State and local candidates endorsed by the entrenched Camden County Democratic Committee sailed to victory Tuesday in the primary election, easily beating back a challenge mounted by the well-organized South Jersey Progressives, who had posed the biggest threat to the machine in years.
Incumbent Assembly members, freeholders, and County Clerk Joseph Ripa, who were at the top of the ticket in Column One of the ballot, defeated progressive challengers who had set their sights on longtime Democratic leader George E. Norcross III and the party establishment, and campaigned on a platform of bringing change and transparency to government.
Across Camden County, just over 11 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, including 19 percent of registered Democrats and 14.5 percent of Republicans, who had few contested races. The two parties will square off in the Nov. 5 election.
Democratic Freeholder Edward McDonnell said after the unofficial results were tallied that he and the other endorsed candidates campaigned hard and added, “I think we have a very progressive agenda and always have.”
The exception in the outcome was a slate of 16 progressive candidates who captured seats representing Collingswood on the party’s county committee.
“We want to make the county committee, which in our town has been inactive and not engaged with voters, more transparent and accountable,” said Kate Delany, a leader with the progressive slate. “We want the committee to respond to the people rather than the party bosses.”
Judy Amorosa, chair of the Cherry-Hill based South Jersey Progressives, blamed the losses in the other races on unfair tactics by Ripa and his office, which she said unfairly disqualified the slate’s freeholder candidates and then assigned the challengers to Column Four, mixed in with unaffiliated candidates who also were not endorsed by the party establishment.
Amorosa said the progressive candidates launched a tough attack on the machine but was hurt by an “extremely adverse” ballot position.
Ripa, who’s been the county clerk for 10 years, did not respond to calls requesting comment in recent weeks and Tuesday night. He captured 79 percent of the votes, according to unofficial tallies.
Rena Margulis, who opposed Ripa for clerk, echoed Amorosa’s remarks. “Studies show that ballot placement makes a substantial difference in results," she said.
“I have been grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate the extent to which the machine is prepared to win. People have been unaware the County Clerk’s Office acts as an arm to the Democratic Committee,” she said.
Margulis said the party establishment also used “phantom freeholder candidates” to clutter the ballot and confuse voters. She said these candidates, one of whom captured about 6 percent of the vote, appeared on the ballot but had no visible campaign or platform. The Inquirer attempted to contact all four so-called phantom candidates but only one could be reached, and he said he couldn’t talk about his platform at that time and hung up.
The progressives organized 107 candidates to run for local, county, and state elected offices in the primary, but most were vying for a seat representing their town on the Democratic County Committee.
Margulis called the Collingswood win “a whopping victory, given the effort made by the machine to cripple our campaign.”
Rob Carlson, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress against Rep. Donald Norcross in last year’s primary, is also on the Collingswood slate.
About 20 progressives ran for Assembly, freeholder, clerk, and mayor and council in the county’s three largest communities — Cherry Hill, Camden, and Gloucester Township — and six other towns.
In Cherry Hill, where Mayor Chuck Cahn is retiring, the endorsed mayoral candidate, Susan Shin Angulo, defeated progressive challenger Susan Druckenbrod, a political newcomer.
“I’m so excited about this primary race, but we have another election in November and need to focus our resources on that now,” said Shin Angulo, a freeholder and former Cherry Hill councilwoman. “My team and I want to continue to hold the line on taxes and make safety a top priority, and make sure open space is protected and preserved.”
Melinda Kane, an endorsed freeholder candidate who won a one-year unexpired term against progressive candidate Kyle Nash, said she was happy and “welcomes being part of the board.” Kane, who served on the Cherry Hill council for eight years, said she looked forward to helping “not just Cherry Hill but all the other communities in the county.”
Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez said she and her running mates “didn’t take anything for granted, and we always try to run like we’re behind.”
Camden County Election Board Commissioner Richard Ambrosio said there were a few reports of problems at the polls Tuesday but they were quickly resolved. In Oaklyn, he said, early morning voters had to vote by provisional ballots because their names were missing from the voter registration book by mistake. Some of the pages in the Oaklyn book included Mount Ephraim voters and omitted voters from Oaklyn Borough, he said.