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Race-baiting ads backfired, says Sikh who broke barriers in South Jersey freeholder race

Balvir Singh, overcoming race-baiting attack ads, became the first Sikh American to be elected to the Burlington County Freeholder Board.

Balvir Singh (left) and Tom Pullion, who won election to the Burlington County Board of Freeholders Nov. 7, 2017
Balvir Singh (left) and Tom Pullion, who won election to the Burlington County Board of Freeholders Nov. 7, 2017Read moreFACEBOOK

Balvir Singh, a high school math teacher, became the first Sikh to be elected to the Burlington County Freeholder Board  and may be the first in the state to win a countywide seat.

His victory came the same day as a high-profile win by another Sikh, Democrat Ravi Bhalla, who was elected mayor of Hoboken, N.J.

Singh said Wednesday that the race-baiting political ads that mocked his name and suggested he would protect criminals who are immigrants had backfired. Singh, of Burlington Township, and his running mate, Tom Pullion of Edgewater Park, won seats on the five-member board, which currently is all-Republican.

Trump's victory last November persuaded Singh to run for office. "Last year's election was pretty much a defining moment on how my family will be seen in this country … whether we will be judged on our skin color or seen as actual Americans, who are part of the American fabric," he said.  "I put my name in and said, I am ready."

But Singh said he couldn't believe the tone of the GOP campaign.  "It was ugly campaigning. … It was heartbreaking," Singh said.

Numerous TV ads that ran in the Philadelphia market called him "very tax-Singh," saying he was responsible for tax increases that were approved when he served on the township's board of education.  Literature mailed to homes also used that slogan, which Singh said demeans all Sikhs, because the religion's leaders hundreds of years ago asked followers to all take the name "Singh" to show they were equal and not relegated to a caste system.

Sikhs, with males typically but not universally wearing a turban as an article of faith, are adherents of a monotheistic religion founded by the 15th century spiritual leader Guru Nanak and centered in India.

Some of the opposition campaign literature, Singh said, artificially darkened his complexion and made his eyes bulge.

"Facebook ads … were calling me a 'third world idiot, a dumb Muslim,' and others were asking if anyone had checked my citizen status," Singh, 32, said.  He said that he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1999, when he was 14.

Bhalla, too, reportedly was targeted with racially charged campaign fliers in the closing days of his campaign.

Singh and Pullion's Republican opponents, incumbents Linda Hughes of Evesham and Freeholder Director Bruce Garganio of Florence, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.  Nor did their campaign manager, Josh Foote, or their political consultant, Chris Russell.

Singh and Pullion also said their opponents never called to concede their loss. Instead, Garganio posted a statement on his Facebook page at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday congratulating the winners.

"I have truly enjoyed serving the residents of Burlington County. … The results of last night's election were not what we were looking for, but the people have spoken.  Elections are hard fought, but when they are completed Republicans and Democrats need to work together for the people. … I congratulate Freeholder-elect Tom Pullion & Balvir Singh for a great job and good luck as you move into your new positions," he wrote on Facebook.

Pullion, a former Edgewater Park mayor, committeeman, and school board member, also said that the mudslinging had ultimately hurt the GOP.  "With all the negativity people are experiencing in the country, people are negatived to death.  People want to hear who you are, what you are made of, and what you want to do, and we did a really good job of telling voters how we felt about the issues," he said.

Pullion ran unsuccessfully for freeholder in 2014.

The board has been controlled by the GOP for decades, but the Democrats hope to take control in the 2018 midterm elections, which are expected to draw a larger turnout.

Pullion was the top vote-getter, with 26.56 percent of the vote, followed by Singh, who defeated Garganio by a 2,300-vote margin, according to unofficial results. Hughes, who was named to the board to fill a vacancy last year, came in last.

Democrats were last elected to the board in 2012, but Joanne Schwartz of Southampton and Aimee Belgard of Edgewater Park lost their bid for re-election, giving the Republicans a monopoly on the board.