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CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Two Democrats hope a public split between the Republican incumbents seeking reelection to the Cape May County Board of Freeholders will be enough to put them over the edge in November.

Sitting at a table at a Cape May Court House coffeehouse, freeholder candidates Liz Casey and Joyce Gould said 2019 may be the year for a party that has rarely won a countywide office. Gould, a longtime borough commissioner in Wildwood Crest, officially replaced attorney Steve Barry on the Democratic ticket Aug. 8, after Barry resigned citing health reasons.

According to Casey, an attorney with an office in Ocean City, this seems like an ideal time to run. In an extraordinary move, the full freeholder board this summer censured E. Marie Hayes over conflicts of interest and allegations of retaliation against a county employee. Her running mate, Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, was among those voting to censure and to send the matter to the local finance board under the state Department of Community Affairs.

Hayes hit back at the public meeting, where there is rarely so much as a ‘no’ vote, criticizing Thornton.

In a joint interview on Saturday, Aug. 11, at the county administration building, Thornton and Hayes insisted the dispute from July was behind them.

“This was just difficulties between us that’s been resolved. There’s no more difficulty there,” Thornton said.

“You have to take a look at everything that we have done together as a freeholder board and all the good that we have done. And you keep on moving on,” Hayes added. “Families have spats. You work through them.”

Thornton does not believe the public dispute will hurt the incumbents come November.

“I think if people recognize all the facts, they will find out that we have tried to be as straightforward and ethical as we could be,” he said. 

Still, the Democrats see an opening. Gould, 76, who previously ran for a county seat in 1990, says they intend to win.

 “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we have a chance. We’re going to win,” Gould said.

“Even without the turmoil, I think there’s dissatisfaction within the county with the way things are run,” Casey said. She’s lived in Upper Township since 1996 and is originally from Morris County. Casey is 54. “People are tired of a one-party board with lack of transparency. I think the county employees are concerned about their ability to advance and fair treatment.”

It’s been decades since a Democrat won a seat on the Cape May County governing body, not since Jeff Van Drew took a seat in 1994. Van Drew is now in the House of Representatives.

It’s even longer that the Republicans have held the majority. An often cited statistic states that Republicans have run Cape May County since just after the Civil War.

The board oversees a budget of $161 million. In separate interviews, the Democrats faulted increased spending while the incumbent Republicans pointed out that the county’s tax rate is among the lowest in New Jersey. 

With accusations of nepotism at the center of the July controversy, Casey said they would take that issue to the voters.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a big part of our campaign but it’s certainly an issue that has been handed to us,” Casey said. “It’s a fairness issue to the county employees and the taxpayers.”

Casey and Gould said they would campaign on infrastructure and environmental issues. Gould cited the Middle Thorofare Bridge, connecting Wildwood Crest and Lower Township, which she described as being in terrible shape.

“We need to be at the forefront of maintaining our infrastructure, not only for safety but for our economy,” Casey said.

Thornton agreed that the toll bridges along Ocean Drive need replacing. He said there is no way the toll revenue will come close to covering to cost. He said he began a fund to cover the cost of planning and matching grants, but does not want to take on the expense of building new bridges.

“The issue, to be quite candid, is we need to have federal money,” he said. The total cost to replace the Middle Thorofare Bridge is estimated at close to $220 million. “We’re very hesitant to bond $220 million. Although we could do that over a 30-year period, but we don’t want to do that. Let’s use the federal money.”

Thornton, 78, has spent 38 years on the Board of Chosen Freeholders. 

“I do love this job,” he said. He lives in Cape May Court House. He said there are many county efforts he wants to see through, mentioning a push for economic development at the county airport and the county’s new drug court, aimed at rehabilitation instead of punishment. 

“That program is really dynamite,” he said.

Thornton also began a regular caucus meeting of the freeholder board to discuss county business before the regular meeting, and mentioned the completed Cape May County jail, a project of about $39 million.

Thornton and his wife have nine grandchildren.

“We just found out a great grandchild is on the way, which is exciting to us,” he said.

Hayes, 64, lives in Ocean City. She retired as a captain of detectives in 2009, after 29 years with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office. She filled the unexpired freeholder term of Susan Sheppard, now a Superior Court judge, when Sheppard decided to run for county surrogate.

Hayes oversees the county tourism department, the Cape May County Zoo, the county library system and several other departments. She said the library has done a great job of modernizing, and praised the efforts of the tourism department to woo visitors from Canada.

If elected, she would enter her third full term on the board. 

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