A nasty primary race is ripping apart the Gloucester County Republican Party just as it had begun to relish the idea of taking control of the Board of Freeholders for the first time in 15 years.

Three seats on the five-member board are up for grabs in November, one year after two Republicans broke the Democrats' exclusive 12-year hold on the governing body.

The Democrats have no primary Tuesday, but the Republicans have split into two camps, exposing a bitter rift between the county GOP chairman and a Republican legislator who represents the area.

Bill Fey, who led the Republicans to victory last year, is trading fiery jabs with freshman Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco, who supports three challengers against the endorsed slate.

"I took the bull by the horns to see if we could pull this party out of the mud, and we polished it up," said Fey, contending that the party had little presence in Gloucester before he took over two years ago. "I'm disappointed some individual groups understand that we were successful, and they want to jump in on our success."

But DiCicco said Fey's new slate was "put together at the last minute," just before the filing deadline in April and was not as strong as it could be. He complained about "the amount of angst that was created for the people who wanted to be candidates."

DiCicco called the challengers "independent thinkers, not [part of] the party machine."

The endorsed slate includes Elk Township Committeeman Mike Pantaleo, general manager of an engineering firm; former Wenonah Councilwoman Barbara Capelli, a banker; and vineyard and winery owner Penni Heritage of Harrison Township.

The challengers are Chris Cugini, a sales manager who twice was a candidate for Monroe Township Council; Washington Township school board member Andrew Walter; and Theresa Garvin-Keyser, a lawyer also from Washington Township.

Ron Brittin, a perennial candidate and independent Republican from Mantua, also is in the race.

The Democrats have endorsed incumbents Warren Wallace, Heather Simmons, and former Logan Township Councilman Lyman Barnes.

The GOP fissure began soon after Walter, director of sales for a moving company, failed to get an interview with the party's screening committee. DiCicco had recommended him and Cugini to party leaders in January.

Walter said he withdrew his name from consideration in early April because he still had not been granted an interview and believed he was "just being strung along."

Walter, who entered politics when he ran for school board last year, said he decided to run in the primary without an endorsement. He teamed with Cugini, who had gotten an interview but was not chosen, and Garvin-Keyser, a newcomer to politics whose name was not submitted to the screening committee.

Walter says two opponents - Capelli and Heritage - are placeholders who will not run in November. He said they were not real candidates, noting that Capelli was quoted in the Gloucester County Times as saying she had lost her job recently and put her family and career above holding political office.

But in an interview last week, Capelli and Heritage said they planned to stay in the race. "Shouldn't my family come first?" Capelli asked, dismissing the earlier quote as not relevant to her political ambitions.

DiCicco said that he initially was "just kind of staying out" of the contest, but that he believed the challengers were the better choice. "There is nothing wrong with primaries. I think they're healthy," he said.

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