Harrison Twp. Mayor Manzo says he can be 'polarizing'; many agree
HARRISON TWP. - At a Township Committee meeting this month, Mayor Louis Manzo compared a resident to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying former president of Iran.
He would later describe that meeting as “much calmer” than the previous one. That’s because at the Aug. 19 meeting, where 150 residents turned out to protest a redevelopment proposal, Manzo instructed the restless crowd to “strike me dead” and “take my children” if they could prove he had been deceptive about the committee’s intentions.
Daughters Alexis, 20, and Marissa, 17, were sitting in the front row — along with Manzo’s wife and mother-in-law.
“I get embarrassed at myself even while I’m doing it, to tell you the truth,” Manzo said of his off-the-cuff, cringe-inducing remarks. “It’s not even like afterward, ‘Why did I say that?’”
Manzo is not the most popular mayor these days in Gloucester County. Some Mullica Hill residents are fed up with what they call his condescending b[KERN+3]ehavior in municipal meetings and his support of the redevelopment plan that property owners had feared was a cover for an effort to gobble up their homes and businesses on North Main Street through eminent domain.
A Republican running unopposed for his third term as mayor in November, Manzo has also ruffled feathers in the county GOP by endorsing state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, in the Third Legislative District race.
Manzo knows Sweeney’s opponent, Niki Trunk, well: She served three years on the Harrison Township Committee with him.
“I can be a little polarizing,” Manzo said. “But I’m a believer that digging down deep and getting some emotion involved and engaging people … is a good thing.”
Others are happy to spar.
“He’s a Republican fraud,” said Republican Larry Wallace, a Gloucester County freeholder who is running for a Third District Assembly seat. “He’s been building up this attitude that you can’t challenge him. And if you do challenge him, he’s going to be [angry] about it.”
Asked for her thoughts about Manzo, Joan Halter, who runs an accounting firm on North Main Street and who has campaigned against the redevelopment proposal, said, “Can this be used against me in a court of law?”
Considering his path to politics, Manzo, 54, seems an unlikely target for such vitriol.
In 2006, Manzo coached his daughter’s soccer team, which was playing on a field in poor condition. The Township Committee pledged that a new field would be ready the following season, Manzo said.
It wasn’t. So when two committee seats were up for election the following year, Manzo ran with Trunk to get the job done. They won.
Before that election, Manzo had never held public office and was a registered independent. A certified financial planner whom Springfield, Mass.-based MassMutual Financial Group recently tapped to expand the firm in South Jersey, Manzo says he is a fiscal conservative.
“I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a voting booth — even to this day, after I declared [Republican] — and ever pulled straight-line anything, ever,” he said.
Shortly after the election, Manzo did something anathema to many Gloucester County Republicans: He met with Sweeney, then the freeholder director.
They forged a relationship that helped ensure passage of the controversial Route 322 Bypass to relieve traffic congestion in Mullica Hill.
While Manzo said he likely disagrees with Sweeney on many state- or national-level issues — he is antiabortion, for example — “that’s not what I’m dealing with as the mayor of Harrison Township. I’m dealing with local stuff. I’m dealing with the bypass. I’m dealing with getting streets paved.”
Manzo’s request for a meeting “impressed the hell out of me,” Sweeney said. The Democratic Party is “not competitive in that town. He can be as negative as he wants to politically and there’s not much we can do about it.”
In a county with nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, Harrison Township is the only municipality with more registered Republicans (2,600) than Democrats (1,912).
Yet Manzo said he had embraced bipartisanship.
Whereas Sweeney worked with Republican Gov. Christie to push issues such as pension reform through the Legislature, Manzo says, Gloucester County Republicans “don’t seek and cannot find common ground in most cases.”
Manzo described the local Republican philosophy as “a cluster. It is a mess.”
“They’re the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Kevin Murphy, the newly elected chairman of the Gloucester County Republican Executive Committee, said Manzo’s criticism was unfounded, since he had not met with the new leadership.
“It’s unfortunate he’d be so narrow-minded as to not enter into dialogue and meet with the new executive board and help, as the Republican he claims to be, forge the new path that this party is on in Gloucester County,” Murphy said.
Wallace, who said he works with Democrats when needed, said Manzo “should do a little research before he runs his mouth off.”
Some Harrison residents are equally put off by Manzo’s plans in town.
The township expects that 51 acres of privately owned farmland west of Main Street and south of Route 322 will be developed in the coming years. It designated that land as an area in need of redevelopment to boost the town’s revenue by offering developers payment in lieu of taxes.
The Township Committee proposed extending the redevelopment designation to the adjacent properties on North Main Street, which include small businesses and Victorian homes, in what Manzo said was an effort to lure business and make those properties more attractive to prospective buyers, should current owners choose to sell.
Eleven days before the board was set to vote on the proposal, however, property owners on North Main launched a campaign to fight the “Mullica Hill landgrab,” stoking fears of eminent domain.
Residents packed the municipal building for the August meeting, and the committee shelved the plan to include the properties in the redevelopment area, even as Manzo decried what he called the spreading of misinformation.
Property owners can opt back into the plan next month.
His passion “sometimes manifests itself to look like a condescending jerk,” Manzo said. “I’ll deal with that, as long as I’m able to admit it and try to correct it.”
Going forward, however, Manzo doesn’t plan to change his leadership style: “To overthink what I’m going to say, or to parse my words, or to hold back because of trying to be politically correct — it’s not me. It’s not who I am.”