Discontent fuels unusual challenge to Cherry Hill's political establishment

Members of Progressive Democrats for Cherry Hill listen to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson Saturday, May 6, 2017, at the township library.

For the first time in recent memory, Democratic primary voters in Cherry Hill have a choice between rival teams of township council candidates: A self-described progressive slate is challenging the incumbents and party regulars for four open seats.

This refreshing if not quite revolutionary political effort arises in part from concerns about the redevelopment of South Jersey’s signature suburb, but also is being propelled by worries about the direction of the Democratic Party and the nation itself.

The primary is June 6 and the voter-registration deadline is Tuesday.

“There is this wonderful moment of people wanting to participate politically, and civically,” says Judy Amorosa, who along with fellow township resident Rena Margulis has made the Cherry Hill United page on Facebook into a political force.

With more than 3,000 members, the page has been a catalyst for the creation of Progressive Democrats for Cherry Hill. The group has recruited political newcomers Joshua Hare, Mark Gulbranson, Patricia Magnus, and Scott Soffen to run for council.

The progressive slate is challenging Team Cahn,  Mayor Chuck Cahn’s slate, which includes incumbent Council President David Fleisher,  incumbents Carole Roskoph and Carolyn Jacobs, and newcomer Sangeeta Doshi.

Cahn, who is midway through his second mayoral term, insists that national, not local, issues have fueled the progressive slate’s emergence. “I know there are those who disagree,” he says. “But on balance, I believe people are very, very pleased with the direction we have taken.”

(There’s no contest in the Republican township council primary, in which Cherry Hill’s GOP organization is running a slate of newcomers:  Andrew Behrend, John Papieka, Scott Cohen, and Joseph Rodi Jr.)

The progressive Democrats, whether motivated by opposition to President Trump, opposition to the potential for more gas stations and dense residential developments on the township’s west side, or other issues, have been able to field 47 Cherry Hill candidates for the Camden County Democratic Committee.

“I told them that if you want to effect change [at the municipal level], get people on the committee,” says Alex Law, the savvy maverick who came out of nowhere to create a credible, if ultimately unsuccessful, 2016 primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross.

Now 26 and working as a financial strategist in Voorhees, Law -- who has been accepted into law school at the University of Virginia -- describes himself as having “coached” the Cherry Hill effort. “The question,” he says, “is how to connect with the thousands of people who are frustrated by the status quo in the township.”

The Cherry Hill challengers also have been energized by Our Revolution South Jersey, a group associated with the national organization that grew out of the unsuccessful Democratic presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Progressive Democrats across the country are trying to get involved, get on the ballot, and get elected at the most basic levels,” says Joe Russell, a web developer from Collingswood who’s making his first-ever bid for elective office by running for a county committee seat.

“I’m super-impressed by what Judy and her people have done,” he adds. “The party and the system are definitely set up against new people coming in.”

The fact that the mainstream Cherry Hill Democrats have been supported for decades by a sophisticated, well-financed county party organization that cultivates generational loyalty has led, the progressives say, to a municipal government that is more insular and less transparent than it would like the public to believe.

And the regularity of unanimous affirmative votes by the all-Democratic township council, Amorosa says, “is  machine politics at its worst. That’s why we decided being a watchdog was not enough.” 

While agreeing that having more citizens interested in elective office is a public good, Fleisher -- who says Trump’s victory inspired him to seek a third term -- insists the challenge slate’s 10-point program already has been addressed or accomplished under the leadership of Cahn and the council.

The two also imply that the challengers ought to earn more stripes at the neighborhood level  before seeking township-wide office.

“Without the trust of your neighbors, it’s difficult to be as effective as you need to be,” Fleisher says.

Citing the township’s open-space preservation and complete streets programs, outdoor smoking bans in public places, and a newly constituted human relations commission, among other initiatives, the mayor says: “I don’t like to label myself, but I don’t know what’s more progressive than that.”

Says Magnus: “I don’t have a personal ax to grind against the mayor. But what I’m hearing as I knock on doors in the township is a huge amount of unrest. We have an opportunity to change things.”

Cherry Hill certainly has changed in the 40 years I’ve been writing about it.

But only in a handful of those years has anyone other than an individual recruited by or at the very least allied with the Camden County Democrats wielded any real power in township politics.

“We’ve been the loyal opposition for a long time,” says Jeff Land, chairman of the Cherry Hill Republican organization and a GOP county committee member since 1980. “It seems a significant portion of the township Democrats feel the same way we do.”