Gary Stein, an unfunded primary challenger to the Democratic organization in Atlantic County, is running for one of two state Assembly candidate nominations in the 2nd Legislative District.

The 54-year-old Mullica Township resident is running his third campaign for statewide or congressional office in as many years.

Stein, who runs an office cleaning business, plans to run an unfunded campaign as he faces the party-backed candidates running with state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic: Alisa Cooper, 58, a county freeholder and music teacher who lives in Linwood, and Damon Tyner, 40, an attorney who lives in Egg Harbor Township. Whelan's slate has a reported $147,394 banked in ready cash as of May 16.

Democratic voters will have the chance June 7 to choose two candidates to compete against a Republican slate led by incumbent Assemblyman Vince Polistina, 39, of Egg Harbor Township, who is running for Senate. Polistina's running mates are Republican incumbent Assemblyman John Amodeo, 60, of Margate, and attorney Chris Brown, 46, of Ventnor.

When Stein announced his run as a registered Democrat in this year's Assembly primary, he said he did it because he felt the race between Republican and Democratic slates of candidates would leave voters unenthused.

"Who wants that, two political parties going through talking points?," the former Republican turned independent turned Democrat said Wednesday.

As in his previous runs for governor in 2009 as an independent and for Congress in 2010 as the only Democrat willing to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, Stein has centered his campaign for state office on health care and immigration.

He advocates for a single-payer health care system run by state government modeled on that of Vermont. He also believes that immigration reform could be framed as a state issue, rather than a federal one.

Stein's presence in the race has forced Democrats to compete in a primary they never expected to fight.

"It's a primary, and we're taking it seriously," Justin Myers, campaign manager for the Whelan-Cooper-Tyner slate, said Wednesday. Cooper and Tyner have been out and visible, introducing themselves as candidates, Myers said.

The slate plans a formal kickoff to their campaign the evening of June 7, after primary polling stations close.

But Stein said he is used to trying to make a race where his opponents see it as a formality. He also said his run against LoBiondo gave him a taste of being the party's candidate: As the only Democrat in that race, he benefited from voter recognition of his party affiliation, if not his name.

Running this time, he said, he is back to being the underdog.

"If Cooper and Tyner aren't engaging with me, the voters should hold that against them, frankly," Stein said.

His style as a candidate has been boosted by social media, which gives him tools to reach not only his followers but other candidates and their supporters, too.

Stein has frequently visited the Facebook page for the Republican slate, posting in policy discussions and voicing criticisms of Whelan, Cooper and Tyner, as well as talking about them on local radio shows.

By being vocal, Stein sets out to attract Democrats who would otherwise be loyal to Whelan, a strategy that would seem to aid Republicans, who face no primary fight this year and are free to focus on laying groundwork for November's race. Polistina so far has $100,000 more cash on hand than Whelan's cash on hand.

Myers denied the Whelan campaign saw any risk in that distraction, however.

"No, because the voters know Alisa Cooper and Damon Tyner. They know their service, they know their work ethic," he said. "They know what they're about."

He said the candidates were preparing to roll out their platform, centered on expanding property-tax relief for low-income families and seniors, a higher income tax on individuals earning more than $1 million a year, and developing ways to attract new businesses to the region.

Asked if he felt Republicans would see any advantage in keeping Stein in the race, Stein said that amounted to "standard political theory."

"It's not the way the voters would see it," he said. "I can hopefully talk about ideas on both sides, prompt a better debate. So yeah, if the Republicans think I'm benefiting them, well, that would all change if I won, wouldn't it?"

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