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Delegates should get only 1 vote, N.J. lawsuit says

With national attention focused on the role of superdelegates in picking candidates, a federal lawsuit filed in Trenton this month sheds light on how voting is conducted at closed local party conventions and how it can escalate political infighting.

Frederick J. LaVergne , left, and Jim Keady both are seeking the Democratic nod to run for the Third Congressional District seat.
Frederick J. LaVergne , left, and Jim Keady both are seeking the Democratic nod to run for the Third Congressional District seat.Read more

With national attention focused on the role of superdelegates in picking candidates, a federal lawsuit filed in Trenton this month sheds light on how voting is conducted at closed local party conventions and how it can escalate political infighting.

The lawsuit alleges that several superdelegates at a Democratic mini-convention in Berkeley, Ocean County, voted more than once, which led to unfair endorsements for candidates vying for a seat in Congress and for county government. Calling it a "rigged voting process," the complaint said some delegates voted up to six times at the March 19 meeting before endorsements were made.

The plaintiffs are Scott Neuman and Tracy Caprioni, candidates running for county freeholder who failed to get endorsements; Robert DeBella, a member of the Ocean County committee; and Patricia Lindsay-Harvey, a Willingboro resident who supports Frederick J. LaVergne, a candidate seeking the Democratic nod to run for the Third Congressional District seat. The suit names the Ocean County Democratic Committee, various individual committee members, and others in the party organization.

Richard Luzzi, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, sought a court order to stop the June 7 primary and to void the endorsements. The two freeholder candidates and LaVergne are on the ballots that have been printed so far, but they contend they have been deprived of favorable ballot positions, as well as endorsements.

LaVergne is involved in the lawsuit as "an interested party." The race for the Third District seat against incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur has been targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as one that could be in contention in November.

The district spans Ocean and Burlington Counties and has been represented by Republicans for decades, except for 2009 to 2011, when Democrat John Adler was elected.

LaVergne won the support of the Burlington County Democratic Committee, but Ocean is backing Jim Keady, a former Asbury Park councilman, who said the DCCC offered to help fund his candidacy. This is the first time in decades that the Democratic committees of Burlington and Ocean have endorsed different candidates.

"Burlington held its convention early, but we could not support LaVergne, because he was not the best candidate," said spokeswoman Marta Harrison, a former vice president of the Ocean County committee. The Ocean committee chairman, Wyatt Earp, could not be reached for comment.

Harrison, who is named in the suit, said the Ocean committee had concerns about LaVergne because his house in Delanco, Burlington County, was up for sheriff's sale.

LaVergne, a loan officer, also ran for Congress in 2012 and 2014 as an independent candidate against the candidates whom the Democrats had endorsed, she said.

LaVergne did not respond to several requests for an interview, but replied to a Facebook message saying that he was the victim of "a political smear. . . . The strategy for my personal concerns is, well, personal." Earlier this month, he filed for bankruptcy. He also said that he has been registered as a Democrat since 1980 and is an "anticorruption candidate."

Joe Andl, chairman of the Burlington County Democratic Committee, has said LaVergne won Burlington's endorsement in a March 3 vote, before Keady entered the race. Andl considered holding a second vote to allow Keady to compete, but later changed his mind.

The suit said endorsements are "particularly important because the candidates who run on the 'party line' virtually always win." It said the U.S. Constitution calls for a "one person, one vote rule," contrary to the way Ocean held its mini-convention.

Harrison disputed the allegations. She said that the vote for Keady was 104-7, and that only about 20 of the roughly 200 delegates who were invited to vote were permitted to cast two to four ballots for each candidate. These 20 delegates, she said, hold multiple positions in the party and may vote once in each capacity. For example, a delegate may represent a town, serve on the executive board, and be appointed to a special committee, giving that person three votes, she said.

The chairman also may appoint 12 people as "at-large delegates."

These are not "superdelegates," though the lawsuit uses that term, she said. In the national Democratic organization, superdelegates are not elected and are free to vote for any candidate instead of being bound to the winner of the state's primary.

New Jersey laws allow a party chairperson to personally select candidates for endorsement, but the Ocean Democrats for many years used a screening committee to make the decision, Harrison said. It had about 30 members, mostly elected municipal representatives.

Five years ago, the county party changed the system and now holds a mini-convention and allows as many as 300 delegates to vote, Harrison said. Some delegates get extra votes, she said, because they "put more work into this and are more knowledgeable, and their opinion should have more weight than someone who is less involved."

Harrison said the Democrats have been the minority party in Ocean for decades, and they sometimes have difficulty recruiting qualified candidates who are willing to run as underdogs.

Besides the Ocean County committee, the lawsuit also names Keady. The suit said he violated rules when he collected signatures to become a candidate.

In April, LaVergne filed an objection to have the signatures voided, but an administrative law judge tossed out his complaint.

"Each candidate had equal opportunity to earn the votes of Ocean County delegates, and those delegates spoke loud and clear in giving me the nomination. . . . This lawsuit is just sour grapes," Keady said.

In 2012 and 2014, when LaVergne ran for Congress, he filed two lawsuits alleging various state and other officials deprived him of a favorable ballot position. At that time, he ran as a Democratic Republican and said he was denied his constitutional rights. The courts dismissed both suits.

jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler