Amid Dems’ Din, Stanfield Runs on a Life of Public Service

Jean Stanfield

Retired Sheriff Jean Stanfield of Westampton stands at the heart of one of the state’s true legislative battlegrounds, where amid the tatters of an old organization reborn with new leadership in challenging times, she makes her public service case to the voters of Legislative District 8. Eighteen years the sheriff before she retired this year to run for the Assembly alongside fellow Republican, Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-8), the Rutgers-educated Stanfield started her career as an assistant prosecutor in the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office and became an undersheriff in the 1990s, when the BurlCo Republican organization was in ascendancy.

As sheriff, she built the department from a place that mostly specialized in courtroom security to taking over the fugitive unit from the prosecutor, to an office that maintained multiple public safety special programs. “I wasn’t political,” she said of her first countywide campaign for sheriff in 1996. “I didn’t even know what the freeholders did.” And now, the bookish Stanfield with a passion for the law, wants to be a lawmaker in Trenton, even as Democrats look to expand on the gains they made in Burlington, to date culminating last year with a takeover of the long Republican-controlled Freeholder Board.

But if Stanfield is an emblem from an organization whose most noticable public players have mostly moved on, among them retired state Senator Diane Allen (R-7), Senator Dawn Addiego (D-8), who switched parties this year, former chairs Glenn Paulsen and Bill Layton, who pursued other career paths after retiring as leaders of the party organization, she also offers something few others can claim: a real record of public service. The Democrats’ fledgling organization in Burlington looks stronger on the basis of recent gains, but their candidates, perhaps the consequence of living outside the gates of a Republican-controlled county, seem to lack the individual constituent service experience of the sheriff. If the Dems’ candidates seem comparatively inexperienced in a key area, their organization looks stronger; while the GOP has arguably stronger candidates leading a dismally fractured organization. Will Stanfield’s own record, and the similarly public service-footed record of her running mate, retired Navy SEAL Peters, be enough to withstand rivals in organizational ascendancy in the aftermath of the election of President Donald J. Trump?

“I agree we’re the underdogs,” Stanfield told InsiderNJ after coming off a round of knocking on doors in local battleground Lumberton. “I trust voters will look at what we’ve done in the past. Ryan Peters has served our nation in the armed forces and worked with with other legislators in Trenton. Mike Ditzel [GOP sheriff’s candidate in BurlCo] came up through the ranks. And I have given 31 years of public service: 26 years in the sheriff’s office and 18 years as sheriff. The people out there see that big political machine against us.”

And they know better, she said.

If she gets to Trenton on the strenth of tomorrow’s election, “Two aspects of the job excite me,” Stanfield said. “The technical aspects of the law, for one. I love writing. The whole meaning of something, a law, for example, can be changed with one word. So the writing is critical. And I like that. Also, I excel at the information-gathering side of this work. I like to talk to people to gain a deeper understanding of how laws impact them, their work, and their lives. At the sheriff’s office, we faced a law that made it illegal for officers to carry guns off duty. We reversed that law. If elected, I can make those kinds of inquiries in the writing of laws.”

Her opponents say the GOP – relegated to minority status in Trenton – can’t affect real change, so must inevitably occupy the roles of naysayers and embittered critics. But Stanfield pointed to her long record of working on the development of sheriff’s office programs with other agencies and departments and in towns not necessarily governed by Republicans. “I wrote a [public safety] grant for $500k, and worked with Burlington City on its implementation. It wasnt like ‘you’re a Democrat town, I’m not going to work with you.’ My experience in the development of programs to help people taught me that I don’t have the power to unilaterally make new laws, but to rely on dialogue.”

As a Republican, single mom and now grandma Stanfield also faces the blowback from voters concerned about Trump’s play to the nativist base of the country. The retired sheriff said, “My kids are biracial. My granddaughter is half Peruvian. People should not assume that because I am a member of the Republican Party that I don’t respect people of all different backgrounds. It’s easy to paint all Republicans with a broad brush, but I have spent a lifetime buildin bridges.”

As for other contemporaries retiring, changing parties, or moving on rather than engage voters in these challenging times for New Jersey Republicans, Stanfield said change is good. She does not feel like the last standing member of a once mighty organization. “I spoke to Diane Allen this morning. She’s a mentor and a resource. Shes not gone. She’s one of the most caring people I know. Also, our new chair [Sean Earlen] is doing a great job.

“Maye it was time for a change,” Stanfield added. “When you look at who we’re running, I’m convinced that’s true. We have a great slate of candidates. Public service people. It’s a good year for us, and I think we’re going to surprise some people tomorrow.”

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