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Progressives and Camden County Democratic machine wage all-out war in primary race

The Camden County Democratic Committee is facing an unprecedented challenge from a slate of about 100 progressive candidates saying it’s time to “unplug the machine.” Both sides are waging an acrimonious campaign.

Deputy Clerk John Schmidt holds the box as Camden County Clerk Joseph Ripa, a longtime Democrat running for reelection in a nasty primary race, selects the names of campaign slogans to determine ballot placement in 2016.
Deputy Clerk John Schmidt holds the box as Camden County Clerk Joseph Ripa, a longtime Democrat running for reelection in a nasty primary race, selects the names of campaign slogans to determine ballot placement in 2016.Read more--- Elizabeth Robertson / File Photograph

Galvanized by a blue wave that brought fresh faces into government in November, an unprecedented 107 progressives united under one banner this year to buck the endorsed candidates of the entrenched Camden County Democratic Committee in the June 4 primaries.

But even with these numbers, it will be tough for the progressives to make inroads against a party establishment that has controlled the county and most local governments for nearly three decades under George E. Norcross III, the party’s unofficial leader.

Earlier this month, the county machine moved to strike a crippling blow against the South Jersey Progressive Democrats by petitioning the County Clerk’s Office to disqualify two of their key candidates, claiming their petitions to run for freeholder contained 11 forged signatures. A candidate must obtain the signatures of 100 registered voters to get on the ballot.

The progressives pushed back, saying that several other petitions filed by other candidates in the primary contained signatures that appeared to be written “by the same hand” and that these were not investigated with the same level of scrutiny by County Clerk Joseph Ripa, who decides whether a petition is valid.

Ripa, who’s been the clerk for 10 years, is running for reelection and is endorsed by the Democratic Party.

“In what country can you remove from the ballot your political opponents? Norcross Country,” Rena Margulis, a progressive candidate for county clerk, said in a recent interview.

The invalid signatures were found only on petitions submitted by freeholder candidate Jerome Taylor, while his running mate, Jennifer O’Donnell, submitted petitions with 170 signatures that weren’t challenged. Yet O’Donnell’s candidacy was also rejected.

Ripa did not respond to numerous calls requesting comment.

The race has turned acrimonious, with both the Democratic organization and the progressives accusing each other of running fake candidates. The progressives say the party machine is running “phantom candidates” who are not campaigning just to crowd the ballot and confuse voters. The Democratic Committee says the progressives are running Republicans disguised as Democrats.

Margulis questioned the decision to cancel O’Donnell’s candidacy. “In America, you do not penalize someone for something they did not do," she said.

The loss of the freeholder candidates also hurts the whole slate.

To qualify for a solid column on the ballot and to participate in a drawing for favorable placement, a slate must have freeholder candidates. Margulis said that when the freeholder candidates were disqualified, the progressive slate was denied a bracket, which would have grouped the candidates together. Now the slate is in “ballot Siberia," mixed in with candidates not on the slate, she said.

Mailed to residents last week, the primary ballot shows Column One is occupied by endorsed candidates who are running together “on the party line” for Assembly, freeholder, clerk, mayor, local councils, and party committee.

Columns Two and Three each contain the names of two freeholder candidates who are not endorsed and are running alone. The progressive slate landed in Column Four, at the far right, where candidates’ names are sprinkled between empty boxes and the names of other “dissidents," as the clerk’s office calls challengers without freeholder candidates.

The progressive slate is running under the slogan “Democrats of Camden County."

The Republican primary ballot only has a contested race for two Assembly seats and for seats in two municipal races.

William Tambussi, who represents the Democratic Committee and who is also Norcross’ personal attorney in some legal matters, said Ripa recused himself from making decisions on the ballot since he is running and asked Deputy Clerk John Schmidt to step in.

Schmidt, the deputy clerk since 2012, said he was hired by Ripa and serves “at his pleasure.”

Tambussi said he challenged Taylor’s petitions in early April on behalf of the Democratic Committee and its endorsed freeholder candidates – incumbents Ed McDonnell and Carmen Rodriguez — because they appeared to contain forgeries.

Taylor apparently signed on behalf of his wife, and also signed an affidavit certifying under oath that all signatures were valid even though three other people apparently signed multiple times, resulting in 11 potentially forged signatures, Tambussi said.

Tambussi requested the clerk disqualify both candidates because the petitions were filed jointly, even those that were circulated separately. “The petitions were fraudulent ... so that disqualifies those candidates identified in the petitions,” he said in an interview.

Schmidt said the county solicitor recommended notifying the prosecutor because Tambussi’s challenge contained “allegations of fraud.” Schmidt said he didn’t ask the prosecutor to look into the progressives’ challenges to other petitions because they focused on signatures of people who didn’t live at a particular address or weren’t registered voters, rather than fraud.

But the complaint that the South Jersey Progressive Democrats filed with the clerk said several signatures on the petitions of two other freeholder candidates — who they say are “phantoms” — appear to be from the “same hand,” or forged. When asked why that was different from Tambussi’s allegation, Schmidt said, "I’m not sure how to answer that one, sorry.”

Tambussi said fraud is serious and should be investigated. He also defended the design of the ballot, saying, “Voting machines are designed to hold a certain amount of names, and the clerk by law has discretion to strike a ballot that’s fair and reasonable. Not everyone likes that, but that doesn’t mean the ballot is wrong and unfair.”

Norcross and Jim Beach, a state senator who is chairman of the Democratic Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Most of the candidates on the progressive slate are running for a seat on the Democratic Committee, which is involved in party business and endorsements. About two dozen other candidates on the slate are running for Assembly, county clerk, and mayor or council in the county’s three biggest municipalities — Cherry Hill, Camden and Gloucester Township — and six other towns.

The South Jersey Progressive Democrats organized two years ago as a grass-roots coalition in Cherry Hill. It expanded into other parts of the county over the past year, recruiting like-minded candidates.

Before the ballot drawing was held this month, the progressives challenged the bracketing decision in court but were rebuffed.

The progressives said the ballot is also unfair because it contains several phantom candidates who often use “progressive” in their slogans to confuse voters and crowd the ballot.

The freeholder candidates in Column Two and Three have no website or social media page and no apparent platform, and have not responded to calls for comment.

Rob Carlson, who is with the progressive slate, and who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress against Rep. Donald Norcross in last year’s primary, said he saw firsthand the effect of ballot positioning. The 1st Congressional District in New Jersey spans Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties, and he said he got only 6.9 percent of the vote in Camden, when his name appeared in Column Nine, far from Norcross’ name in Column Two. Carlson said he received 16 percent of the votes in Gloucester and 24 percent in Burlington when his name was close to his opponent’s name.

“Bracketing definitely hurt me," Carlson said. “In the other counties, they grouped everyone by putting candidates who were running for the same office next to one another.... I didn’t have illusions of winning, but I did it on principle, because someone should run even when they do this."