Democratic candidates for two General Assembly seats in the 8th Legislative District are hoping to tip the balance of the closely fought constituency that the GOP won by razor-thin margins two years ago, and where the sitting state senator flipped to the Democrats earlier this year.
Democratic hopes for this November’s election have also been buoyed by the Republican deselection of incumbent Joe Howarth before the primary amid reports that he too had considered switching to the Democrats in a bid to save his seat; Howarth ended up contesting the primary — unsuccessfully — as a “MAGA” Republican who supported President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The remaining incumbent, Ryan Peters, says he’s running for re-election to stand up against “one-party Democrat rule” in Trenton, and to campaign for lower taxes. He’s joined by Jean Stanfield, a former Burlington County Sheriff, who replaces Howarth.
Peters, 37, a former Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now director of a Mount Laurel car dealership, is proposing a 2% cap on any increases in state spending, as part of an effort to cut property taxes. If re-elected, he said he will work to reduce property taxes, and reform the school funding formula.
Stanfield, 62, a former prosecutor, said after retiring as county sheriff that she had no plans to run for office again but became a candidate for the 8th District because of her concerns about the state’s “crisis” of high taxes and a lagging economy.
“We need a check and balance on one-party rule in Trenton that is failing our state,” she said.
A few hundred votes
In the 2017 poll, less than a percentage point, or only 645 votes, separated the top-performing Republican, Howarth, from Mary Ann Merlino, the Democrat with the fewest votes— an outcome that Democrats hope they can tweak to overturn the GOP in November. The district contains about 7,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans but both parties are outweighed by about 63,000 “unaffiliated” voters, according to the latest voter-registration data.
On the Democratic side, the district is being contested by Gina LaPlaca, 40, and Mark Natale, 31, both lawyers, who also want to bring down property taxes and fully fund the state’s school-funding formula.
“Our residents are seeing their school funding get cut, and their property taxes go up,” said LaPlaca, who lives in Lumberton. Voters are asking themselves whether they can afford to stay in “the communities they call home and where they have chosen to raise their families,” she said.
If elected, LaPlaca said her priority will be to drive down costs so that seniors and working families won’t be priced out of their homes. Like other candidates in both major parties, she urged “real steps” to consolidate municipal and school district services in the hope that lower costs will bring down taxes.
For his part, Natale, a trial lawyer from Marlton, accused the district’s Republican incumbents of “partisan ideology” that has prevented them from working with Democrats to get things done that would improve the lives of their constituents. Neither of the Democrats have held elected office before.
Natale said his legal work on employment law, personal injury, and consumer fraud would help him represent working people if he is elected as a legislator.
‘Fair share’ for South Jersey
“I’ve been an advocate for working people my entire career, ensuring that they aren’t taken advantage of in the work place and that they get their fair share,” he said in a statement. “I want to bring advocacy to the state house and make sure that South Jersey receives its fair share of representation and funding from the legislature.”
Democratic hopes of taking the district were fueled earlier this year by the defection of state Sen. Dawn Addiego to the Democrats, after being elected as a Republican in 2017.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University, said the district — containing parts of Camden, Burlington and Atlantic Counties — has more Democrats than it did, turning a reliably Republican district into one that could go either way.
“It’s a traditionally suburban Republican area that has changed as more and more registered Democrats have moved in in the last decade,” he said. “Conventional wisdom told you it was a safe Republican area; now it’s competitive.”
The ‘MAGA’ factor
The two official Republicans are joined on the ballot by Tom Giangiulio, a new ‘MAGA’ Republican who is not expected to have much of an impact on the race, Dworkin predicted.
“This is going to be a big battle between the parties. The MAGA conservative is not really expected to be a major factor here,” he said.
Republican campaign officials said they didn’t know how to contact Giangiulio; Chris Russell, a GOP spokesman, said the MAGA candidate may have been “planted” by the Democrats.
But Andrew Slansky, a spokesman for Natale and LaPlaca, said Giangiulio’s appearance on the ballot is more likely the result of splits in the Republican Party.
“It seems like our opponents are not only letting down moderates, but they are also in the middle of an intraparty feud,” Slansky said, in response to the GOP claims. “This has nothing to do with our campaign and sounds like a weak attempt at misdirection.”
Giangiulio could not be reached for comment.
Follow this link to an overview of the 8th Legislative District.