School funding, property taxes, and job creation top the agendas of two Democrats hoping to get their party’s nomination in the June 4 primary to contest the general election for the Assembly’s two seats in the closely fought 8th District. They are being challenged by a man from Evesham unhappy with the party selection process who insists he is a “true Democrat.”
Mark Natale and Gina LaPlaca, both lawyers, are planning to challenge the Republican incumbents for the district that covers parts of Atlantic, Burlington, and Camden counties in November’s election. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, although independents are larger than both.
The two Democrats both argue that the GOP incumbents, Ryan Peters and Joe Howarth, have not worked across the aisle despite being in the minority in Trenton, and so have failed to represent their constituents.
The third Democrat, Johnny Bravo, appeared on a state list of primary candidates but is not backed by the Burlington County Democratic Committee, and did not respond to requests for information for this story. In an op-ed in the Burlington County Times in March, Bravo complained that the decision not to select him as a primary candidate had been taken by “a dozen mostly disinterested members, one of whom was knitting.”
Nevertheless, Bravo, a chemical engineer, said his petition to contest the primary had been signed by the required number of registered Democrats and so he would be running as a “true Democrat.”
LaPlaca, 39, a resident of Lumberton, argued that the incumbents should not hide behind the fact that they are in the minority as the reason for not working toward meaningful change
“For too long, the incumbent Republicans who represent the Eighth District have gotten away with blaming Trenton for their ineffectiveness and saying that they can’t get results for our district because they have been in the minority,” she wrote in a primary election statement. “This is just plain wrong.”
Democratic hopes of wresting control of the district — where 83 percent of residents are white — are based on wafer-thin Republican majorities in the last election in 2017. Then, the incumbents won 25.13 and 24.98 percent of the vote, respectively, only just ahead of 24.67 and 24.56 percent for their Democratic challengers.
Democrats may also be buoyed by the 2017 voter registration numbers, showing that registered Democrats outweighed Republicans by 31 percent to 27 percent, while both were easily exceeded by the 41 percent of unaffiliated voters, suggesting that many constituents are up for grabs.
For his part, Natale accused the incumbents of being “unwilling or unable” to work with legislative leaders, with the result that constituents’ needs have been placed “on the back burner.”
Natale, 30, who lives in Marlton, said his work as an attorney specializing in employment law, personal injury, and consumer fraud, is “nonpartisan and nonpolitical” and qualifies him to represent the district. “That’s what our community needs, a voice who is experienced in fighting for the working and middle class in our district,” he said in a statement.
LaPlaca said that since graduating from law school in 2004, she has worked as a legislative staffer and government affairs professional, and formed relationships with elected officials, business and labor leaders that are needed to get things done in the state Legislature.
She highlighted school funding, infrastructure investment, and job creation as her top priorities. She said most communities in the 8th District have suffered cuts in education funding this year, and she promised to fight for the cuts to be reversed.
Both Democratic hopefuls said government should be a force for good. “Now more than ever, I believe it is vitally important for smart, qualified individuals to run for public office,” LaPlaca said. “Residents of the Eighth District deserve to have representatives who will have a seat at the table and are willing to work hard for our communities and be engaged on a consistent basis, not just in an election year.”