Gloucester County worker William Mead understands the position he's in. "I'm running against my boss," he said.

Mead, a planning specialist, has mounted a campaign for state Senate as an independent, running with the tagline "Get a Grip," against Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democratic state senator who also serves as county freeholder director.

As often as he can, Mead, a union activist, parades alone at lunchtime in front of county office buildings with a bull's-eye taped to his buttocks to demonstrate against the slow pace of contract talks between government workers and the county government, headed by Sweeney.

In his blog and letters to local newspapers, Mead has called Sweeney a "union-busting backstabber," a "two-faced snake in the grass" and declared, "Steve 'The Rat' Sweeney makes me want to puke."

"It's a hatred of me," said Sweeney, who is a business agent for Ironworkers Union Local 399.

"He's called me so many bad things it's unreal. Normally, people who call people names are very light intellectually because they don't really have anything to add to the argument," Sweeney said. "You don't have to call somebody names to debate an issue."

Mead freely acknowledges his race is personal, but he has an expanded definition of the term.

"We're supposed to be a democracy," he said. "If we see things wrong in our government, we're supposed to be empowered to stand up and say it."

What's wrong?

In general, Mead says people want tougher bans on vendors giving campaign money to politicians, more transparent government, progressive taxes as opposed to property and sales taxes, and more care given to spending public money.

In particular, he objects to 2006 legislation Sweeney sponsored and withdrew that would have cut back state worker benefits, as well as Sweeney's management of county services, including a plan to rebuild Route 322 in Gloucester County that Mead says does not put enough emphasis on drainage.

Mead, 54, of West Deptford, has bumped heads before with Sweeney, 48, who also lives in West Deptford.

As a shop steward for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Local 1085, Mead went to a freeholder meeting to complain about working conditions. When he was cut off after speaking for five minutes in October 2006, he said that the freeholders' rule allowing five minutes for members of the public to speak was a violation of free speech. Sweeney said freeholders agreed to the rule to give everyone a chance to speak.

Mead went to a second meeting that October with labor supporters to lodge his working-condition complaints. He was met by dozens of construction tradesmen and other Sweeney supporters. When Mead addressed the freeholders, he said, he was frequently interrupted by ringing cell phones. Frustrated, Mead brought up a sexual-harassment suit against Sweeney, which has been dropped.

In June, after Mead filed his nominating petitions, county Democrats sued to have him tossed off the ballot, claiming signatures on his petition were defective. An administrative law judge threw out the case.

Mead has long sought public office, sometimes bucking his Democratic Party.

In 1985, he lost a Democratic primary for Pitman Borough Council against the party's endorsed candidates. He ran, he said at the time, because he felt pressured to resign from a local civic group called Neighborhood on Watch for frequently disagreeing with the borough's Republican establishment.

In 1986, he ran for freeholder, and in 1987 he ran for county clerk, losing both races.

In 1997, when Democrats failed to post a candidate for Gloucester County sheriff, Mead ran as a write-in and got on the ballot. The party removed his name from campaign literature when it learned that Mead had been accused of domestic violence by his sister and wife. Those complaints were dropped.

In that same race, Mead was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence from his county job at the Board of Elections after the state Attorney General's Office ruled that running for office and working for the elections board was a conflict of interest.

Though a union activist, Mead has not been endorsed by labor organizations, even those representing public workers. His own CWA Local 1085 is staying out of the race, according to local president Rich Dan.

The larger CWA locals, representing about 40,000 state workers, also are staying out of this race. They battled Sweeney last year when he introduced legislation cutting state worker benefits, and the AFL-CIO ordered Sweeney, the ironworkers' business agent, and public employee unions to make peace.

Republican Mark Cimino, a lawyer from Wenonah, also is running in this overwhelmingly Democratic district centered in Gloucester County but which takes in parts of Cumberland and Salem Counties.

Sweeney said he had been a good boss to Mead, approving Mead's request to come in a few minutes late to his job as a planning specialist after he takes his son to school. Mead said that didn't happen until his pay was docked and he filed a grievance.

Sweeney is running on a platform of getting aid for South Jersey communities, tightening up state spending, and lowering health-care costs and on his record, which includes raising the minimum wage and establishing a paid family leave.

He chairs the Senate's labor committee and sits on the budget, environmental and property committees.