Can the candidate who finishes third in a primary race for two township council seats expect to move up a spot if the second-place finisher then drops out?
Not in Willingboro politics, and especially not if you don’t follow required procedures.
Losing candidate Harry Walker’s hopes of gaining a council seat were rebuffed first by the township’s Democratic establishment and then dashed last week by a state Superior Court judge.
In the heavily Democratic township, and with no GOP challengers in November, winning the primary is akin to winning election.
Judge Jeanne T. Covert in Mount Holly said Walker had missed a deadline for filing his lawsuit.
She also wondered why he had not given notice to Mayor Chris Walker (no relation) to let him know he had filed a claim alleging that the mayor was not a township resident and thus was not qualified to run for reelection in the June Democratic primary.
Less than a week after his victory, Chris Walker, facing the same allegation from another resident, resigned from the council and withdrew his name from the November ballot.
One day before Chris Walker quit, he settled a complaint brought by Dennis Reiter, a former member of the Municipal Utilities Authority board, alleging that Chris Walker was not entitled to hold elected office in the town.
The settlement with Reiter called for Walker to resign from his $10,000-a-year post as mayor and $15,000-a-year post as a member of the MUA right before the case was to go to trial, though in a recent interview Walker said he resigned for health reasons and still resides in Willingboro.
When the township’s Democratic Committee appointed former school board member Rebecca Perrone to fill Chris Walker’s spot on the five-member council and slated her for the November ballot, Harry Walker filed his court complaint. Harry Walker contended he, and not Perrone, should be placed on the ballot because he ran in the primary.
Harry Walker, a real estate broker, and his running mate, Arrington Crawford, both newcomers to politics, had lost the primary race to Chris Walker and his running mate, Councilman Nat Anderson. Harry Walker was the third-highest vote-getter and said he would have won one of the two open seats if Chris Walker had been disqualified.
“Title 19 requires a candidate for local municipal office to actually be a valid and legal resident of the municipality that they are seeking to run for office in,” Harry Walker’s 10-page lawsuit said. He also cited a law that says if a candidate files “any false statement, the nomination or election of such candidate … shall be null and void.”
Covert, however, did not consider any arguments at a hearing last week, saying Harry Walker should have filed his complaint within 10 days of the primary result, not weeks later. She also questioned why he had failed to notify Chris Walker of the lawsuit.
Harry Walker’s suit named Chris Walker as well as the Willingboro Township Democratic Committee and its chairman Bill Carter, among others.
Rocky Peterson, a Princeton attorney who represented Carter and the town’s Democratic Committee, said the main reason the judge dismissed the lawsuit was that Harry Walker’s suit “was procedurally deficient, that he had filed late.”
Still, Peterson said he had been prepared to argue that “you don’t automatically get put up on the line just because you finished third.”
Carter said the township’s Democratic Committee didn’t select Harry Walker to fill the voids left by Chris Walker because he was not a member of the Democratic Committee and in the primary had run independently against the party’s endorsed candidates.
Harry Walker, who represented himself, said he plans to appeal the court’s decision.
“I’m disappointed. I thought the law was different, but I was caught in a technicality that I wasn’t aware of,” he said.