The race to be the Democratic mayoral nominee in Washington Township pits a party-endorsed former council president against a first-time candidate who launched the petition drive that brought a tougher pay-to-play law to town.

The winner of that June 3 primary will be the front-runner in the fall in Gloucester County's most populous township, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-1 and hold every elected position.

Matt Lyons, 42, said he wants to return to public office to fix problems that occurred after he left two years ago.

His opponent, 30-year-old Josh Aronovitch, said he wants to make local government operations more accessible and transparent for local residents.

Whoever emerges from their primary battle will take on Republican Theresa Lappe, who is running unopposed for her party's nomination in the general election.

Lyons, a Villanova law graduate who works for the county legal department, is supported by the local party and unions in the area.

Aronovitch, a Harvard graduate, emerged on the political landscape last year, when he collected nearly 1,800 signatures and forced a reluctant council to adopt a tougher pay-to-play ban.

Pay-to-play is a practice in which campaign contributors are rewarded with government contracts, often without bids. A state law bars the practice, but it has loopholes that local governments can address.

As the race has heated up, both sides have gone negative.

Aronovitch has accused his opponent of a federal election law violation that could disqualify Lyons from the race. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating. He also has said Lyons is playing "the failed politics of the past." Lyons has called Aronovitch desperate and hypocritical.

The two men, both longtime Washington Township residents, are fighting for the seat to be vacated by Paul Moriarty, a former KYW television newsman who decided against seeking a second term, citing personal reasons. Moriarty, also a state assemblyman, had come under fire as a dual office-holder who collects two public salaries.

Aronovitch works for Pepper Hamilton, a law firm with offices in Philadelphia, in mergers and acquisitions. Aronovitch, who interned in the Clinton White House, became involved in local government last year after council rebuffed his recommendation to pass a strong pay-to-play ban designed to control corruption.

"Pay-to-play is a form of legalized bribery," Aronovitch said.

In September, after the signatures were validated, the council adopted the ban Aronovitch wanted, one of the strictest in the state.

Aronovitch is also critical of the council's practice of offering businesses tax breaks that he says are not warranted. His Web site,

» READ MORE: www.joshformayor.com

, outlines other "clean government" proposals, including a call for a state audit that zeroes in on wasteful spending practices.

Lyons said he supported a pay-to-play ban in 2005, voting for an ordinance that had capped contributions from municipal contractors at $400. The new ban strengthens that by prohibiting county party organizations and others from funneling donations to municipal candidates.

Lyons has accused Aronovitch of "talking out of both sides of his mouth," because Aronovitch works for a law firm that "donates hundreds of thousands to elected officials and does monumental government contract work."

Aronovitch replied that he is just one of more than 500 lawyers at Pepper Hamilton, and said the firm doesn't contract with Washington Township.

Lyons served eight years on council and quit in 2006 because he felt ignored after Moriarty and two other unendorsed council candidates were swept into office in 2004.

"I felt less effective on council," he says. He also said he had wanted to spend more time with his three children while they were young.

Lyons said he wants to return to township government because he is concerned about longtime residents who are struggling to pay rising tax bills.

"I want to constantly fight for cost savings and fiscal responsibility," he said. "I want to make it affordable to live here and will run a fine-tooth comb through every expenditure."

Lyons blamed the current administration for failing to control taxes and for creating strife among council, schools, the Fire Department, and other agencies. He said Moriarty's predecessors did a better job of running the township and he wants to take it back to a time when it was affordable and prosperous.

But if Aronovitch has his way, Lyons may not get a chance. Aronovitch recently contacted a federal agency to look into whether Lyons violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits anyone whose salary is fully or partially paid with federal funds from running for public office. The intent of the law is to prevent a conflict of interest. Lyons has handled the county's social services cases, which are supported with federal funds.

Lyons dismissed the accusation as an "act of desperation," and said he was moved two months ago to a different assignment in the legal department that does not rely on federal funding.

Aronovitch, who is running on a "Campaign for Change" platform, also hit Lyons' ties to the Democratic-controlled county government, which has been his employer for a year. "Voters don't want someone tied in with political machines and political bosses," Aronovitch said.

He said his donors were people who gave an average of $150. He said his opponent had been accepting donations of $5,000 from various unions.

Lyons said that as mayor he would work only for town residents. He said he was proud to accept union donations and to advocate for labor. Ray MacDowell, a running mate seeking a council seat, is business agent of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 322. Lyons also worked a few years for Spear Wilderman, a Cherry Hill labor-law firm.

Lyons' other running mate is council candidate Scott Newman, a part owner of American Title Abstract Corp. Newman and MacDowell have not run for political office before.

Aronovitch is running with newcomers Trish Pisauro, who worked as an adviser to Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell when he was Philadelphia mayor, and Lisa Passero, a registered nurse at Cooper University Hospital.

Township Councilwoman Anita LaPierre is running for reelection in the Democratic primary - alone and without her party's endorsement. Moriarty and Councilman Frank Scarpato 3d, her running mates in 2004, unexpectedly dropped out of the race last month, she said.

LaPierre said that she had been the lone dissenter on council, voting occasionally against ordinances and budgets that she felt were irresponsible.

"I believe in doing my homework, looking into an issue, and listening to people," she said. She calls herself "an independent thinker."

The mayor and council members in this township of 47,000 people are all Democrats. There are 14,400 registered Democrats in the township, 7,700 Republicans, and 13,700 unaffiliated voters.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler

at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.