CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Cape May County’s top Republican elected officials are endorsing Ocean City newcomer John McCann over long-time incumbent Jerry Thornton for the party’s slot in the June primary.

The endorsement led to some harsh words between Thornton and Freeholder Director Dan Beyel on Monday.

Beyel said Thornton has not adjusted to changes in the national economy over the past two years forcing government to shrink and run more efficiently and was uncooperative in reducing the budgets in his department.

Beyel said the county has been hit hard by declining real estate values. The ratable base has shrunk from $54 billion to $51 billion and county taxes will increase this year. He said all areas of county government are being scrutinized, but Thornton has been “noncooperative in finding ways that are better and cheaper.”

Beyel also blamed  Thornton for reporting that the  Crest Haven Nursing & Rehabilitation Center was generating $1 million for the county each year, when  an independent study showed it was running at a $2 million deficit.

Thornton said “I misspoke” on the Crest Haven figures but said the nursing home was losing more money when Beyel ran Health and Human Services.

Beyel was joined by Freeholder Vice Director Ralph Sheets, Freeholder Len Desiderio, Surrogate Robert Hentges, Clerk Rita Fulginiti and Sheriff Gary Schaffer in endorsing the slate of McCann and incumbent Freeholder Ralph Bakley. Beyel said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, also endorses the slate.

McCann, a real estate agent, ran for a 1st District Assembly seat, but lost in November to the two incumbent Democrats. He wound up with the least number of votes of the four major party candidates.

Although Thornton is no stranger to politics after a quarter-century as a freeholder, the endorsements clearly have hurt his feelings. He said he has campaigned for many of those now supporting McCann.

“I’ve always been a very loyal Republican. All I ask them to do is name one Republican I’ve never supported. All of a sudden, I have a difference of opinion, and I’m disloyal. Just because I disagree does not mean I’m disloyal,” Thornton said.

Thornton was alone on the board in voting against the county taking over the Beesleys Point Bridge, a project expected to cost $20 million in 2006 but which recently climbed to about $32 million.

Thornton said he has tried to make sure long-time employees retain jobs and constituents retain services. The freeholder directs county Health and Human Services, which includes programs for seniors, veterans, a nursing home, social services, the health department and other county functions for the needy.

“I wanted to make sure those who need help are taken care of. That’s what government should do,” Thornton said.

“He’s (Beyel) more concerned with buying an 80-year-old bridge that’s falling down than caring for the people of Cape May County. Why should the little county of Cape May bail out a gazillionaire,” said Thornton, referring to former bridge co-owner Lewis Katz, a New Jersey Nets owner who has a house in Longport.

Thornton has not ruled out running as an independent in November if he loses the party nod.

The elected leaders do not make the decision on the slate for the June primary. That choice is made by Republican committee members in each of the county’s 16 municipalities.

Thornton has been lobbying the committee members and said he will follow the party by-laws and decide whether to run as an independent within five days of the committee members making their choice, which they will do March 15. Thornton has resisted signing a pledge before the process agreeing not to run an an independent.

Thornton also has questioned the role of Cape May County Republican leader David Von Savage. He said the Republican organization should not take sides but let the committee members make their choices, but Thornton said endorsements for McCann have come from a group of young Republicans the GOP organization supports.

Contact Richard Degener: