It’s the Republicans’ turn now to see contested primary races when they go to the polls in Burlington County in June. And a few of the contests are turning nasty.
For decades, the county GOP stronghold had kept dissension in the ranks to a minimum, save for a few tea party candidates who ran in the primaries several years ago.
But then the blue wave hit. Democrats took control of the county Board of Freeholders this year, after Republicans reigned for 40 years, and the GOP suffered a high-profile upset when Congressman Tom MacArthur was defeated in November by newcomer Andy Kim.
A few GOP lawmakers who represent the county survived close races while Republican-dominated towns such as Evesham and Moorestown flipped in November, when Democrats assumed the majority in local government.
In the aftermath, as Republicans scramble to find their footing, one primary race for two Assembly seats in the 8th District — which includes 14 Burlington County towns — reveals the party’s struggle to keep candidates from defecting and control rifts within the ranks.
Newly elected county Republican Committee Chairman Sean Earlen questioned the party loyalty of Assemblyman Joe Howarth, one of two incumbent Republicans in the 8th District, in a Facebook post in February.
Howarth, a former county freeholder from Marlton, had stayed quiet a bit too long and fueled suspicion when Sen. Dawn Addiego, his longtime political ally and running mate, announced she was switching parties in January.
Earlen withdrew his support for Howarth, saying in a Facebook post in February that he thought Howarth might follow Addiego’s lead.
Howarth “cut off all contact with me and other Republican leaders in an apparent attempt to join Senator Addiego in defecting. After finally speaking with Joe, and weighing his words and his actions against contrary evidence, I consulted with other party leaders and arrived at the indisputable fact that Joe Howarth no longer deserves party support,” said Earlen, who is also the mayor of Lumberton Township.
Earlen and Howarth did not return numerous requests for comment.
This month, Howarth registered to enter the race without a running mate and under a new banner: Burlington County MAGA Republican.
The former Evesham Township committeeman adopted a Trump-friendly platform, which mirrors the president’s “Make America Great Again" philosophy and around the same time introduced an Assembly bill that would penalize businesses that hire undocumented immigrants and another bill that would require proof of citizenship before an applicant could obtain a state driver’s license.
Howarth denied on his own Facebook page that he had considered leaving the party and said that when he learned of Addiego’s switch, he felt “many emotions ... from being numb, shocked, to betrayed, to anger, to abandonment. ... We will still have a relationship like I do with many on the other side of the aisle ... but it will never ever be the same.”
The county GOP is endorsing incumbent Ryan Peters for Assembly in District 8 and Jean Stanfield, who’s been in office 17 years as the county sheriff. Peters is a former county freeholder. Stanfield is making her first bid for state office and will not run for sheriff.
Another Republican challenger in the race is R. Jason Huf, an attorney who has offices in New York City and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On a blog on his law firm’s web page he said that he is known as “Mr. Middle East of Lower Manhattan” and that he specializes in representing clients who invest and do business in the Middle East and Asia.
But Huf, a Lumberton resident, did not team up with Howarth. He is running alone on a platform named “Fresh Leadership.”
Huf did not respond to a request for comment.
The Democrats also have a contested primary in the 8th District, but the three candidates who are running are all newcomers. John “Johnny" Bravo, of Marlton, is running as “A True Democrat” for one of two Assembly seats against endorsed Democratic candidates Gina LaPlaca of Lumberton and Mark Natale of Marlton, who are running as “Burlington County Regular Democrats.” Both are lawyers.
Bravo, a retired chemical engineer who worked for the Department of Defense and the Supply Center in Philadelphia, said his experience with contracts and with managing an oil cleanup qualifies him for a seat in the Assembly. He said he participated in a “short and sweet” interview with the Democratic Committee but was passed over.
Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Andl did not respond to several requests for comment.
On the municipal level, there is a notable contested Republican primary in Chesterfield, a mostly rural town of 8,000 outside Trenton that is experiencing rapid development and some political upheaval. In a race for two open seats on the Chesterfield Township Committee, the Republicans have endorsed two newcomers, rejecting a bid from Sam Davis, a former Republican township committeeman who lost a tight race for reelection to a second term in November.
But in this case, loyalty to the party was not questioned, but rather whether Davis is electable after he blamed his loss on “all the Indian people" in the town when he joined in a Facebook conversation earlier this year about whether immigrants who worked in a Bordentown restaurant should be tipped. He lost to Democrat Shreekant Dhopte and said the Indians who supported Dhopte had voted illegally and faced fines of $15,000.
Davis, who is a George Washington impersonator at commemorative events, had asked the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the votes in the community.
After Democrats labeled his remarks racist, Davis apologized at a public event a month later at the Crosswicks Friends Meeting. "The way I worded it was not good. ... There is no excuse for my behavior. I did not mean it to come out the way it did,” he said.
When asked for comment on the upcoming primary, Davis said: “I think I will remain quiet.” He is running without a platform and running mate.
The Republicans are fielding Lido “Lee” Panfili and Michael Russo under the Burlington County Regular Republican Organization banner. They are members of the planning board. Neither could be reached for comment.
On the Democratic ballot, newcomer Suruchi Batra is the sole candidate endorsed by the party under the Burlington County Regular Democrats banner. Rita Romeu, the Democratic mayor, and Agnes Marsala, a newcomer, are also running, separately, and have not named a platform.
The primaries are June 4.