You gotta start somewhere.
And for the Camden County progressives soundly defeated almost everywhere in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, somewhere to start is Collingswood.
An aggressive and adept grassroots campaign sparked by local issues but ultimately more about party boss George E. Norcross 3d culminated with the rebels defeating the regulars to take all 16 Collingswood seats on the Camden County Democratic Committee.
“Congratulations to them,” longtime Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, whose committee candidates lost, told me the morning after. “They won fair and square.”
With its lively downtown, leafy streets, and welcoming vibe, formerly sleepy Collingswood has become a dynamic, desirable place and a regional destination. An influx of younger residents, including LGBTQ people and others generally seen as progressive, make the borough of 14,000 an ideal incubator for this modest, but significant, political victory,
Camden County has been micro-managed if not ruthlessly ruled for more than two decades by a single party and a single man, and the Collingswood win was at least partly fueled by the spectacular feud between Norcross and Gov. Phil Murphy, two millionaire top-dog Democrats who might just as well have been on the ballot.
And a negative news tsunami about lavish tax breaks for Norcross-related redevelopment projects in nearby Camden, and questions about the Norcross party establishment encouraging phantom candidacies to clog the primary ballot and confuse voters, further energized the race.
But much of the credit for the victory belongs to the fierce little band of Democratic challengers, most of them political neophytes dismissed by Maley and others as motivated by a parochial wish list (including permission to have backyard chickens).
As discontent with the Democratic machine’s sharp elbows, spendthrift ways, and smug insularity has grown in Collingswood and other evolving Camden County communities like Oaklyn, Haddon Township, Cherry Hill, and Gloucester Township, new voices want to be heard. And Tuesday in Collingswood, they were.
“It was hard work,” committee member-elect Bill Johnson said. “With a one-party system, you don’t have a check-and-balance. Finally, at least in Collingswood, we will have some kind of a check-and-balance.”
Said Kate Delany, widely credited with helping foment and lead the rebellion: “We won by talking to voters. We knocked on a lot of doors. Two thousand doors.
“We did a lot of connecting with people in other groups, like [Democratic presidential hopeful] Bernie Sanders supporters, and organizations we are a part of, like South Jersey Women for Progressive Change,” said Delany. Her team also is allied with Cooper River Indivisible and an influential group of Cherry Hill progressives like Rena Margulis, whose own primary campaign to unseat machine-backed county clerk Joe Ripa was unsuccessful.
So what went right in Collingswood? Two partisan observers who live in the borough had, no surprise, different takes.
“There are a lot of young people in town who are tuned in to politics, a lot of liberals who understand that something is wrong with how things are going in Camden County,” said Matt Rooney, a Republican and a lawyer who is the voice of the influential SaveJersey.com website.
“There are also a lot of older professionals who realize that the added benefits they’ve been told for years the machine is giving them are just not there,” said Rooney.
A loyal Democrat who was active in the regular Democratic primary campaign in Collingswood and requested anonymity in this column blamed headlines about the Camden tax incentives for the defeat.
“If the incentive story were not in the newspaper every day between April and the primary, the challenger slate would not have succeeded,” he said, adding that the challengers waged a personal and nasty campaign that maligned individuals of “impeccable” ethics and other fine qualities.
“I object to the idea it was personal and nasty,” said Delany, adding that critiques of people “other than George Norcross” were not part of the campaign.
Having won, “we’re ready to make some noise,” she said. “We’re the underdogs, and it’s going to be an uphill fight.”
Indeed: The regular Camden County Democrats have deep pockets, deep demographic and voter data, and deep generational roots in communities across the county and beyond. The organization is a skillful and sophisticated prospector of fresh political talent, particularly among women and minorities. Many of the people it elects and employs are capable public servants.
But the Norcross machine also is an authoritarian purveyor of the politics of massive destruction. Nothing less than obliteration/annihilation will do for disloyal insiders, or for smart, upstart outsiders with the temerity to make a credible challenge. How dare they!
Consider the premature postelection press release put out by the Camden County Democratic Committee on which the Collingswood victors will be a tiny minority.
In the release, the committee gushed praise on its own self-described progressiveness before unleashing a vituperative fusillade against a single individual: Sue Altman, a rising Camden activist who really, really must have gotten under the boss’ surprisingly thin skin.
In a tone that was triumphalist — if not Trumpian — the premature release crowed that a nefarious plot by rebel Dems associated with “lifelong Republican” Altman to enlist various unnamed villains to “infiltrate” the apparently sacrosanct ranks of the county organization had been utterly and righteously foiled.
The release proclaimed that the forces of evil had failed to "win a single seat” in Camden and everywhere else in the county.