In South Jersey, upstart candidates found edge in social media
"The beginning of something big." That's how Jennifer O'Donnell, a Republican and the apparent winner of a school board seat Tuesday in Democratic-controlled Gloucester Township, describes the nonpartisan contest's unofficial results.
"The beginning of something big."
That's how Jennifer O'Donnell, a Republican and the apparent winner of a school board seat Tuesday in Democratic-controlled Gloucester Township, describes the nonpartisan contest's unofficial results.
"It's a peek into the township's future," adds the mother of two, 46, who ran unsuccessfully for township council in 2015 and has been faithfully attending, recording, and uploading videos of school board meetings to YouTube.
If all politics is local, in Camden County politics also seem increasingly social - as in social media.
Lively, ostensibly nonpartisan Facebook pages devoted to Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township, and Pennsauken are functioning like town criers and town halls.
"I had been president of the local Republican club, but this is not a partisan effort. We're trying to get people interested in running for school board," says Bill Chester, a founder and administrator of the Pennsauken Talks page on Facebook.
In Tuesday's elections, antipolitical establishment candidates Rick Short and Cheryl Link lost bids for the Cherry Hill council and Pennsauken school board, respectively.
Still, they insist the mighty Camden County Democratic organization might indeed be vulnerable - despite the fact that Republican hopefuls are competitive in only a handful of Camden County municipalities, and no GOP candidate has won a freeholder race in 20 years.
"Now I have a medium. It's Facebook," says Short, 49, whose tireless campaign against red-light cameras helped rid the state of the infernal devices in 2014.
A Republican and a self-employed father of four, he lost to Democrat Carolyn Jacobs by about 6,000 votes Tuesday; he also ran for council and lost in 2015.
"With Facebook as my [megaphone], I can get people pumped," added Short.
Says Gloucester Township activist Peter Heinbaugh, "We're getting the word out and taking names."
The Cherry Hill United, Gloucester Township Tax Revolt, and Pennsauken Talks pages offer a mix of news, advocacy, and municipal minutiae, as well as calls-to-arms and deep dives into documents.
"The only way we could start exposing what's going on at all levels [of government] was to start Pennsauken Talks," says Link, 55, whose bid for a township school board seat fell short.
Social media are "waving a flag of discontent," says Ray Polidoro, a longtime GOP leader in Gloucester Township.
In Voorhees, "there's no question that social media has enabled a hardworking Republican to compete against a machine that has unlimited resources and every advantage," says Michael Friedman, the lone GOP member of the township council.
A father of four, Friedman was reelected Tuesday to a third term.
The township's What's Up Voorhees page is generally apolitical, and while Friedman campaigned via social media he also says he "knocked on 5,500 doors" across the township.
State Sen. James Beach (D., Camden), who heads his party's county organization, calls social media an "important tool, in combination with a good candidate . . . especially since the millennials don't buy newspapers."
But tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snap are no substitute for hard work.
"You have to be out there meeting and talking to people," he notes.
"Our organization has succeeded because an awful lot of people have put in an awful lot of hours of hard work," adds Beach.
"We try to pick really good people to be our candidates. We have a lot of dedicated people who make it work."
While that's true enough, the county Dems aren't just an industrious bunch of regular folks but a state-of-the-art, suburbanized, professionalized version of a bare-knuckled urban political machine, with deep pockets, deep data, and generations of foot soldiers to draw upon.
So it's difficult for local Republican organizations to persuade potentially credible candidates to run.
Meanwhile, challenges within the Democratic family typically get crushed, as the social media-friendly but unknown young upstart Alex Law learned in his June primary challenge to Rep. Donald Norcross.
But Law's earnest, diligent, and underfunded campaign enabled him to win in four county towns.
And hopes of successfully challenging the machine perfected by George E. Norcross III spring eternal - online and off.
Polidoro and Heinbaugh point out the Democratic political establishment's shock at Donald Trump's triumph; O'Donnell notes the continued uproar over a colossal property-tax increase in Gloucester Township.
"People's eyes are opening," she says. ". . . I think we're onto something here."