Democrats in New Jersey’s 1st Legislative District acknowledged that Thursday night’s meeting to replace Assemblyman Matt Milam was flawed and have decided to repeat the process.

“We’re going to do that again, so there’s no question,” state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said Friday.

Van Drew said Thursday’s move to replace Milam, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, with Middle Township Iraq War veteran Robert Andrzejczak, 26, was “what I call a ceremonial and spiritual vote.”

The party created an awkward situation when, after keeping the Andrzejczak announcement quiet, it invited 1st District Democrats to Vineland’s Cosmopolitan Restaurant. At the meeting, Milam said he would resign to focus on his business, and a voice vote by gathered Democrats from Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties seemed to affirm Andrzejczak as the new assemblyman.

Paul Sungenis, a Democratic Vineland committeeman, said he was escorted from the building after objecting to the process. He said he spoke up, citing procedural violations and criticizing Van Drew’s record, before being “whisked off the stage.” He complained Friday that the meeting had been “hijacked for a Van Drew campaign rally.”

Bob Bailicki, the Cumberland County Democratic chairman, said the announcement surprised him.

“It was made to be a surprise. It was intentional. Jeff was surprising us,” he said Friday.

Van Drew said Friday that Democrats from Cape May and Cumberland counties would hold nomination meetings this month. There will also be meetings with Democrats in the three Atlantic County towns in the 1st Legislative District: Weymouth Township, Estell Manor and Corbin City.

“And then we hope to have Assemblyman — I’m getting a little ahead of myself — Sgt. Andrzejczak sworn in in late March,” Van Drew said.

Van Drew later acknowledged that the nominating process was open to anyone who sought to run for office.

Cape May County Republican Chairman Mike Donohue and Cumberland County Republican Chairman Bob Greco said in a statement that the replacement process had violated state law and said it needs to be redone.

Donohue said state election law indicates that once a vacancy occurs, county chairmen have up to seven days to announce a meeting to pick a replacement. Notice has to go out at least one day before the meeting takes place.

“That is a clear violation of the law,” Donohue said of announcing, then immediately filling, the vacancy. “You can’t notice a meeting to fill a vacancy that doesn’t exist yet, and you can’t fill that vacancy immediately after it occurs.”

Balicki said he thinks Andrzejczak, of Middle Township, is “an awesome candidate.” Later this month, Balicki said, Andrzejczak’s “going to be sworn in into the Legislature. And that’s going to be official.”

Asked whether others could seek the nomination, Balicki said, “Oh, absolutely. Of course. It’s a democratic process. But I don’t know. Maybe there’s another guy who saved more people?”

Andrzejczak served two tours in Iraq, receiving the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart following a January 2009 grenade attack on his unit that cost him part of an ear and most of his left leg. He went through a long recuperation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in February 2009.

He now works at the fish market at the Lobster House restaurant in Lower Township. He told Democrats on Thursday, “I would like to fight for this district just like I fought for my country.”

It was unclear Friday whether Milam was still an assemblyman.

“He has actually retired,” Van Drew said. “There is a vacancy.”

But phones were answered in the 1st Legislative District offices Friday afternoon by people thanking them for “calling the offices of Sen. Van Drew, Assemblyman Albano and Assemblyman Milam.” Milam’s legislative Web page was up, and his email address was also valid.

And Tom Hester Jr., the Assembly Democrats’ communications director, confirmed that Dana M. Burley, the Assembly clerk, had not received a resignation from Milam.

Milam did not return calls seeking comment.

Contact Derek Harper:

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