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Former Cumberland County Freeholder Gary Simmerman

Cumberland icon Gary Simmerman, ex-freeholder, dies at 85

Democrat served four terms on Cumberland Board of Freeholders

By David Wildstein, February 24 2020 10:52 am

Gary F. Simmerman, a former four-term Cumberland County freeholder who held county and state political positions and enjoyed a successful career as a banker, died on February 20.  He was 85.

He was elected Bridgeton city treasurer in 1963, at age 29, when the post was an elected city position.  He was re-elected in 1967 after initially being considered as a candidate for freeholder.

A Democrat, Simmerman ran for a seat on the Bridgeton City Council in 1968 and was the top vote-getter in a race that toppled three Republican incumbents.   That was a time when Bridgeton was a politically competitive city.

Simmerman played a local role in building support for a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18.

He was again considered as a candidate for freeholder in 1972.

Freeholder Joseph Chinnici (R-Bridgeton) had been elected to the State Assembly in 1971.  Republicans wanted him to hold both offices to keep Democrats, who would appoint his successor, from increasing their majority on the freeholder board from 4-3 to 5-2.  Chinnici declined to be a dual office-holder.

Instead, Democrats went with Charles Fisher, a former Bridgeton councilman who had lost the Assembly race to Chinnici and Republican James Hurley (R-Millville).

Simmerman was re-elected to the city council in 1972.

He was appointed to the Cumberland County Bridge Study Commission in 1972.  Simmerman was named president of the Cumberland National Bank of Bridgeton in 1973.

In 1975, Democrats came up with a dream team to take on three longtime Republican freeholders – Millville Mayor Edward Salmon, Frank DeMarco, who had run for Congress a year before and was now working as an aide to freshman Rep. Bill Hughes (D-Ocean City), and Simmerman.   But Salmon and DeMarco changed their minds and were replaced by Harry Wyble and John Reinhard.

The GOP incumbents were Harry Freitag, Victor LaTorre and Ben Rocap.

In the mid-term elections of an unpopular Democratic governor, Brendan Byrne, Simmerman was able to topple one of the Republican freeholders.   He defeated Rocap by about 325 votes countywide, giving Democrats a 5-2 majority in county government.

Simmerman ran for re-election in 1978 on a ticket headed by U.S. Senate candidate Bill Bradley and Hughes, who was seeking his third term in Congress.

On the freeholder ticket with Simmerman were Reinhard, now the Vineland Democratic municipal chairman and former freeholder clerk, and Marvin Padgett, a former freeholder.  They faced Freitag, LaTorre and Millville attorney Walter Gavigan.

Former freeholder Charles Scarani, who had spent 22 years as a freeholder, ran as an independent.

Simmerman won by more than 2,000 votes and Reinard beat out LaTorre, a longtime incumbent.  Only Freitag held on, giving Democrats a 6-1 majority on the Cumberland Board of Freeholders.

In 1981, Simmerman was re-elected to a third term as freeholder.  He won by over 3,000 votes, but for the first time was the lowest vote-getter among the winners.

Democrats maintained their 6-1 majority when Reinhard and Freitag also won re-election. Freitag beat a Jim Quinn, who was making is first bid for public office.

Simmerman faced a tough race in 1984, with Ronald Reagan heading the ticket and Republicans recruiting a strong first-time candidate: Vineland trucking company executive Frank LoBiondo.   Freitag was not seeking re-election.

LoBiondo turned out to be the top vote-getter, narrowly running ahead of Simmerman.  The third seat was won by Republican Clair Miller, ousting Reinhard from the freeholder board.

The upset of the night was the defeat of Democratic sheriff George Castellini, the father of the current freeholder.

In 1987, Simmerman announced that he would not seek reelection to a fifth term.  He had been campaigning for re-election – he as to run on a slate with Louis Magazzu and Jennifer Lookabaugh – but decided he needed to spend more take at his bank.

After leaving the freeholder board, Simmerman served as Cumberland County Treasurer, as a commissioner of the Delaware River & Bay Authority, and as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

After United Jersey purchased his bank, Simmerman became president of the new bank’s southern region.

Simmerman is survived by his wife, two sons, and five grandchildren.

Visitation will be held on Wednesday from 6-9 PM and Thursday from 10-11 AM at the Padgett Funeral Home in Upper Deerfield.  Funeral services will be at the funeral home at 11 AM on Thursday.

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