The three Republican candidates for the Gloucester County freeholder board have been running an aggressive campaign this year, pointedly referring to two of the incumbents as double-dippers and noting that the third was part of a high-profile federal investigation.
The Democrats have been punching back, touting their accomplishments and accusing the challengers of relentless negativity.
With Democrats holding all seven freeholder seats, control of the Gloucester County board is not at stake this year. But the Republicans are pushing hard because they see an opportunity to win a seat after being denied for a decade.
"This is absolutely our year," said Steve Kush, spokesman for the Republican slate.
The Democratic freeholder candidates - including the powerful state Senate majority leader, Stephen M. Sweeney - say they have served voters well with regionalized services that save money. Sweeney is joined on the ticket by fellow incumbents Frank DiMarco and Warren Wallace.
The Republicans - Larry Wallace (no relation to Warren Wallace), Phyllis Scapellato and Dan Roberts - feel voters should toss out Sweeney and DiMarco because each holds two public jobs. Warren Wallace, they repeatedly mention, was fired from his job as a dean at the scandal-plagued University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey after a federal investigator labeled his activities unethical.
Sweeney, of West Deptford, was one of about 20 legislators who were exempted two years ago under a law that bans politicians from holding more than one elected office. The law was passed in 2007 to prevent conflicts of interest, power grabs and pension padding after public sentiment grew against politicians who hold multiple positions in government. A grandfather clause was built into the law for existing dual office-holders.
Sweeney, who has been on the freeholder board 11 years, 10 as director, initially said he would not seek another term after the law passed. He changed his mind.
DiMarco, who has been on the freeholder board six years, serves on the Deptford Township Council.
He did not return repeated calls for comment, but he told the Gloucester County Times: "It's about the job that you're doing. I enjoy doing both. One helped me to get here and the other helps me make decisions."
Sweeney also did not return calls for this story. But in earlier interviews, he said voters should have a right to choose whether they want him to continue as freeholder. He said he wanted to finish county projects he has started.
"When I first got here in 1997, I was excited about changing things," he said in a recent interview. He said he had worked hard on building a new courthouse, regionalizing emergency medical services and police and fire dispatch systems, and creating a combined special-services school district and vocational institute.
The GOP slate says Sweeney broke his promise not to seek reelection.
The GOP is also criticizing Warren Wallace, of Washington Township. In 2006, he was fired as an associate dean at UMDNJ after investigators said he inappropriately spent school time on freeholder business; helped a friend get a no-bid catering contract; and pressured officials to admit his daughter to the optometry school though she had not taken the medical entrance examination.
Wallace was never indicted and has denied any wrongdoing. He also released a statement saying he played no role in the approval of the contract and that the school traditionally granted entrance interviews to children of staff. His daughter later withdrew her application.
"I have not engaged in any criminal activity," he said in an interview. He said he would not answer more questions about the allegations because his lawyer will not allow it.
"I would say the lack of an indictment is hardly a ringing endorsement of his innocence," said Republican candidate Roberts, of Monroe Township. The allegations, Roberts said, should "give voters some concern that you don't want this man representing your interests. Unethical behavior is at the crux of why people are infuriated at politicians."
Warren Wallace has been mentioned as a possible witness or someone whose name may come up at the ongoing corruption trial of his close associate, former State Sen. Wayne Bryant, and fired UMDNJ dean R. Michael Gallagher. Wallace has family ties to Bryant and was on Gallagher's staff.
Warren Wallace, according to investigators, got Sweeney and other senators to sign a letter endorsing Gallagher's promotion to dean. Bryant also signed the letter. Gallagher is charged with creating a "low-show" job for Bryant at UMDNJ so that he could pad his pension.
Warren Wallace says he is worthy of reelection because of what he has done for voters. He mentioned the creation of the County Store at the Deptford Mall as his biggest project. The store provides a convenient way for taxpayers to apply for passports and conduct government business while shopping.
The GOP, however, says many county programs are a waste of taxpayers' money. The $20 million equestrian park and the "overbudgeted courthouse" are examples, said Scapellato, of Franklin Township.
"Do we need a horse park and a county golf course now?" she asked. "We need to cut taxes and make it affordable to live here, and think about recreation later."
But Sweeney, who oversaw the project, has said the DREAM horse park in Logan Township is a way to boost the economy with tourist dollars and also prevented the land from becoming a dumping ground for river dredge spoils.
"The hotels get filled, the restaurants are helped out. It's really a good thing for the region," Sweeney said.