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Primary the lull before the storm of general election in 1st, 2nd districts

Incumbent Democrats in the 1st and 2nd districts will face strong Republican challengers in the general election this fall, where experts predict expensive campaigns will be waged because of the districts’ relatively even split between the two parties.

“The Republicans have only a few places statewide in the Assembly where they think they may be able to pick up seats,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Politics and Civic Engagement. “The 1st and 2nd are two of them.”

So that’s where the GOP will concentrate its resources, he said.

The 2nd District covers most of Atlantic County, while the 1st covers all of Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties.

There were no primary challenges in either district, but the quiet primary was just a lull before the storm of the general election, Dworkin said.

Both districts have similar numbers of Republicans and Democrats — the 1st has slightly more in the GOP — and the 2nd is one of only two districts in the state where each party has at least one elected state legislator.

“A lot of money will be spent in these places. They will be competitive,” Dworkin said.

The entire Assembly is up for election this year, along with the 1st District Senate seat.

There is a special election in the 1st to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Democrat Jeff Van Drew when he left in January to become a U.S. congressman representing most of South Jersey.

Sen. Bob Andrzejczak and Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matt Milam will do their best to keep the Democrats in control there. The popular Van Drew had been on the top of the Democrats’ ticket there for years, so it remains to be seen whether the Democrats will be as strong without him.

They will go up against the team of Cumberland County Republican Chairman Michael Testa Jr. for Senate and Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen for Assembly.

And in the 2nd District, incumbent Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo, of Northfield, and John Armato, of Buena Vista Township, will face off against former Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther and Freeholder John Risley, of Egg Harbor Township.

But the general election race isn’t likely to heat up too much until August or September, candidates and experts said.

“We are going to focus on the budget. Getting that done is paramount,” said Mazzeo. “Hopefully we will get it done by the end of the month. The millionaire’s tax is the big thing holding it up here.”

The Legislature has until July 1 to pass a budget Gov. Phil Murphy will sign to avoid a state government shutdown.

Mazzeo, an opponent of Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to raise an extra $447 million for the state by increasing the tax on income over $1 million from 8.97% to 10.75%, said he’d rather see cuts to the budget than a tax increase.

Armato also opposes the millionaires’ tax, as do Guenther and Risley.

The two parties’ candidates part ways, however, over issues like countywide tax assessment, which is being pushed by Mazzeo.

“Assemblyman Mazzeo thinks he knows what’s best for Atlantic County,” said Guenther, even though the county freeholders and Atlantic County Mayors Association say they need more information on the cost before it is passed.

All the candidates are out meeting constituents at events, but the hard-core campaigning isn’t likely to start until September.

“Conventional wisdom tells you the general election really begins to kick in after Labor Day,” said Dworkin. “Voters don’t want to pay attention, they want to enjoy August.”

And campaigns cost so much money to run, nobody wants to start too early and run out of money, he said.

“So they wait for people to pay attention, when it’s a better use of resources,” said Dworkin.

John Froonjian, interim executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, said primary elections became popular in the United States about 100 years ago, as part of a reform movement away from party bosses determining who was going to run for office.

“It was an effort to democratize the nomination process,” said Froonjian. “In areas that lean heavily to one party over another, the primary is very important.”

While the 1st and 2nd legislative districts are pretty evenly split, some municipalities within them are not. For example, Atlantic City is now so heavily Democratic that the final results of an election are often determined in the primary, he said.

Atlantic City is about 60% Democrat, 8% Republican and 32% unaffiliated, Froonjian said.

Assembly races in other districts that include a small part of Atlantic County did have primary battles.

In the 8th District, which covers Hammonton in Atlantic County and parts of Burlington and Camden counties, Republican Assemblyman Joe Howarth has lost the support of the party, said Froonjian.

“He was rumored to have been talking to Democrats about possibly changing parties,” said Froonjian, which is what the state senator in the district, Dawn Addiego, did in January.

“So now he started running on ‘Make America Great Again,’” Froonjian said, doubling down on his Republicanism.

Dworkin said that is one of the primaries he is most interested in following.

“In a completely different way than he has ever done, (Howarth) has embraced the ‘MAGA’ mantra,” said Dworkin.

In other parts of the country, candidates in Republican primaries have benefited from such a move, Dworkin said.

“Is that going to matter here, or will voters see the assemblyman as a johnny-come-lately? We don’t know if they will take it seriously or not.”

Why was South Jersey so stormy to end May?

The region underwent three days in a row last week where hail, damaging winds and even a tornado were going concerns. It felt more like the Southern Plains than South Jersey.

“It was one of the more memorable stretches,” said Valerie Meola, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

The Mount Holly office, which covers the southern Poconos, southeastern Pennsylvania, most of New Jersey, Delaware and far northeastern Maryland, has been plenty busy over the past couple of weeks.

With severe weather possible again late Wednesday, its job of issuing severe weather warnings may continue.

For much of last week, high pressure was anchored in the Deep South. Storms flow clockwise around the periphery of the high-pressure center. That periphery was located right along the Mason-Dixon Line, as a nearly stationary front parked itself overhead for a three-day period. That acted as a funnel to send along showers and storms to our area. Unstable air flowed in from the warm Gulf of Mexico, north into the Southern Plains, over into the mid-South and then into the area of the stationary front. This set off the marathon event of activity.

“People may go back in earth science to the ‘ring of fire,’ which are the volcanoes and earthquakes that surround the Pacific Ocean, associated with plate tectonics. Here, we had storms form a ‘ring of fire’ around the outside of the high-pressure system,” said Dave Robinson, the state climatologist.

“We’ve had multiple days in a row of convection, but to have such strong multiple rounds of convection is rare,” Meola said.

Severe thunderstorms strike South Jersey on May 29, 2019

The Mount Holly office released 66 severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings from May 28 to 30. Eighteen of those were in Cumberland (8), Atlantic (4), Cape May (4) and southern Ocean (2) counties.

The storms produced five official damage reports in Cumberland County, including a report of a waterspout near Fortescue last Tuesday. Also last week, high winds led to 10 utility poles being snapped in Hopewell Township.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, responsible for issuing the outlooks that specify which level of risk that region is in (in ascending order: marginal, slight, enhanced, moderate, high), put at least part of South Jersey in a slight risk last Tuesday and Thursday and in an enhanced risk last Wednesday.

The last time there were at least three days in a row that the region was under a risk of severe weather was July 11-14, 2017.

Since the Center added marginal and enhanced risk levels in 2014, there’s been no three-day streak with at least an enhanced risk included.

During last week’s string of storms, a tornado watch or severe thunderstorm watch was put into effect each day. Severe weather and tornado watches are put into effect by the center, not the local National Weather Service office. The center highlights the areas where the ingredients for severe weather are. Then, when severe weather is imminent, a warning is put into place.

“If a watch is needed, they’ll (the Storm Prediction Center) will coordinate with the local NWS office to talk about what counties and water areas they want in. Once the watch is out, it means you have all of the ingredients for something to happen, but nothing is imminent. The warnings are all issued at the local level,” Meola said.

Since the start of the year, the eight tornado and severe thunderstorm watches are the fifth highest amounts since 1997.

Tap to read Meteorologist Joe Martucci's 7-Day Forecast

jmartucci-pressofac / William King / provided  

Thunderstorms roll into Cape May just before sunset May 29, one of three straight days of storms in the region.

Wide field, low turnout mark Atlantic City race

ATLANTIC CITY — From the 1st Ward to the 6th, voter sentiment in the resort ranged from a sense of civic duty to complete indifference toward an election that could have long-term implications.

Looming over Tuesday’s elections is the continued state takeover of the city, which will last until at least 2021, combined with mounting frustrations over neglected capital projects and residents’ needs, which meant there was no shortage of issues for voters to use as motivation to get them to the polls.

With 21 candidates — 15 Democrats and six Republicans — vying for seats in all six of the city’s wards, there were plenty of options for voters on Tuesday’s ballot.

Still, voter turnout in Atlantic City — even for a primary election — was low. A total of 2,441 votes were cast Tuesday, based on unofficial results from the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office. In 2018, the total number of registered voters in the city was 22,933.

Some residents, such as 73-year-old Benoni Zebulun, went to the polls to cast a vote for a specific candidate. Zebulun, who lives in the 3rd Ward, said he came out to vote for a “very dedicated” candidate who he called “Mr. Atlantic City.”

Others admitted they were either unaware of Tuesday’s election or who was running where they lived.

“I’ve lived here for over 30 years, and no one ever running for office has ever knocked on my door,” said Timothy Barnes, 63, who said he lived in the South Inlet in the 1st Ward. “They don’t bother (with me), so why should I care?”

Five of the six ward council representatives were seeking reelection, with the lone exception being 4th Ward Councilman William “Speedy” Marsh, who decided against running again after 17 years of service. Three Republicans and five Democrats filed petitions to replace Marsh in the 4th Ward.

Council President and 2nd Ward Councilman Marty Small Sr. was the only candidate not being challenged in either the primary or the general election.

The winner of the Democratic primary in the 3rd Ward — between Councilman Kaleem Shabazz and former Councilman Torres Mayfield — will be unopposed in November, barring an independent candidate entering the race.

But a large number of residents expressed total apathy toward the 2019 election.

“State control, city control, Republicans, Democrats — it doesn’t matter,” said Anthony Paglia. “They all just want to get their hands on my wallet. They don’t look out for the regular guy.”

Paglia, 41, said he has not voted in decades in Atlantic City because he does not believe his vote matters anymore. He said corruption, voter fraud and “greedy politicians” make casting a vote in the city a “pointless” endeavor.

“At the end of the day, politicians only care about themselves,” he said.

That view was countered by others who said voting was an essential part of democracy.

Stephen Caldwell, 66, said that “if you don’t vote, you can’t have a voice.”

“It’s my right to come out and exercise my vote,” he said, “so I can have a say so.”

Final election results were not available as of 9:30 p.m.

State adds second monitor to Pleasantville schools

PLEASANTVILLE — The state has assigned a second state monitor to the school district, school officials said Tuesday.

The appointment followed a warning by the state Department of Education earlier this year amid infighting on the school board over procedures and personalities.

J. Michael Rush will serve as the assistant state monitor at $96 per hour, said school Business Administrator Elisha Thompkins.

A representative from the state Department of Education, which oversees the monitors, did not respond to a request for comment. Pleasantville Superintendent Clarence Alston could not be reached for comment, and school board President Carla Thomas was unavailable for comment.

Thompkins confirmed Rush’s first day was Tuesday and said he did not receive any communication from the state on the reason for the new monitor’s assignment.

In February, during a meeting between officials from the Department of Education and Pleasantville in Trenton, the state warned the district it was considering adding an additional monitor, and even threatened a state takeover.

The Pleasantville school district has been under oversight by a state-appointed fiscal monitor for more than a decade after an audit found serious issues with spending in the district. Its current monitor is Constance Bauer, who last year earned $123,432, a salary paid for by the district.

Rush was deputy superintendent of Paterson Public Schools from 2005 to 2009 and served the state Department of Education as assistant commissioner from 2002 to 2005. Prior to that, Rush was superintendent in Red Bank.

Rush’s salary will also be paid for by the school district, which is already under financial stress.

Over three meetings in May, the school board failed to approve a reduction in force that would have a balanced its 2019-20 budget. School officials said the cuts, which targeted administrative positions with unrecognized titles, like principal on special assignment and dean of students, were being mandated by the county executive superintendent.

At the first meeting May 7, the reduction was postponed for further consideration due to concerns by board members. At a meeting one week later, the board presented a united front and agreed to postpone the vote again and requested a meeting with Executive County Superintendent Robert Bumpus to lay out a new plan to balance the budget. However, Bumpus declined to meet with the school board.

A final meeting was scheduled May 28 to again approve the reduction of staff; however, the vote was split and the motion failed.

“It’s a slap in the face, and I don’t think we should approve anything until he comes and sits down with us,” board member Jerome Page said Thursday. Page voted against the reduction. “If it was any other board that asked the county superintendent to be present, I don’t think it would have been a problem, but because it was Pleasantville, it was a problem.”

Thomas, who had teared up at the second meeting and promised to fight for the district, voted for the reduction.

“I just know that we voted for the budget, so we knew what we had to do,” Thomas said when reached by phone Thursday.

The district did not respond to a request for how much money it needed to cut from its budget for the 2019-20 school year, but the reduction on the May 28 agenda included 14 positions. The agenda listed 12 employees, with salaries totaling more than $1 million, although most of those employees were reassigned based on seniority and union contract rules.

Department of Education spokesman Michale Yaple confirmed last week that Bumpus did not meet with the board.

“It is ultimately the responsibility of the local board of education to implement the balanced budget that it had approved, and that the department had also approved. The department’s role is not to administer a district; that is the responsibility of the school board and its administration,” Yaple said.

He reiterated that the DOE did not force the district to take specific action regarding staff.

“Rather, we discussed with local school officials issues such as unrecognized job titles, administrative spending caps, legal costs and high administrative costs,” Yaple said.

Thompkins said the reduction will be back on the agenda at the June 11 meeting. While Bauer has the ability as a fiscal monitor to overturn the school board’s decision, she has not yet done so, Thompkins said.

Thompkins said he couldn’t say at this point how the salary of the second state monitor will affect Pleasantville’s budget.

“Right now I don’t have an answer to that,” he said. “We’re just adjusting the budget to maintain.”

Diane D’Amico/Staff Writer  

Pleasantville School District Business Administrator Elisha Thompkins talks to the school board during an April meeting.