From left, Walter Johnson, Atlantic City Board of Education candidate; 6th Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz; Sharon Zappia, 5th Ward council candidate; Phil Guenther, state Assembly candidate; and Atlantic County Freeholder John Risley, state Assembly candidate, at the Atlantic City Republican Club meeting Tuesday.

ATLANTIC CITY — Republican candidates for state, county and municipal offices made their last-minute appeals to a small group of supporters Tuesday night, knowing full well they face an uphill battle in a Democratic stronghold.

Besides the registered-voter advantage Democrats have in Atlantic City and the anticipated low turnout in off-year elections, several candidates spoke openly about the challenge of winning campaigns in a city where the results are not always decided at the polls. Mail-in ballots are increasing statewide and are prevalent in Atlantic City, where those votes accounted for 20% of the total in 2018.

“We’re going to overcome these political operatives in Atlantic City,” 5th Ward Republican candidate Sharon Zappia said Tuesday night during a meeting of the Atlantic City Republican Club at the Chelsea Inn.

Zappia was referring to the highly effective messenger and mail-in ballot operation run by Craig and David Callaway, who have secured elections for local candidates, including former Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. when he defeated Don Guardian in his reelection bid in 2017.

The Republican council candidates questioned whether their opponents were actually putting in the work to meet with residents and hear their concerns, and suggested the Democrats were counting on mail-in ballots to win.

Craig Callaway, a former City Council president who served 42 months in prison more than a decade ago for bribery and blackmail, said it was “an assumption” on the part of candidates who pushed the idea that mail-in ballots would be the only deciding factor in this year’s elections.

“That’s just not true,” Callaway said Wednesday. “You can’t just totally depend on people voting by mail, so you have to interact with your constituents. That’s nothing but conjecture.”

Callaway said an effective candidate should not be concerned about losing an election because of vote-by-mail ballots.

“If you’re a good candidate and wearing out your shoe leather doing what you’re supposed to do, you’ll win at the polls,” he said.

In three of the 2019 Democratic council ward primaries, the winning candidate lost at the polls but secured a victory after mail-in ballots were tallied. Md Hossain Morshed (4th Ward), Muhammad Zia (5th Ward) and Mohammed Suhel Ahmed (6th Ward) were all defeated at the polls in June but emerged victorious due to the number of mail-in ballots in their favor.

Sean Reardon, the GOP candidate in the 4th Ward, said his opponent, Morshed, has not appeared at a single public forum, either during the primaries or leading up to the Nov. 5 general election, to articulate his policy positions or speak to a gathered audience. Morshed defeated a slate of Democratic candidates in the primary but beat out second-place finisher Constance Days-Chapman by 200 votes. He tallied 341 mail-in votes to her eight.

Morshed has not responded to multiple attempts to contact him for comment.

“I just want to debate somebody, honestly,” Reardon said. “It’s disappointing ... the lack of respect that a candidate could have from hiring these thugs and just silencing the voice of the people in that neighborhood. As a person (who is) a part of the ward, it’s got me fired up, forget that I’m running. I think it’s crazy.”

Sixth Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz, the lone Republican on the city’s governing body, said he would not be discouraged and encouraged the other candidates to keep canvassing in the hopes that some of those votes would be cast in their favor. He said the practice of “ballot harvesting” could be defeated with hard work, smarts and competing for votes.

“We shouldn’t be crying that there’s 1,000 votes in play and ‘Oh, what’s going to happen?’” he said. “We need to get the votes. ... We have to work harder, and we can.”

Sumon “Sam” Majumder, an Atlantic City police officer running against incumbent Democrat Freeholder Ernest Coursey for the 1st District seat, is employing the messenger and mail-in ballot operation detested by his fellow party candidates. Majumder told the crowd the practice is legal and until that changes, there was no reason Republicans shouldn’t use it to their advantage as well.

State Assembly candidates Phil Guenther and John Risley, who are challenging incumbent Democrats Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, continued to rail against the casino payment-in-lieu-of-taxes bill signed in 2017 and said they would work toward either eliminating it or revising it.

Contact: 609-272-7222

Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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