden Democratic organization won back the county committee seats they had lost two years earlier.

Delany has been left out in the cold since then, and this year almost certainly won’t change that. She and Sweet haven’t filed any campaign finance reports yet, but they’re most likely broke; Sweet is also hedging his bets and simultaneously aiming for a vacant seat on the Gloucester Township Council, a campaign that has led to the resurfacing of Sweet’s unfortunate posts on social media

But the South Jersey Progressive Democrats did manage to snag something important: Column A on the ballot. And unlike in many previous years, there aren’t any “phantom candidates” to muddy the ballot and push real contenders off into Ballot Siberia.

While that won’t be anywhere near enough to win countywide, it could help Delany’s parallel quest to reclaim a spot on the county Democratic committee. She and her allies are contesting nine of Collingswood’s 18 county committee spots, and there will also be contested races for county committee in Cherry Hill, Runnemede, and Merchantville.

Progressive Democrats for Camden City

Perhaps the best chance for off-the-line candidates to win anywhere in South Jersey this year is in the city of Camden. (And even there, chances aren’t great.)

Two years after popular Mayor Vic Carstarphen took office, the city’s four ward-based council seats are up this year; all four are being contested by the Progressive Democrats for Camden City slate, which despite its name does not appear to be related to Delany’s countywide slate.

The 1st ward race is easily the most prominent of the four races, by virtue of the candidate South Jersey Democrats have chosen for the organizational line: Arthur Barclay, a former state assemblyman who resigned in 2018 after being arrested on domestic violence charges. Barclay has largely stayed out of the limelight since then, but he remains on good terms with the Camden organization, and now has the party line against challenger Jose Javier Ramos.

The 2nd ward features a three-way race among incumbent Councilman Christopher Collins, Progressive Democrats candidate Theo Spencer, and Elton Custis, who got 23% of the vote against Carstarphen in the 2021 mayoral primary.

In the 3rd ward, incumbent Councilwoman Marilyn Torres is running off-the-line after she and two other councilwomen broke with the county organization in early 2022. Neither of Torres’s two allies are running for re-election, but Torres is forging ahead against party-backed candidate Falio Leyba-Martinez, who is now on his fourth local campaign.

But it’s the 4th ward that South Jersey Democrats are the most unsure about. There, the party is running Jannette Ramos, a community activist who has never run for office before, making her something of an unknown quantity against challenger Delbert Neal.

One complicating factor is voter turnout. In the 2021 Democratic primary, the city of Camden, population 71,791, cast a total of 4,333 votes. Without a gubernatorial or mayoral election on the ballot this year, turnout could drop even farther, meaning that the four wards may cast fewer than 1,000 votes each.

In that kind of low-turnout environment, neither side needs all that many votes to win. And there are at least some of the ingredients an underdog would need to win all of the city’s contests – making an upset not likely, but at least possible.

A few other Camden and Gloucester County towns are hosting contested primaries as well. Party-backed candidates in Paulsboro and Brooklawn face challengers, while Lindenwold is hosting what is essentially an open primary, where neither the incumbent mayor and his slate nor their opponents have the party line.

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