Atlantic County is one of the few places in New Jersey where elections are still competitive, and one of three counties where control of the Board of Freeholders is at stake this year.
Republicans have a 6-3 majority on the Freeholder Board but will need to defend half of their seats this fall. The problem for Democrats is that the Freeholder-At-Large is one of Atlantic County’s top vote-getters, Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica, and that the other two seats are from Republican districts. The GOP can’t afford to lose more than one seat.
The real jewel comes in 2019, when County Executive Dennis Levinson is up for re-election. The 71-year-old Levinson was first elected in 1999 after five terms as a Freeholder and one as a Northfield Councilman. He has not decided if he will seek re-election. If he does, he’ll be a favorite to win; a retirement would create a competitive open seat race.
Some Republican view Formica as the heir apparent if Levinson doesn’t run again. Well-known as the owner of an Atlantic City bakery, Formica won twice as the District 2 freeholder, but gave up that seat in 2015 to help the GOP pick up an at-large seat. He beat Brenda Brathwaite by almost 8,000 votes (59%), showing his appeal as a countywide
Levinson may have another candidate in mind: his son, Matt. Levinson convinced Gov. Chris Christie to appoint his son to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 2012. By 2017, Christie and Levinson were feuding, and the outgoing Republican Governor decided not to reappoint Matthew Levinson to his casino regulatory post. Matt Levinson is a former Linwood Councilman.
Democratic insiders say their strongest candidate for County Executive is Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, who was easily re-elected to a third term last year despite a Republican pickup of a State Senate seat in his district. Mazzeo would have to give up his Assembly seat to run, and that’s only a possibility if Levinson retires.
Despite Formica’s popularity, Democrats could have a shot to beat him in 2018. That depends on who they recruit to run – and just how big a Democratic year it turns out to be.
Realistically, ousting Formica may be an easier lift that defeating the two district Freeholders, Maureen Kern (District 2) and James Bertino (District 5). Both of those districts are the most Republican areas of Atlantic County. Kern and Bertino won by nearly 2-1 margins three years ago. The last time districts 2 and 5 were competitive was in 2006 – another strong Democratic year nationally – when the Republican margins were cut down to the 300-vote range.
If Republicans hold the Freeholder Board in 2018, they will face another challenge in 2019. Two Republican Freeholders, Amy Gatto (At-Large) and Rich Dase (District 4) are up next year. Both won by 51%-49% margins in 2016. Democrats will defend their heavily-Democratic District 1 seat, where Freeholder Ernest Coursey ran unopposed in 2016.
In 2017, Democrats picked up the Sheriff’s office when Eric Scheffler won 51% for the seat of retiring Republican Frank Balles. Each party won a Freeholder-At-Large seat – one of them in contests decided by just 87 votes. In District 3, Democrat Ashley Bennett ousted incumbent Freeholder John Carman by 499 votes after Carman made some derogatory comments about women.