EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Longtime Republican Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough, who retires from politics this month, wasn’t afraid to buck the power structure in his own party or reach across the aisle.
“I always thought Sonny was a person I could work with and get something done,” said Democratic Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo. “He was always fair to me. That’s rare today in this type of climate.”
McCullough, 76, is moving to the Ocean Club in Atlantic City next year after more than 30 years in office in the township, 29 of them as mayor. The last township meeting he’ll officiate at will be Tuesday night.
As mayor, he oversaw the township’s explosion from a quiet rural area to a sprawling residential and commercial center, providing housing to a new casino industry. The township population more than doubled, from almost 19,000 in 1980 as casinos were just getting started to 43,000 today.
Bob Burns was a mainstay of Atlantic County airwaves and Egg Harbor Township life.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who is also retiring from politics this month, credits McCullough with helping him get elected when he faced off against the much better known and powerful Republican state Senator William Gormley in the GOP primary for the seat in 1994.
“When I was first running, nobody in Atlantic County knew me,” said LoBiondo, who grew up in Cumberland County.
He said McCullough introduced him around Atlantic County, which was important since that’s where most of the 2nd Congressional District’s votes come from.
“He took the flack and heat from Gormley,” said LoBiondo. “It was a bitter primary in 1994.”
McCullough was an interim state senator for about a year in 2007, having succeeded Gormley after he announced he was stepping down in February 2007.
Even though McCullough was defeated by Democrat Assemblyman Jim Whelan, who was state senator until his death in August 2017, the two continued to enjoy a good relationship, McCullough said. He is proud of being the only Republican invited to eulogize Whelan at his 2017 funeral at Boardwalk Hall.
Just after taking office, the township was designated a Pinelands Growth Zone, which led to a tremendous building boom.
“One of the most difficult things the township had to deal with was the Pinelands Act,” said McCullough. “It forced so much growth on us ... and really put a strain on our services, especially education.”
At one point, the township was dealing with 200 to 500 new students entering the school district each year.
George H.W. Bush always reminded Richard E. Squires of his father.
“We were building a new school every three to four years,” he said. “It had a tremendous negative impact on taxpayers.”
Developers were cutting down trees by the dozens of acres, and the Pinelands Protection Act master plan called for 33,000 new homes to be built there.
Luckily, development stopped short of that, he said, with the Census Bureau reporting a population of 43,296 in 2017, and 14,364 households.
“Had it been 33,000 homes times an average of four people, we would have been looking at a major city,” he said.
Atlantic City connections
McCullough graduated from Atlantic City High School, but he was born in Egg Harbor Township, he said. His parents lived in the West Atlantic City section at the time.
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McCullough’s roots run deep in Atlantic City, where family members lived for generations and ran successful businesses like McCullough Models, Ace Auto Supply and Ruffu Ford.
His great-grandfather Anthony Ruffu, who provides a bit of Italian heritage to McCullough’s mostly Scots-Irish background, was the resort’s mayor from 1927 to 1930, including when Boardwalk Hall opened in 1929.
He was killed in 1930 when the car he was riding in was hit by a train in Absecon.
In a way, he’s moving back home when he leaves his six-bedroom home in the Seaview Harbor section overlooking the bay and Longport, to begin living 23 stories up in a two-bedroom condo.
Wife Georgene (McCabe), 66, whom he met when she was modeling for his mother’s McCullough Models at Atlantic City Racetrack in the 1960s, is living in the Florida home they also own.
So he is moving on his own, he said, as he sat surrounded by memorabilia. One framed photo from 1990 shows McCullough with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Donald Trump in his casino mogul days.
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“That was when the Taj opened,” McCullough said. “It was at a fundraiser for the Boy Scouts at Taj Mahal.”
He’s met Trump a couple of times, he said, including at a Shore Medical Center fundraiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, a few years ago.
Another photo showed him greeting President George H.W. Bush at Atlantic City International Airport when he visited the area in the early 1990s.
While he will not run for office again, McCullough may help out behind the scenes in his new hometown, he said. But he will mainly focus on spending time with his wife, four sons and eight grandchildren.
Hap Farley as godfather
McCullough started out in life with some powerful allies who were friends of his parents.
“Hap Farley was my real godfather,” McCullough said of longtime Republican party boss Frank S. “Hap” Farley, who was state senator from 1941 to 1972 and helped him pay for college.
As a child, he sat and listened to Farley and his political lieutenants every Sunday night as they sat around a dining room table talking politics.
“Atlantic City was it at the time,” McCullough said.