Progressive Democrats who are trying to beat the entrenched Camden County Democratic Committee in the June primaries — under the hashtag of “unplug the machine” — are not just running against the endorsed candidates who have been in office as long as a decade.
The South Jersey Progressive Democrats say they must also compete against “phantom candidates” who don’t campaign but were recruited by the party establishment to clutter the ballot and confuse voters.
“I don’t know who they are,” said William Tambussi, an attorney who represents the Democratic Committee and its unofficial leader, George E. Norcross III, when asked about the six so-called phantoms who filed petitions to run for two open seats on the freeholder board.
He apparently isn’t alone, though the progressives say these candidates have ties to several elected members of the Democratic Committee. Democratic Committee Chairman Jim Beach did not respond to numerous calls for comment.
None of these freeholder candidates has a website or a Facebook page to tout accomplishments and make campaign pledges. None replied to numerous phone messages, texts, and emails when The Inquirer reached out to each of them to find out about their platforms and why they are running.
Two of the six candidates were Republicans until days before their petition to run for office was due last month, and two had never voted before in New Jersey.
Randall McGinnis Jr., the only candidate The Inquirer could reach for comment, said during a brief phone call: “OK, no problem, but I’m driving right now and can I give you a ring back? I don’t want to get pulled over, so please call me back.” He then hung up and didn’t respond to further calls.
McGinnis, 50, of Clementon, was a Republican who switched parties a few days before he submitted his petition to the clerk’s office. His running mate, Steven Panarello, 28, of Gloucester Township, had never voted before and hastily registered around the same time, in late March.
Dori Larm, 58, of Gloucester Township, took an extra measure to stay in the background. She scrawled “Do not publish phone # or email" on her petition. A few weeks later, her phone was disconnected.
Larm and her running mate, William Etymow, 26, of Mount Ephraim, were later disqualified because their petition fell short of the 100 signatures of registered voters a candidate must gather to run. Larm last voted in 2004, in a school board election. Etymow was a registered Republican until late March.
The party’s picks for local, county, and state office — including incumbent Freeholders Ed McDonnell and Carmen Rodriguez — appear on Column One of the ballot. They are running together in a solid line.
Column Two and Three each contain the names of a pair of so-called phantom freeholder candidates. They are not aligned with any other candidates. McGinnis and Panarello are in Column Two, while Jason Witte, 60, of Bellmawr, and Amanda Semple, 26, of Glendora are in Column Three.
The South Jersey Progressive Democrats, who are fielding an unprecedented 100 challengers for seats in all levels of government and in the party, all appear in Column Four, on the far right edge of the ballot.
The group could not participate in a drawing for a favorable spot on the ballot because only slates with freeholder candidates are eligible. The progressives’ two freeholder candidates were knocked off the ballot in April after Tambussi challenged their petitions, saying about 11 signatures that one of the candidates gathered were forged. He also argued that both candidates should be disqualified along with a proposed replacement candidate after one resigned.
Judy Amorosa, a lawyer and founder of the progressive group, which was organized in Cherry Hill two years ago, also challenged some petitions — those filed by the little-known freeholders in Column Two and Three. One petition didn’t have the candidates’ names filled in, and just had signatures of voters who support them. Another contained signatures that also appeared to be forged.
But the County Clerk’s Office, run by Democrat Joseph Ripa, who is running for reelection as an endorsed candidate, dismissed the complaint as having no merit. Ripa’s office asked the county prosecutor to investigate Tambussi’s claim of forgery, but not Amorosa’s claim.
Ripa did not respond to calls for comment. Amorosa declined to comment.
Matt Friedman, a reporter with Politico New Jersey, reached Witte a couple of weeks ago, and asked what he would do if he was elected. “Just stuff like parks and stuff like that, how kids don’t really have anywhere to go or anything like that. ... I don’t know, I didn’t really think it was going to be taken as seriously as it’s being taken," he said. Witte also did not know his running mate’s name.
Then, Witte explained that Bill Murray, president of the Black Horse Pike Board of Education, recruited him and said he would put him in touch with his “buddy,” Kevin.
Murray and Kevin Bucceroni, the board’s vice president, have both signed petitions of the so-called phantom freeholder candidates. And Bucceroni is an elected member of the Camden County Democratic Committee.
On Thursday, several members of the South Jersey Progressive Democrats questioned Bucceroni and Murray during the public portion of a school board meeting in Runnemede.
“Does this have anything to do with” the school district? Bucceroni asked after Chris Emrich questioned his role with the phantom candidates. When pressed by Emrich, a Collingswood lawyer who is working with the progressives, Bucceroni said: “I’m allowed to have personal business.”
Bucceroni, who’s been on the Democratic Committee for years, has signed the petitions of several so-called phantom candidates, including the one filed by Larm and Etymow, though they were challenging the party’s endorsed candidates. He also has received thousands of dollars for “election work" and “BBQ expenses" from the party organization in recent years, according to state election records.
After the meeting, he told The Inquirer: “Obviously if you see my name on a petition and it matches my signature, I must have signed it. ... Someone asked me to sign a petition and I signed it.”
Murray, the board president, told Emrich that Witte “was bending my ear and I said, ‘Then run for office and make the changes.’ I didn’t recruit him, because he was complaining to me about these things and I said, ‘Well run for office.’ ” Afterward, he declined further comment.
Kate Delany, who accompanied Emrich and who is running as a progressive for the Democratic Committee in Collingswood, said she attended the meeting to “follow up on the phantom candidates and find out why this was occurring. ... We were shut down and got no answers.”
One reason phantom candidates are used by parties is to create clutter and mislead voters, said Yael Niv, a Princeton University professor who heads the nonpartisan Good Government Coalition of New Jersey. The solid “party line” of endorsed candidates on a ballot gives the appearance that these are “serious candidates,” Niv said. “The rest of the candidates are strewn around the ballot and they look like kooks, not a person running a serious campaign.”
The phantom candidates are often "family members or cronies of the political machine. ... They don’t intend on winning, they’re just there to pad the ballot with names, so the contestors are just one out of 10 or more” people running against the party, Niv said.
Rena Margulis, a founder of the South Jersey Progressive Democrats and a candidate running for county clerk, said another problem is the phantoms use the word progressive in their slogans and voters can’t distinguish them from the candidates affiliated with the progressive group. So, this year the progressives are running together under the banner of “Democrats of Camden County.”
“The Camden County Democratic Committee has been using phantom freeholders in order to prevent local candidates who are running against the machine from having a chance and a fair ballot position,” she said.
(The story was updated to correct the spelling of the last name of Yael Niv.)