HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — With the first questions they posed to each other, the two candidates vying for Atlantic County executive got combative Thursday night at a forum held by two women’s groups at Mays Landing Country Club.
“What if anything have you done to address the systemic racism and institutional bias which has existed and continues to exist under your administration?” challenger Susan Korngut, an attorney and Democrat councilwoman from Northfield, asked incumbent Republican Dennis Levinson.
“I can answer that very easily. It doesn’t exist,” Levinson said as Korngut’s supporters heckled from the back of the room. “If you have an example of it, I’d like to hear it. ... You have plenty of Democrats sitting on that freeholder board that haven’t brought it up, and only you have decided there’s systemic racism. So that’s an unfair thing to say.”
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The event was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Atlantic County and the American Association of University Women, Atlantic County branch.
Moderator and AAUW President Arlene Groch, a retired attorney from Northfield, cautioned the audience to not to shout out statements and questions, most of which came from Korngut supporters.
But the audience interference continued.
“This is not the way this should be. This is a nonpartisan presentation,” said League of Women Voters Service Chairwoman Rosemary Goldberg, of Atlantic City, telling the audience to stop making comments and applauding wildly for their side.
Levinson’s first question to Korngut was no less of an attack.
“When I Googled you, I saw that the one shining star that you put on your resume is the time you put on CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates board of directors) ... for neglected and abused children,” Levinson said. “How long were you on CASA, why did you leave and what else have you done in your life you can point to, since that’s the only thing you put down on your resume?”
Later he said she was on the board for just four months 16 years ago.
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“Anybody can Google me and see that is not the only thing that is on my resume,” Korngut said. “I was on CASA years ago. Do I remember when? No. ... But that you would mock my charitable experience. ... Who died and left you the arbitrator of what I can be proud of?”
Then she suggested Levinson hasn’t done enough to bring down the high infant mortality rate in Atlantic City.
“You are so concerned about children, what have you done about the infant mortality rate in Atlantic County?” Korngut said. “What have you done about the babies that are dying ... other than saying it’s none of my business and copy my ideas and say you are going to do it moving forward?”
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There were some periods when each spoke about their plans for the county. Korngut said she would implement cybersecurity training and create a new industry with the fast-growing sector in a bid to diversify the economy.
Levinson said he has already created a new industry here by having the county fund construction of the first building in the National Aviation Research and Technology Park at Atlantic City International Airport.
“I believe I run the finest county government in the state,” Levinson said, citing 20 perfect audits, its status as the first county in the country to put defibrillators in every police car, its financing of the Stockton University Atlantic City campus and the county’s high bond ratings based on its low debt load. He also said the Atlantic County Institute of Technology was named by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 10 such schools in the country.
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Korngut countered with her concerns about the local economy.
“I came back (after college and law school) because Atlantic County is my home,” Korngut said. “But today I would be the exception. Kids don’t come home” because there are no good jobs.
She also cited the county’s high infant mortality rate, home foreclosure rate and large wage gap between women and men.
Attendees said the thing that most struck them was the harsh tone of the forum.
“I thought it was surprisingly abrasive,” said Valerie Koob, of Ventnor, a member of the AAUW.
“I’m sorry they came out fighting,” said Beverly Schechtman of Atlantic City, another AAUW member. “Candidates need to have more respect for one another.”