Early in his campaign for a seat on the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders, underdog candidate Vince Nestore Jr. faced some particularly tough questioners.
"Mr. Nestorrrrr," they said, mangling his Italian surname to mimic an opponent's mudslinging political ad then airing on TV. "What's a freeholder? Are you going to be a mayor?"
Once the Delsea Regional High School physical education and health teacher survived the teasing by a roomful of his students, things had to get easier, Nestore figured.
That might have been optimistic.
Next month, Nestore and running mate Larry Wallace will became the first elected Republicans in a dozen years to sit on the freeholder board, the entity that runs county government. It was a contentious race in a jurisdiction where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans nearly 2-1 and the Democrats' $300,000 war chest was nearly triple the GOP campaign fund.
Even when it was over, it wasn't over: Nestore and Wallace were formally declared winners after a vote recount that ended Dec. 2.
When the former Deptford High School chums, both 48, are sworn in, they will be the only members of their party on the seven-member board. But they intend to be heard.
Nestore describes himself as a "Doberman pinscher" - never mind that he and his wife share their Deptford home with three bichon yorkies. He will attack whenever he believes taxpayers' money is being wasted, he said.
Wallace, who owns a dental-practice management company, nodded as he listened to his running mate.
No one "has ever accused me or Vince of being subtle," Wallace said. They expect to negotiate with the Democrats to get their ideas approved, but they won't sit idly by and watch "our motions get tabled," he said.
At Wallace's dining room table in Woolwich, the two men chatted about how they got involved in politics and what they hoped to accomplish.
They want to reduce taxes, promote transparency in local government, and privatize the county-owned Pitman Golf Course and DREAM equestrian park in Logan.
"We don't see ourselves as politicians. Politics is like a four-letter word. We prefer to be public servants," said Wallace. The married father of two daughters ran for freeholder three times, losing to a right-wing conservative last year in the GOP primary and to an incumbent freeholder in 2008.
Wallace teamed with Nestore this year against Democratic newcomers Heather Simmons of Glassboro and Robert Zimmerman of Mantua.
Nestore, who had never before run for public office, said he entered the race mainly because he wanted to control taxes. He learned the meaning of a hard-earned wage when he was a laborer for a few years before he went to college, he said. As a teacher, Nestore said, he hears from students about how their parents struggle to pay bills and keep their homes from foreclosure.
The Republicans won't be the only new faces on the board in January. Freeholder Director Stephen Sweeney has announced that he will resign his seat "by the end of the year" to devote more time to his other position, state Senate majority leader. The board's last meeting is Dec. 30.
Sweeney has led the board for more than a decade and would have faced reelection as a freeholder next November. The freeholders will appoint someone to fill his vacancy on the board and elect a new director from their ranks.
The possibility of a GOP freeholder victory in the Democratic stronghold appeared to strengthen after Republican gubernatorial candidate Christopher J. Christie and Assemblyman Domenic DiCicco won in Gloucester County in 2009.
During their campaign, Wallace and Nestore called their opponents "rubber stamps" of the Democratic machine, noting that they were nominated by a former county Democratic Party chairman, Michael Angelini, under investigation for pension abuses.
Simmons and Zimmerman responded that they were "independent thinkers" and retaliated with mailers that suggested the Republican candidates were apathetic toward people with cancer because their GOP "cronies" in Trenton had cut funds for cancer treatment programs.
Wallace, who lost his 9-year-old son to brain cancer, called the attack insensitive and said he would not have supported the program cuts had he been a state legislator. He and Nestore canceled plans to debate their opponents, saying they would not even "share a stage" with them.
Wallace believes the Democrats' mailing helped propel him and Nestore to victory. "It turned a lot of people off. It was dirty campaigning," he said.
Zimmerman later apologized and said he had been unaware of Wallace's loss.
Wallace said his interest in running for election was sparked in 2007, when he attended freeholder meetings to protest the county's plan to build the Route 322 Mullica Hill bypass on a portion of the cemetery where his son is buried.
The board was unresponsive to the public, he said, and the project is going through with minor alterations, including a buffer next to the cemetery.
Nestore also traced his interest in politics to grassroots interaction with the freeholders. He was part of a vocal crowd that attended a meeting in Washington Township four years ago, when county officials proposed consolidating schools. The plan was later tabled.
"I believe in home rule," said Nestore, who is "up in the air" on the idea of municipalities' sharing services.
Because he is concerned about rising taxes, Nestore said, he supports Gov. Christie's push for teachers to make sacrifices and be more accountable to the public.
His wife, Mary Ann, is a dental consultant whose salary was cut by $20,000 last year before she eventually was laid off. Now she is a sales-support specialist for a dental-product firm.
"I understand the need to sacrifice," Nestore said. As an educator, "I'm very thankful for what I have, the job I have, and what's been given to me by the public."
Nestore said he recently resigned as the boys' soccer coach at Delsea Regional to clear his calendar for his workload as freeholder.
Besides spending cuts, the men say they will push to open meetings and other freeholder sessions "as wide as possible," so that the public can watch and participate, Wallace said.
"Now, all you see when you go to a meeting is everyone votes yes, and 20 minutes later, it's over," he said.
Wallace said that he and Nestore work well together. The two Deptford High grads understand each other, he said.
"He was on the jock side and I was on the cool-kid side," Wallace joked. "We complement each other."
Nestore shook his head and chuckled.