MAYS LANDING, N.J. - Democratic challenger Vince Mazzeo was again declared the winner over Republican incumbent John Amodeo as a tense recount of ballots in their Second District Assembly race concluded Tuesday evening.
The two finished 39 votes apart, almost exactly where they were a little over two weeks ago when certified totals had Mazzeo up by 40 over Amodeo.
Vote totals were 25,166 for Mazzeo and 25,127 for Amodeo after all mail-in and provisional ballots were hand-counted in a courtroom turned boardroom in the historic former courthouse that is now the home of the Atlantic County Board of Elections.
Mazzeo, 49, mayor of Northfield, was certified as the winner on Nov. 19 by the Atlantic County Clerk and Board of Elections over three-term incumbent Amodeo.
Board Chairwoman Paula S. Dunn, a Democrat, said the difference then was actually 38 votes, not 40, after an error was discovered two days later. If that was the case, Mazzeo actually gained a vote Tuesday.
Dunn said both sides will go before Superior Court Judge Julio L. Mendez this week to go over about 20 disputed ballots with questionable signatures and markings. Only 15 of those ballots would impact the race between Mazzeo and Amodeo and that is not enough to change the outcome. She said the unofficial result would be certified after the meeting with Mendez.
"We were confident that after the recount, Vince would once again be certified the winner," said Democratic attorney Chris Orlando after the board released Tuesday's totals. "Tonight confirmed that."
Republican lawyer Randolph Lafferty said last week that each side had 10 days after the recount results were certified to file an election challenge. Lafferty could not be reached late Tuesday, and Amodeo did not return a call for comment.
By 4 p.m. Tuesday, two teams at separate tables resumed a hand recount, this time of about 1,300 provisional ballots. Dunn led one of the teams in the two-day recount. Similar to last week's voting-machine recheck in a Northfield warehouse, it was a long, tedious process closely observed by surrogates and lawyers for both candidates.
Amodeo and Mazzeo both stopped by earlier in the day to observe the proceedings that would decide their fates. Each was cordial to the other but made little small talk.
Amodeo, 63, a semiretired crane operator from Margate, had given a victory speech just before midnight on election night, Nov. 5, when he came out on top by 379 votes. He did not hide his disappointment and shock after Mazzeo was certified the winner two weeks later.
Amodeo petitioned and was granted a recount by Mendez - the judge who allowed the Board of Elections to open 115 provisional ballots that were contested by Republicans as having been mishandled.
After 22 hours over three days of at-times-acrimonious counting of provisional ballots, certified totals had Mazzeo with 25,164 votes to Amodeo's 25,126. Mazzeo and his supporters credited provisional ballots, especially those from Pleasantville and Atlantic City, considered Democratic strongholds, for putting him over the top.
Little changed in the recount. Mazzeo had a 2-1 advantage in Atlantic City over Amodeo in mail-in ballots and a 3-1 advantage over him in Pleasantville. With provisional ballots, Mazzeo had 208 votes in Atlantic City to Amodeo's 61, and 67 votes to Amodeo's four in Pleasantville.
Mail-in ballots in the 17 towns that make up the district were counted by hand on Monday and Tuesday before the board began counting provisional ballots.
On Tuesday, six more mail-in ballots were found that the four-member board voted unanimously to accept and count.
"The closeness of the Assembly race provides at least two civics lessons to voters and candidates: one, every vote counts; and two, every office and every candidate counts," said Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College. "The Second District election points to the continued disintegration of party-line voting, the absence of gubernatorial coattails, and the likely continued targeting of the district."
Gov. Christie won reelection in a landslide over Sen. Barbara Buono, but his victory did nothing to change control of the Legislature.
"This should have been the best year to run for Republican legislative candidates," he added. "It had been nearly two decades since a Republican - Gov. Tom Kean - ran this strong. Although Atlantic County Republicans are still dominant, two of their top candidates - [Sheriff] Frank Balles and Amodeo - suffered losses."
Balles lost by 10 percentage points to incumbent Democratic State Sen. Jim Whelan, a former mayor of Atlantic City.
The bitter nature of the recount tugged Christie into the fray when incumbent Chris Brown, who narrowly won reelection as Amodeo's running mate, on a local radio talk show last week accused the governor, a fellow Republican, of "cutting a deal" with South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III.
Brown alleged that Christie did not raise money for South Jersey Republicans because of an alliance with Norcross, who is chairman of Cooper University Hospital and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.
An upset Christie chastised Brown at a Statehouse news conference on Monday.
"I meet with George Norcross all the time," Christie said. "One, I had no deal with George Norcross on politics, and two, if I did have a deal, I sure as hell wouldn't tell Chris Brown." Christie said Brown and Amodeo only had themselves to blame since they had $175,000 in unspent campaign funds.
"It certainly wasn't a lack of money," the governor said. "Because if it was a lack of money, why would they still have $175,000 in their account?"
If the results hold up, Mazzeo, who owns BF Mazzeo, a grocery store in Northfield, will be sworn in early next month in Trenton after he gives up his post as mayor.
He said Monday night, "I don't want to go into the next holiday with [this] up in the air. I'll be glad when it's over."