In the 1st District legislative race, expected to be the hottest in the state, Republicans are alleging a Democrat political action committee is using racist tactics — and some Democrats agree.
A recent mailer put out by General Majority PAC, which is linked to South Jersey political boss George Norcross, called 1st District GOP Assembly candidate and Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan, who is black, a “financial deadbeat” over lawsuits from his past.
It also blames him for tax increases in his hometown, misspells his name and uses a photo of McClellan the Republican team says was doctored to darken his skin and change his appearance in other ways.
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No one from General Majority PAC could be reached for comment, but the PAC’s Facebook page says the group used a photo well known to McClellan, and just changed the direction he is facing.
“Facts matter,” the PAC posted. “Here’s the photo from McClellan’s Facebook page next to the black and white version used on the mailer.”
McClellan said the photo concerned him, and compared it to the “Aunt Jemima” character used in advertising, because it is superimposed on a similar oval background.
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While he won’t call any person racist, because, he said, he doesn’t know what’s in their hearts, he does think the flyer has racial overtones.
“I’m a darker African American male, but I’m not that dark, my teeth are not that white and my head is not that funny shape,” McClellan said. “I know what I look like, and I don’t look like that.”
Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy, who is in a running feud with Norcross and Norcross ally state Senate President Steve Sweeney, called the mailer racist in a recent statement issued with Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.
On Thursday, the campaign manager for the 1st District legislative team of state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak and Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matt Milam, all Democrats, distanced the incumbents from the mailing.
“We have nothing to do with any independent expenditure,” said Sam Rivers in an email response to questions. “This story line is an attempt to distract voters from our opponents’ records.”
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PACs must operate separately from campaigns under state law, so candidates are not allowed to have any input or control over what they do.
Rivers did not comment on how the team feels about the contents of the flyer.
“The Cape May County GOP has worked hard to reach out to the African-American community, and Antwan is without a doubt one of our brightest stars. To see him subjected to these kinds of racist attacks is extremely distressing,” Cape GOP Chairman Marcus Karavan said.
McClellan said he was particularly disappointed and surprised that the PAC would call him a deadbeat over his financial troubles. Most were related to credit card bills from his college days, he said, but a recent lawsuit was related to Superstorm Sandy.
The 2012 storm flooded his home, causing him to have to move out for four years before it was repaired and raised, and cost him his job as a paralegal. The law firm that had employed him closed shop at the shore after the storm. He now works for Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan.
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“For somebody to come in and make light of that is bad,” McClellan said. He said a neighbor sued to force him to pay to fix a sprinkler system after the storm knocked McClellan’s tree down onto the neighbor’s yard. He eventually paid that neighbor, he said, and has never filed for any type of bankruptcy protection.
“The whole ward I represented had issues, too. The Housing Authority families were out of their homes. As a city, we put them up in hotels, made sure they had a Thanksgiving and Christmas,” McClellan said. “We fixed the units and got them back in so we wouldn’t lose any families (to offshore).”
McClellan said he wants to run on his record, not conduct a campaign of personal attacks.
Rivers said his team, too, wants to focus on their record.
“Our team has spent this past year cutting the shore rental tax, fighting the governor to get funding to repair the Wildwood Boardwalk, doubling the income tax deduction for veterans, and delivering on a property tax freeze for certain seniors,” Rivers wrote in an email. “The difference is clear.”