Campaign analysis charts Democrats' rise to council power

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Brigantine Brigantine

Republican dominance gradually eroded by internal divisions, weak fundraising

The new year is upon us, those who wanted took the plunge, and the new members of city council have been sworn in, giving the city its first Democrat majority in the history of the island.

What led to this historic change? The following factors, while not definitive, do give a picture of events.

The island’s Republican Party had been in power far longer than the change of government – from commission to mayor/council – in 1992. It produced a stable government, with Mayor Phil Guenther and his friend Bob Solari remaining in their positions for 22 years.

Guenther and Solari were joined on council by Sam Storino, Sue Schilling and John Murray for much of that time. It was a solid block, and a quorum, as various other members of the Republican community played sideman to the five.  

Their guardian angel was Republican power broker Ed Kline, a previous mayor, who followed in the footsteps of Fritz Hanneman. It worked. Brigantine grew and took advantage of their contacts and ‘old boy network.’ But others saw it otherwise.

Various Democrats including Ann Phillips and Phyllis Koch had occupied chairs on council, but it wasn’t until 2008, when Dominic “Tony” Pullella won the 4th Ward seat, that the tide started to change. He didn’t do it alone; the island’s Republican Party began to self-destruct. In 2010, Pullella and Frank Kern ran for council at-large and won.

Many of the Democrat opposition had accused various members of the local Republicans of arrogance and worse. That was best personified when Police Chief Jim Frugoli was accused of sexual harassment by a police records clerk in 2010. An agreement between the parties was reached by then-City Manager Jim Barber, resulting in Chief Frugoli retiring with a full pension. (The clerk, Colleen Felix, later sued the city for an alleged violation of the agreement.)

Barber, many felt, also personified that sense of arrogance, famously saying, “I hire and I fire,” at a city council meeting.

He tried to stonewall public opinion and would not offer a “mea culpa” for his decisions. The Republican majority on council stood behind his decision after Labor Counsel Archer & Griener completed their investigation confirming the sexual harassment incident. It was messy and left a bad taste in the mouths of many.

The incident, combined with public opinion, led to a revolt by some of the members of the Republican Party, headed up by Andy Simpson and Steve Hurtt. They formed the New Republicans, and drafted Tom Milhous to represent them in the next municipal election in June 2011.

Milhous failed to defeat Ken Schaffer in the 4th Ward election – which gave the Democrats three seats on council. Rick DeLucry replaced Schaffer later that year when Schaffer’s business efforts forced him to relinquish his seat.

Moving forward to the recent election, it is interesting to see how well-organized the local Democratic Party is – and how disorganized and divided the local Republicans are.

The Democrats used a strategy based on a common focus, forming one committee to head, strategize and plan their campaign. Their marketing efforts were well-planned and gave a consistant message to the voters. They also were aggressive in collecting funds from their supporters. Their campaign financial report is interesting when you review the contributions.

Major donations were made to the Democrats by the following: Charles Robinson, $1,000; legal firm Parker McCay, $1,000 (which was just named the new city solicitor replacing longtime Republican attorney Tim Maguire); local builder Gary Woerner, $750; Barbara Dragon, $750; dentist Jeffrey Delson, $600; Local Union No. 54, $500; Teamsters Local No. 331, $500; John Reynolds, $500; Fred Blume, $500; Cooper Levenson (Atlantic City legal firm and DeLucry’s place of employment), $500; Luke Cunningham, $500; Conrad Weiler, $430; Michael Tedesco, $400; Beth Apter, $280; Frank Papa, $180; Toni Carson, $180; and Chuck Herbeman, $150.

Present Democrat Councilmen-at-Large Frank Kern and Tony Pullella contributed $775 and $755 respectively, as well as $500 each for “in-kind contributions.” Local restaurant owner Andre Cassara also made a $600 contribution for a “in-kind contribution.” There were many contributions, too many to list, for $100 or less.

The candidates themselves contributed to the campaign, with McClay giving contributions of $140 (her husband, Bob, contributed another $400), Herndon with $505, Picardi with $25, and DeLucry with $80. McClay and Herndon both extended loans to the campaign of $500 each.

All in all, the Democrats raised almost $33,000 for the election – $38,019.88 including the “in-kind contributions” and $3,115.88 transferred from a prior campaign. (This information comes from filings made by the Citizens4Brigantine political committee to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.)

While rumors persist about financial contributions by the “Norcross Camden Democratic Machine,” this reporter was not able to confirm any funds from that group. It is possible that a separate PAC was set up, but the local Citizens4Brigantine’s report does not show any direct contributions.

Past Public Works Director John Costello (and previous Republican Municipal Chairman) ran at least two full-page newspaper ads on the behalf of the Democrats. Costello had been fired from his Public Works position. He, in turn, sued the city and won a substantial award.

What about the Republicans? First of all, their campaign was disorganized, having four different political committees. Based on their filings, none of the four committees raised more than $4,000 – and only two contributions reached the $300 limit required for reporting: Sean O’Sullivan contributed $350 to Leo Troy’s campaign, and Russell and Evelyn McLaughlin contributed $1,000 to Joseph Campitelli’s campaign.

If the Republicans raised $12,000 (the maximum allowed by law without reporting individual contributions), that means the Democratic committee outraised them at least 3 to 1.

There were problems from the beginning when Blake Morgan was announced as the 1st Ward candidate, then pulled out two weeks later with Andy Simpson taking his spot. One candidate’s health became an issue with some supporters. It was not a team effort – underfunded, internal struggles and poorly strategized.

“We were out-organized and out-funded by the Democrats,” said Campitelli, who lost the race for 2nd Ward to Lisa McClay.

Two years from now, the positions of mayor and both council at-large seats are up for re-election. Mayor Guenther has stated publicly that he is not running for re-election, but he said the same two years ago. It is thought by local pundits that DeLucry and Pullella could both aspire to the mayoral position, which could lead to some interesting politics.

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