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Appellate Court will hear Penns Grove election matter

Incumbent mayor, an independent, trying to get back on the ballot

By David Wildstein, September 15 2023 3:21 pm

A decision this week to remove the mayor of Penns Grove from the November general election ballot could change now that the state appellate court has agreed to hear a challenge on an emergent basis.

Superior Court Judge Benjamin Morgan used New Jersey’s Sore Loser Law to disqualify LaDaena Thomas, a first-term mayor and an independent because she had received write-in votes in the Democratic and Republican primaries.

As an independent, Thomas unseated Democratic Mayor John Washington in 2019; Washington is seeking a rematch this year.

John Rambo, the owner of a local auto repair shop and a Washington foe, launched a write-in campaign on Thomas’ behalf in the Democratic primary.  Thomas denied being part of that, although she did mention it on Facebook.

Morgan found that the write-in campaign was enough to toss her from the ballot under a statute that doesn’t permit unsuccessful primary candidates from running as independents.

Because Morgan took six weeks to handle the original challenge to Thomas’ candidacy, the appellate court is under a tight deadline – if one were to concede that election calendars are the deciding factor.   Voting begins next week when election officials begin mailing vote-by-mail ballots on September 23.

The appellate judges, Michael Haas and Lisa Puglisi, ordered an expedited briefing schedule; in the meantime, they issued an order stopping the Penns Grove ballots from going out.

The New Jersey Globe has confirmed that Salem County has already printed the ballots for Penns Grove, a town with 2,418 registered voters, without Thomas’ name.  There are roughly 325 vote-by-mail requests in the borough – that number could go up as more VBM requests are filed – and local election officials would need to know the names of all the candidates by Thursday if Penns Grove ballots are to go out with the rest of the county.

The challenge to Morgan’s ruling could still be taken to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Morgan rejected claims that the challenge to Thomas’ petition was filed on August 7, after the deadline had already passed.  Morgan took 37 days to move the election matter through his court.  He also refused an adjournment requested by Thomas’ attorney on Tuesday after she suffered an apparent heart attack.  Wednesday’s hearing was conducted while the mayor was undergoing heart surgery.

Unless the appellate court overturns Morgan’s ruling, Washington will face Republican Louis Pasquale.

Penns Grove might be small, but it’s an important town in the 3rd district State Senate race between Republican incumbent Edward Durr (R-Logan) and John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro), a former assemblyman.  In 2021, then-Senate President Steve Sweeney won by 254 votes (72%-28%) against Durr.

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