Garfield DeMarco greets me from his recliner, his walker within easy reach, his legs beneath a blanket bearing the logo of Dartmouth, his undergraduate alma mater.
The onetime Republican boss of Burlington County is 80 now, maintaining his independence with the help of old friends-turned-caretakers, living in an unassuming house in Hammonton, the town where he grew up.
DeMarco doesn’t so much shake my hand as embrace it with a purpose and a power that are startling, as well as heartening. He laughs easily and often. And in a lively recent conversation, he was agile-minded, quick-witted, and delightfully blunt about his personal and political evolution, as well as the sorry state of our politics.
“ I was always a lefty Republican — like a pink elephant — and I’m now a registered independent,” he said. “I had no trouble at all voting for Hillary Clinton."
DeMarco gets his TV news from CNN. His taste in magazines runs to The Nation and The Economist, thanks to Antoinette Gugliotta, a colorful (“she was a hoot”) if exacting Hammonton High School teacher who urged her students to read broadly, deeply, and with open minds.
He likes Beto O’Rourke, the telegenic Texan who put up a good fight against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and dismisses other potential Democratic candidates for president, like Joe Biden, as “too old.”
As for Donald Trump?
“Trump is Trump. It’s the support he’s achieved that really bothers me,” DeMarco said. “There’s an undercurrent of racism in it. I really believe that. There’s an awful lot of hate and vitriol, and Trump is exploiting it.”
DeMarco said he learned values of tolerance for others from his parents, who were cranberry farmers in Atlantic and Burlington Counties. His father, who had been a Republican but switched parties and became an influential Atlantic County Democrat, “was always for the underdog.”
Young Garfield learned a lot listening to conversations among local pols gathered at the DeMarco kitchen table, where helping constituents “who needed food, or needed coal” was a not-infrequent topic. The death of his father in a car crash led him to take over the family business not long after graduating from Yale Law School, and delayed his own entry into politics.
But in the 1970s, DeMarco became a Republican at the urging of the bow-tied, crew-cutted, Quaker conservationist Edwin Forsythe, the congressman from Moorestown. “It was a different party then,” said DeMarco, who ran the GOP organization in Burlington County from 1974 to 1991 and “kept it a few steps away” from candidates and others who sought to pull it rightward.
DeMarco had known he was gay since childhood and as an adult pursued numerous romances with other men; his private life was whispered about but never became a public issue. That may have been due to what he called “my blue-haired ladies lunches" at Le Bec-Fin and his packed, big-ticket fund-raising soirees at the same Philly restaurant during its haute cuisine prime.
"It was hard for people to use my being gay against me, because as county chairman I wasn’t running for office,” DeMarco said. “And I kept producing victories. I never lost an incumbent.”
Many of the photos on the wall of his den show family, friends, politicians, and celebrities — including Pope John Paul II — long gone.
There’s a fabulous, framed color shot of the man himself at 22, shirtless and buff on the beach in Margate, and another of his longtime boyfriend, now husband, Billy Wilson. The two don’t share a home but see each other often and “are still very much together,” said DeMarco.
I didn’t notice any photos of his cousin Kellyanne Conway, who also grew up in and around Hammonton and has been a key and often controversial figure since the beginning of the Trump administration.
“Kellyanne is a very skilled political operative. Very capable,” DeMarco said. "But I wonder how she can reconcile Trump’s behavior and attitude with her deep religious belief.
“I have a lot of respect for Kellyanne. I like Kellyanne, she’s part of my family. Her great-grandmother was my dad’s sister. And her mother and her aunts have been very close to me.”
Although he said he prefers to be “just an interested spectator on the political scene,” DeMarco clearly relished his days of running the GOP. “I’m proud of selecting good people and promoting good government,” he said.
He also likes tossing a comment or two into the frenzy on Facebook. But he prefers to engage with people face-to-face. These days, seeing friends and family is among his chief pleasures.
“But there’s always that touch of sadness when we get together, because at my age, people are always dying,” he said. “But I’m comfortable. I’m well taken care of.”
As I take my leave, DeMarco took my hand in that powerful grip one more time.