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Ventnor attorney Stephen Dicht is running for Atlantic County Surrogate. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

There’s a flicker of light in just 8 of New Jersey’s 21 county elections

Just four N.J. counties have two-party representation in county government

By Nikita Biryukov, October 28 2020 3:33 pm

Just eight New Jersey counties have elections worth watching, with control of county government up for grabs in just one.

Ten counties presently elect only Democrats and seven are represented by only Republican officeholders.  Only four — Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem and Somerset — have two-party representation in county government.

In Cumberland, State Sen. Mike Testa (R-Vineland), the Republican county chairman, is making a play for control of the freeholder board. Democrats hold a sizeable — but not insurmountable — 6-1 majority there with three Democratic seats up this year.

Cumberland Republicans are running Victoria Lods, a former 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 oust Freeholders Carol Musso and George Castellini and former Freeholder Donna Pearson.

Despite Democrats’ 12,310-voter registration advantage — it’s sizeable in county where just 93,613 were registered to vote as of Oct. 1 — Republicans have some things going in their favor. The Democratic candidates are months clear from a divisive primary that ended with a loss for one of the three county-backed candidates.

Pearson ran with Freeholder Jack Surrency, who launched an off-the-line bid after losing the support of the Cumberland County Democratic Committee. Surrency lost, as did running mate Tracey Wells-Huggins.

In Atlantic, Democrats are looking to pick up a freeholder seat and the county surrogate’s post, while Republicans hope to pick up at least one seat on the freeholder board.

There, incumbent At-Large Freeholder John Risley and Somers Point Councilman James Toto, Republicans both, face Democratic At-Large Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick and challenger Celeste Fernandez, who came close to unseating longtime Freeholder Frank Formica in 2018.

Former Atlantic City School Board President Thelma Witherspoon, a Democrat, and Egg Harbor Township Committeeman Andrew Parker are vying for Freeholder Ashley Bennet’s District 3 seat. Bennet chose not to seek re-election after dropping her congressional campaign in March.

Surrogate James Curcio, the last Republican constitutional officer in Atlantic county, faces a challenge from Stephen Dicht, and Democratic Sheriff Eric Scheffler is defending his seat against former sheriff’s officer Joe “Tokyo” O’Donoghue.

Democrats don’t view the sheriff’s race as competitive, though they say everything else is on the table.

“Pretty confident Eric Scheffler is going to be fine,” Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman said. “And Steve Dicht, the surrogate, is certainly making his race competitive.”

Curcio, a former freeholder and the son of a former assemblyman, has a long history with voters, but some of his races have been extraordinarily close calls.

Republicans are more bullish on O’Donoghue’s chances.

In New Jersey’s smallest, and perhaps its most purple, county Republicans are looking to expand on their majority. Only one Salem freeholder, Democrat Charles Hassler, is up for election this year.

The county has consistently flipped between backing Democrats and Republicans in national and congressional races, and though it backed Republicans in the last two national cycles, voters there elected one Democrat and one Republican to the freeholder board last year.

Hassler faces a challenge from Republican Edward Ramsey. If he loses his seat, Republicans will hold a 4-1 majority on the board.

Salem went big for Donald Trump in 2016 and Democrats are privately acknowledging that Hassler might be the underdog.

The dynamic is a little different in Somerset and Burlington Counties. Republicans there have been on the retreat for the past two and three years, respectively.

In Burlington, Democrats are defending two seats after three years of consecutive wins that handed them a 5-0 majority on the Board of County Commissioners and two of the county’s three constitutional officer posts.

Commissioners Balvir Singh and Tom Pullion are defending challenges from former Eastampton Councilman John Adams and former Moorestown School Board member Tinamarie Nicolo.

Democrats there have a registration advantage of 47,878, and President Donald Trump’s name being on the ballot is expected to help them more than it is their Republican challengers. Even the county’s Republican leaders admit the outlook is a bit grim, but they’re not writing the races off.

“We’ve been outnumbered for the last 10 years, and prior to the last few years, we were able to overcome those numbers,” Burlington Republican Chairman Sean Earlen said. “I think the national narrative has made it a little bit more difficult in Burlington the last few years, but by no means are we writing it off as if we can’t right the ship, and we’re hopeful that starts this year.”

Somerset’s last two Republican freeholders, Brian Levine and Brian Gallagher, face challenges from North Plainfield Councilman Doug Singleterry and former Hillsborough Councilman Paul Drake.

Attorney Tina Jalloh is seeking to oust Republican Surrogate Frank Bruno, the only member of his party to still hold a constitutional officer post there. Somerset has 24,437 more Democrats than Republicans. That advantage was just 15,629 when Democrats began chipping away at the Republican 5-0 freeholder majority in 2018.

Republicans haven’t won Gloucester County since 200.  Incumbent Democratic freeholders Heather Simmons, Lyman Barnes and Jim Jefferson face challenges from Greenwich Mayor George Shivery, Franklin School Board member Nick DeSilvio and Chris Konawel.

But Donald Trump narrowly won Gloucester County four years ago and many observers think he will again.  The GOP is hoping for some coattails.

In Cape May, where Democrats haven’t elected a freeholder since now-Rep. Jeff Van Drew left to become an assemblyman, Republican Freeholders Will Morey and Jeffrey Pierson face challenges attorney Elizabeth Casey and Cape May County Democratic Chairman Brendan Sciarra.

Sciarra has put roughly $100,000 of his own money into the race, and some Democrats believe he may make it competitive. Van Drew, then a Democrat, won his first countywide election here in 1994, when the Gingrich Revolution saw Republicans make major gains nationally.

County Clerk Rita Marie Fulginiti and Sheriff Robert Nolan, both Republicans, are unopposed.

Democrat Cary Amaro is launching a second bid for Morris County freeholder, this time seeking to oust Republican Tayfun Selen.

Selen, a former Chatham mayor, is seeking his first full term.  He was appointed earlier this year when Heather Darling resigned to become Morris County Surrogate.

Democrats haven’t won a countywide election in Morris since 1973, when Douglas Romaine was elected freeholder.

Some polling indicates that Joe Biden can carry Morris County over Trump, although Republican County Chair Laura Ali strongly disputed that during a New Jersey Globe post-debate analysis.  The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Morris was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

The remaining 12 counties won’t be competitive.

Democratic Holds

Bergen: County Commissioner Joan Voss is seeking a fourth term alongside former Ridgewood Mayor Ramon Hache. They face challenges from Hasbrouck Heights Councilman Ron Kistner and former longtime Cresskill Councilwoman Simone Tsignounis.

Camden: Incumbent Freeholders Louis Cappelli, Jr. and Jonathan Young, Sr. face challenges from Republicans Jennifer Moore and Johana Scheets.

Essex: At-large Democratic Freeholders Brendan Gill, Patricia Sebold, Rufus Johnson and Romaine Graham face challenges from Republicans Monique Headan, Gynise Gotto, Bernarda Quezada and Alexandra Campisi. 4th District Freeholder Leonard Luciano faces a challenge from Adam Kraemer.  Republicans haven’t won an at-large Essex Freeholder race since 1971.

5th District Freeholder Carlos Pomares is unopposed, as are 3rd District Freeholder Tyshammie Cooper, 2nd District Freeholder Wayne Richardson and 1st District Freeholder Robert Mercado. Republican Kristina Christoforou is running against County Clerk Christopher Durkin.

Hudson: Democratic freeholder candidates are unopposed in all nine districts.

Mercer: Democratic Freeholders John Cimino and Lucylle Walter are unopposed, as is Clerk Paula Sollami Covello. Democratic Sheriff John Kemler faces a challenge from Bryan Boccanfuso.

Middlesex: Incumbent Democratic Freeholders Leslie Koppel and Charles Tomaro face John Masculin and Andrew Politi. Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Edison) is running against Joseph Wolak.

Passaic: Incumbent Democratic Freeholders T.J. Best and Bruce James face challenges from Matthew Conlon and William Marsala.

Union: Incumbent Democratic Freeholders Angela Garretson and Christopher Hudak, alongside former principal Lourdes Leon face Republicans Joseph Sarno III, Mark Shore and Paul Verzosa. Freeholder Angel Estrada is not seeking re-election. County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi faces a challenge from Peter Lijoi, and Sheriff Peter Corvelli is running for re-election against Republican Dorothy Burger.

Republican Holds

Monmouth: Republican Freeholder Lillian Burry and running mate Ross Licitra face Democrats Moira Nelson and Michael Penna. County Clerk Christine Giordano Hanlon faces a challenge from Angela Ahbez-Anderson.

Ocean: Republican Freeholder Joe Vicari faces a challenge from Democrat Helen Dela Cruz. Kathy Russell is running against County Clerk Scott Colabella.

Sussex: Republican Freeholder Herbert Yardley faces a challenge from Robert Slockbower.

Warren: Former Lopatcong Council President Lori Ciesla, a close ally of State Republican Chairman Doug Steinhardt, is running against Theresa bender Chapman  for retiring Freeholder Richard Gardner’s seat. Republican surrogate Kevin O’Neill faces Democrat John Massaro.

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