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State Sen. Michael L. Testa, Jr. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Testa makes a play for Cumberland’s freeholder board

GOP county chairs sees a chance to sweep three seats for a freeholder majority

By Nikita Biryukov, September 11 2020 11:51 am

State Sen. Mike Testa is making a play for control of his home county.

With Democrats holding a broad but not insurmountable 6-1 majority on Cumberland County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders, Testa, the county’s Republican chairman, is hoping a bevy of three relatively unknown Republican candidates can take control of county.

“I think the board of chosen freeholders needs new life, new breath and new blood serving on that board,” Testa told the New Jersey Globe. “Cumberland County, if you look at all the metrics, we’re ranked 21 out of 21 in all of the wrong categories and I think that our board of chosen freeholders has to own that record. It’s been one-party control for the better part of 35 years, and I think that their record speaks for itself.”

Republicans are running Victoria Lods, once a chief of staff to former State Sen. Nick Asselta (R-Vineland), local business owner Tony Romero and real estate investor Darwin Cooper in a bid to know out two incumbent Democrats and prevent a third from regaining a seat she held in in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In part, Testa is hoping votes from the top of the ticket make their way down to the countywide candidates, including Michael Donato, who is running to oust Sheriff Robert Austino.

There are 12,623 more Democrats than Republicans in the county, a significant number when just 92,424 residents are registered to vote there.

President Donald Trump fared well enough in Cumberland during his 2016 bid for the White House. Though he did not win — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the county 27,045-24,213 that year — the loss wasn’t the blowout it was in solidly blue counties like Mercer, Camden, Hudson or Essex Counties, where Trump lost by as much as 57 points.

There’s also the question of Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis). The Democrat-turned-Republican easily won primary and general election votes in Cumberland, and Testa thinks his presence will be a boon for the countywide candidates.

“I believe that Jeff Van Drew has coattails,” Testa said. “I think he’s focused on the entire ticket, so I think just having him in the same column as the individuals who are running down ballot, running for freeholder and for sheriff, can only help our candidates.”

It’s not clear whether that will be the case. Van Drew, a Democrat for nearly three decades, defected the Republican Party last year after losing support among rank-and-file Democrats over his opposition to impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Still, Van Drew for years ran and won in a conservative legislative district that returned to Republican hands less than a year after he was sworn into the House. Some moderates, especially those among the county’s 36,599 unaffiliated voters, may choose to welcome him back with open arms.

There’s also some friction among the Democratic candidates.

The three Republicans will face Freeholders Carol Musso and George Castellini and former Freeholder Donna Pearson in November.

Two months ago, Pearson and the incumbents were locked in what became an often-bitter primary. After being dropped from the party line, Democratic Freeholder Jack Surrency chose to run an off-the-line bid instead of slinking out of the political world.

Surrency lost, as did his runningmate Tracey Wells-Huggins, but Pearson placed third, becoming the lone progressive to emerge from the primary intact.

Following her win, Pearson said she was looking forward to working with her establishment-backed runningmates, but the marks of the fractious primary are likely to remain.

“I don’t believe that they have a unified team,” Testa said. “That was apparent from the primary that they had, both for the congressional seat and for the freeholder race.”

The progressives were backed by Amy Kennedy, now the Democratic nominee for Van Drew’s House seat, while the incumbents had the backing of political science professor Brigid Harrison, who won the county’s Democratic line.

The stakes in the election are high. Should the Republicans win, Testa will be party chairman of a red county and the only state senator to call Cumberland County home, a privilege that already gives him senatorial courtesy over all nominees who reside there.

Essentially, winning the freeholder board would make Testa a party boss, though he insisted that wasn’t anywhere on his list of motivations.

“I don’t really look at myself as that,” he said. “I’m a sitting senator, a county chairman. I really just look at myself as a Republican team player, and that’s not rhetoric — that’s how I look at it. I’m not in this for power. That’s not why I got into this. I just want a better South Jersey. I want a better Cumberland County.”

It’s possible that Testa’s name will come up as a campaign issue. His own race against State Sen. Bob Andrzejczak last year saw the Republican face attacks leveraging his control of Cumberland’s Republican County Committee.

It’s not clear whether such attacks would pay off with Testa off the ballot and far more recognizable names on it, but the senator isn’t looking to adopt that particular mantle.

“I really don’t even view myself — even if we win — as the power broker,” he said. “As the senator I don’t see myself as the power broker, I don’t.”

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