WASHINGTON – National Democrats have targeted South Jersey for one of their first ads of the fall House campaigns, underscoring how a suburban Philadelphia district has become a key battleground, one of the few where they may have a chance to pick off a Republican-held seat.
Democrats see opportunity in the Burlington and Ocean county-district where U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.) is retiring, leaving a contest between Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard, a Democrat, and Republican Tom MacArthur, a former mayor in North Jersey and ex-insurance executive.
The Democrats’ ad attacks MacArthur for lawsuits against his former company, York Risk Services Group, in which the insurance adjustment firm was accused of short-changing policy holders after wildfires and hurricanes.
“When disaster strikes, some try and help…. Insurance CEO Tom MacArthur tried to profit,” the ad intones, over grainy images of destruction and MacArthur.
The ad revives attacks MacArthur faced in a brutal GOP primary against Steve Lonegan.
The MacArthur campaign had readied itself: in recent weeks it circulated a memo highlighting Belgard’s past work as an insurance adjuster and her 16 years as an attorney for a firm, Sweeney & Sheehan, that defends insurance companies.
“Aimee Belgard either has a convenient case of amnesia or she is just plain dishonest,” MacArthur said in the memo. “It defies credibility for Belgard to spend her career working in the insurance industry and then try to run a campaign attacking someone else for working in the same industry.”
The Belgard campaign scoffed at MacArthur comparing her work to his role as head of his company.
"The fact that Tom MacArthur thinks that Aimee’s employment as an attorney somehow compares to the way he made his fortune as the President and CEO of a company known for delaying and denying claims to disaster victims only proves how out of touch he is with hardworking middle-class families,” said Belgard spokeswoman Hannah Ledford. “He was in charge.”
The ad will bring to voters’ living rooms the sparring that has been building behind the scenes for weeks and seems sure to intensify as the election nears and Democrats' hopes narrow, both nationally and in the Philadelphia area, where races in Chester and Bucks counties have seemed to tilt toward Republicans.
Belgard has painted MacArthur as a multi-millionaire outsider who only moved from North Jersey to the district so he could run for Congress after Runyan bowed out. MacArthur has cast Belgard as a “vacuous” campaigner who has hidden from the media and public scrutiny.
The ad is one of the first two the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched for the fall general elections, and will begin airing on cable in the district Tuesday. (Its other ad is in New York).
At stake is a hotly-contested seat where Republicans for decades have won Congressional races -- with one recent exception, 2008 – but where there are enough swing voters that President Obama twice won the district. The open seat only makes the race appear more competitive.
Democrats have reserved $1.3 million of airtime in the South Jersey district, but a spokesman declined to say how much is being spent on this first television salvo.
The primary campaign attacks on MacArthur’s former firm, which he founded and built, center on three cases in which his company and the insurers it worked for were accused of short-changing hurricanes or fire victims.
York and insurance firms it worked for were sued in Texas by the Port of Galveston and Houston Baptist University after Hurricane Ike struck in 2008. York was an adjuster for the insurers. California regulators also cited York and one of its clients in 2012 for allegedly mishandling claims arising from a 2008 fire that ravaged a mobile-home community.
Each case was settled. MacArthur left York in late 2010, before the settlements in the cases of the port and wildfires. He sold it for around $500 million.
The Port of Galveston received all $15 million its suit sought, according to lawyer for the port. In California, York paid a $142,500 fine. Officials at Houston Baptist declined to comment when the Inquirer contacted them earlier this year. (Here is our reporting from the primary).
MacArthur’s campaign memo says York was “not an insurance company. It provided various services to insurers, public entities and self-insured’s.”
“In an extremely litigious industry, York raced relatively few lawsuits out of the more than one million of claims it processed during MacArthur’s tenure,” the memo said.
You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.