For 16 years, John Burzichelli was mayor of Paulsboro, a blue-collar riverfront community in the shadow of two refineries.

Seldom was his authority challenged in the Democratic stronghold of about 6,500 residents, known for its varsity wrestling prowess and as a breeding ground for many Gloucester County politicians.

Burzichelli, who is also deputy speaker of the state Assembly, is wrapping up his last term as mayor. His announcement a few weeks ago was met with surprise - and then a scrappy fight for his seat.

Two longtime councilmen, former wrestlers at Paulsboro High who were running mates for more than a decade, are locked in a match for the title.

As Tuesday's primary election nears, Democrats John A. Giovannitti and Willard Jeffery Hamilton are knocking on doors and delivering their pitches. Giovannitti, the party's endorsed candidate, has served on council for 11 years; Hamilton has been on for 111/2 years.

No Republicans filed petitions to run in November.

Giovannitti and Hamilton are friends, and neither criticizes the other in speeches or on fliers, but each seems to be in it to win.

"I've got to get out there. I'm sorry I don't have time to talk," Hamilton, 54, a county Clean Communities program coordinator, said in an abbreviated phone interview.

He sees his role as "listening to the community" and "bringing back the pride" in a town with too many shuttered businesses. Improved police relations and more recreation facilities also are on his list.

Giovannitti, 49, director of the school district's child study team, said he had wanted to be mayor for the last four years but never approached Burzichelli.

"He's well-respected in the community," Giovannitti said. "You don't ask; you just wait."

He relishes the idea of possibly becoming the "go-to person who runs and chairs the meetings and brings leadership to the town."

He would crack down on absentee landlords, have more dialogue with the Police Department on residents' quality-of-life issues, and make sure locals are hired when the Port of Paulsboro shipping terminal project is completed, Giovannitti said.

Burzichelli is one of four dual-officeholders in the county who this year gave up one of their political positions. Though a state law now bars the practice, officials who already had multiple posts were allowed to keep them.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Freeholders Frank J. DiMarco and Joe Chila all recently opted to surrender one of their titles.

"I've completed 16 years, and that's a good piece of public service," Burzichelli said. "You have to pass the ball."

His father, John D. Burzichelli, also was mayor of Paulsboro for 16 years, he said.

"So there's been a Burzichelli as mayor for 32 years," Burzichelli said with a chuckle. "It's hard to believe the time passed so quickly."

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.