If a judge’s decision to toss the results of the 2020 Atlantic County Commissioner election holds up on appeal, Democrats have a strong argument to fill the seat on an interim basis – possibly with the candidate who got the most votes in the last election, Thelma Witherspoon.
There are two precedents, both from South Jersey, that appear to allow the party who previously held a seat to retain it during a special election process.
In 1997, Democrats appeared to narrowly flip to Republican Assembly seats in the Burlington-based 7th district.
Herbert Conaway, Jr. (D-Delran) finished 45 votes ahead of his running mate, Jack Conners (D-Pennsauken). Republican Ken Faulkner (D-Delanco) finished 67 votes behind Conners. George Williams (R-Maple Shade), who had served one term as a Democratic assemblyman before losing party support for re-election, was seeking a comeback as a Republican; he lost by 2,280 votes.
Republicans challenged the election results after discovering that a faulty voting machine in Willingboro failed to count 160 votes.
Faulkner, a legendary basketball coach and school principal, was a last-minute addition to the ticket after Republican Assemblyman Carmine DeSopo (R-Westampton) decided not to seek re-election after winning the GOP primary. The other incumbent, Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park), was seeking a Senate seat.
Republicans went to court and initially lost the first round of a protracted legal battle.
Superior Court Judge Harold Wells, looking like he was pretending to be Steve Kornacki, used his own political analysis and ruled that he didn’t think Faulkner would have picked up enough votes in heavily-Democratic Willingboro to overtake Conners.
In September, a state appellate court overturned Wells’ ruling tossed the Assembly election results and ordered a new election to be held concurrently with the 1998 general election.
The court also ordered that Conners be removed from the Assembly seat held for nearly eight months and decided that Republicans, who had previously held the seat, could appoint an interim legislator to serve until the special election results were certified.
Faulkner won a special election convention and was sworn in as an assemblyman.
The 1998 general election was a different political environment. Faulkner, who had run on a ticket with Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Allen, was now dealing with a national political environment influenced by some opposition to a GOP effort to impeach President Bill Clinton and growing disenchantment with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
This time, Conners beat Faulkner decisively, a 5,638-vote margin, 55%-43%.
While Allen won the 7th district Senate seat five more times before she retired in 2017, Republicans were never able to beat Connors or his successors, Troy Singleton (D-Delran) and Carol Murphy (D-Mount Laurel). Conaway is expected to seek re-election to a 13th term this year.
The Gabby Mosquera controversy
Republicans and Democrats battled in the 4th legislative district on and off through the 1990s and 2000s.
In 2009, Republican Domenick DiCicco (R-Franklin) won the open Assembly seat of retiring Assemblywoman Sandra Love (D-Washington Township) by 601 votes over Democrat William Collins, the Gloucester Township school board president.
When legislative districts were redrawn after the 2010 census, DiCicco’s hometown of Franklin was moved out of the 4th and into the 3rd, where he lost re-election to incumbents John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro) and Celeste Riley (D-Bridgeton).
To replace DiCicco, Democrats picked Gabriela Mosquera, a 34-year-old Latina who had worked in the Assembly Majority Office and for Camden County legislators.
Mosquera defeated Republican Shelley Lovett by 6,355 votes, but the New Jersey Supreme Court denied her the Assembly seat because she fell 45 days short of the one-year residency requirement to run in the 4th. She had moved to Gloucester Township to run.
Like the 7th district in 1997, the court also ordered that the party previously holding the seat could keep it until the special election.
By the time Democrats held their February 29, 2012 special election convention, Mosquera had met the 365-day residency requirement and took the Assembly seat a week later.
Mosquera won the 2012 special election by 19,192 votes, a 60.6% to 39.4% margin, over Lovett.