In a South Jersey Democratic stronghold, local concerns fuel a party insurgency

The "Sweet Team." Gloucester Township mayoral candidate Sam Sweet (second from left), council candidate Dave Johnson (left) and campaign volunteer Crystal Evans greet homeowner Dennis Petersen (right) as they knock on doors in the Cobblestone Farms development May 16, 2017. They are challenging the county-backed incumbents.

When I ask Ann Boyle to name the biggest issues in Gloucester Township, she has the answer ready.

“The taxes and the schools,” the mother of two tells me, standing at the front door of her home in the Sicklerville section.

A 54-year-old paralegal, Boyle got a visit one early evening last week by two members of the Sweet Team,  a slate of mayor and council candidates challenging two-term incumbent David Mayer and his council ticket in the June 6 Democratic primary. The three council seats and the mayor’s office carry four-year terms.

Team namesake and mayoral hopeful Sam Sweet, running mate David Johnson, and a couple of volunteers came to the Cobblestone Farms development in search of Democratic votes -- of  which they’ll need plenty to overcome the name recognition, ballot position, fund-raising, and organizational advantages of Team Mayer 2017.

Camera icon tom gralish / Staff Photographer
Sam Sweet (right) and running mate David Johnson canvass in Cobblestone Farms.

Hope nevertheless springs eternal in the heavily Democratic township of 64,000, even among Republicans. A mayor-council Saving Gloucester Township slate, comprising mostly political newcomers, is running unopposed in the GOP primary.

But unlike Cherry Hill, where a progressive Democrat council ticket is challenging the candidates backed by Mayor Chuck Cahn -- he and Mayer both enjoy the Camden County party organization’s formidable support  --  the Gloucester Township primary race has less to do with national ideology than with local issues.

“There are sites in town that can attract businesses, and be developed … if we lower the taxes,” says Sweet,  48, an accountant who ran for the township school board two years ago and lost.

“We also have to get the school ratings up" on sites such as schooldigger.com, he says, while acknowledging that Gloucester Township’s K-8 school district is not under the mayor and council’s control.

Standing on the sidewalk in front of Boyle’s house, Sweet says, "You ask how can we compete with Mayer? This is one way. By getting the word out by going around and meeting people.”

Comments on social media and elsewhere online suggest that anger at Mayer, some of it rather personal in tone, as well as a more generalized dissatisfaction with the political status quo, have created a potential political force in the township.

In July, several hundred residents jammed a council meeting on the heels of a 12 percent property tax increase, assailing the Mayer administration’s big-ticket purchases of turf fields at a time when “zombie” houses dotted many neighborhoods.

The tax breaks offered to the three-year-old Gloucester Premium Outlets, the township’s first regional retail destination and an economic development project Mayer rarely fails to mention, continue to irritate people.

Who can blame them? I bet thousands of Gloucester Township homeowners would love to get a property tax break like the outlets got.

Mayer, an earnest and enthusiastic salesman for the township, sees things differently.  “Some social media run by our opposition just spews out negativity -- I’m a bad guy, and all that,” says the 50-year-old Comcast executive and former N.J. Assembly member.

“But the responses I get when I’m out and about and knocking on doors in the township are very, very positive,” Mayer says. “I’m not focused on the opposition. All they do is criticize. I’m focused on moving forward and growing our economy, and our [property tax] ratable base.”

Camera icon Tom gralish / Staff Photographer
Mayoral candidate Sweet goes door-to-door in Gloucester Township.

A 23-square-mile mix of once-rural hamlets, baby-boom-era  neighborhoods, and an eclectic assortment of more recent housing developments,  Gloucester Township is a working-class/middle-class community with a great location, rolling landscapes, and considerable diversity.

The town also has long possessed a particularly Philly-South-Jersey-flavored politics: “Youse are all scumbags!” a resident informed council members during that infamous post-tax-hike meeting last summer.

Entertaining as such outbursts may be, they underscore the deep frustration -- at least among some township taxpayers -- at a local government they quite understandably believe they can no longer afford.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like that meeting, and now four people have decided to run against the Democrat machine in Gloucester Township, as well as in Cherry Hill,” says Tom Crone, a spokesman for the local GOP.

“People are angry. People are hurting,” he says, adding that he sees a parallel in the phenomenon that delivered the White House to Donald Trump.

“Hopefully, people say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” says Crone. “And if [the Sweet slate] loses the primary, I hope the people say, ‘I’m going to vote Republican in November.’ ”

Boyle, the Cobblestone Farms resident, tells me she was “willing to listen” to the campaign pitch from the Sweet Team.

And, although she is a registered Democrat, she says her decisions about whom to vote for are guided more by issues than by party affiliation.

Says Boyle: “I want to see what kind of solutions candidates have.”

So do other folks in Gloucester Township.

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