The Gloucester County Republican Party has splintered into four factions - a rarity - in the primary race for two seats on the Democratic-controlled Board of Chosen Freeholders.
That's one more slate than last year, when infighting broke the party into two rival groups and a third, conservative faction aligned with gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan.
The Democrats have an uncontested primary on Tuesday, with two newcomers: Heather Simmons, a public-relations consultant from Glassboro, and Robert Zimmerman, a police captain and Mantua Township committeeman. They entered the race after incumbent Democrats Joseph A. Brigandi Jr. and Jean DuBois said they would not seek another term because of personal obligations.
In a county with nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, Democrats have controlled the seven-seat board for more than 20 years.
But the GOP sees voter discontent as an opportunity to end one-party rule - that is, if Republicans can rally behind two candidates after the primary. Wounds from last year's bruising contest linger, while differences over what is true conservatism threaten party unity.
The GOP's endorsed candidates are Larry Wallace of Woolwich and Vincent Nestore Jr. of Deptford, who are on the ballot under Regular Organization Republican. Wallace, who owns a dental practice management company, lost freeholder races in November 2008 and last year's primary. Nestore, a Franklin Township eighth-grade teacher, is new to politics.
Wallace is optimistic, saying the party reorganized last year under a new chairman, Bill Fey, and has a solid plan for victory.
"We have the infrastructure in place to actually take two seats," he said. "We have put together a team of people to build a party that knows what it is doing, knows how to run a campaign and how to win."
The others in the primary, he said, don't have that advantage.
Wallace and Nestore have criticized the freeholders for "irresponsible spending," for using "smoke and mirrors" to claim the budget is lean, and for conducting the public's business "in the backroom," an issue that gained ground after a court decision this year.
Judges found the freeholders had violated the Open Public Meetings Act in recent years by approving legal settlements and paying a bonus, among other things, in closed sessions. The freeholders said the law was unclear because of privacy clauses and revoted on two issues in open session to resolve the problem.
Challenging the endorsed candidates are Rose Yerka of Woodbury Heights and Brandon Gurk of Mantua under the Gloucester County GOP banner. Gurk and Yerka, who unsuccessfully ran for Borough Council twice in the last five years, are aligned with Loran Oglesby, who was ousted as GOP chairwoman a year ago after a battle for party control.
"I see a lot of negative in my party," Yerka said. She complained that the party was torn apart by "backstabbing and false information" that brought down Oglesby. Oglesby is now running in the primary for a U.S. House seat in the First District, and Gurk, a former executive director of the Gloucester County Republican Committee, is her campaign coordinator.
Yerka, a personal wellness coach, and Gurk, an assistant store manager, want to give Republican voters a choice.
"I'm a regular person who was called to come forward" to represent and help people, rather than doing the bidding of the GOP leadership, Yerka said. Her husband has been laid off twice in recent years, and she feels the freeholders should do more to save jobs and provide more programs for the needy instead of building "a large surplus."
Gurk said he wanted the county to have "a two-party system."
A third slate, Conservative Republicans for Gloucester County, comprises Andy Savicky, a psychiatrist and professor from Glassboro, and Patrick Schubert Sr., a factory foreman from Paulsboro.
Savicky, who has run for sheriff, freeholder, and the Assembly in recent years, said Schubert had campaigned for him in the past. Schubert lost a bid for Borough Council last year.
"We have no allegiance to anyone but the voters who hire us," Savicky said. Their platform is to create jobs, especially in law enforcement and education, and reduce taxes so small employers and others don't flee the state.
Savicky also said they would go after the county's $50 million surplus, which he said could be used to reduce unemployment and taxes and help seniors and veterans.
Perhaps the most conservative of the factions is Conservative Republicans Putting Taxpayers First, whose candidates are Ron Brittin of Mantua and Tony Celeste of Monroe.
Brittin campaigned for Savicky in past elections but said the surplus should be used strictly to reduce taxes. He said he believed in the ideals espoused by the tea party organization, especially smaller government, but had not joined the group because he distrusted the leadership.
Brittin won the GOP primary for freeholder last June, with Lonegan at the top of his ticket, but lost in November. A landscaper who's been unemployed for 10 years, Brittin ran for the Assembly as a Democrat in 1999 and later ran twice for Township Committee as a Republican.
Celeste, an automobile dealership service manager, recently ran for his school board.
Brittin said the current party leadership was not conservative enough. "I think the public is beginning to recognize that both parties have let them down," he said. "We're a deviation from the party line."
Regular Organization Republican
Gloucester County GOP
for Gloucester County
Putting Taxpayers First