Listen to audio version of this article
MOORESTOWN – They ran into each other at an InsiderNJ mixer in Atlantic City, where Republican Assemblyman Ryan Peters told Democrat Gina LaPlaca, “good luck,” referring to her 2018 attempt to land a freeholder seat. In reply, she supposedly told the legislator that if she didn’t make it countywide, she’d take a district-wide run at him.
It ended up going that way.
In this case the road to Atlantic City ran back to Burlington, only the two young insiders were on a collision course.
LaPlaca didn’t get the freeholder seat last year, and this year she’s running against Peters, who’s running for reelection with retiring Sheriff Jean Stanfield. For years, the Burlington GOP prided itself on having one of the tightest organization’s in the state, commanded by Glenn Paulsen, who at one time had the kind of politically imposing presence that made one think of a Republican version of George Norcross III.
Now Paulsen’s warpaint-wearing absence, and the retirement of his protege, Bill Layton, in the face of a
Democratic onslaught in the Donald Trump era, have Peters – a Navy SEAL – in the position of underdog, standing in a space where others in his party have either self-destructed, retired in terror from the battle, or sought more comfortable and lucrative climes.
Only Stanfield stuck around to occupy a foxhole in the sights of a Norcross heat-seeking missile, where South Jersey Democrats, who struck a sort of power-sharing agreement with Paulsen and Layton in the winter of Paulsen’s content, now want to extend their empire.
An attorney and lobbyist who cut her political and government teeth in the office of former Speaker Joe Roberts of South Jersey (on a staff that included future state Senator Troy Singleton and future Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera [a team insider Bill Castner called the 1927 Yankees]), LaPlaca early has to account for how her presence in a super majority of Democrats in Trenton is not merely the addition of another set of Norcross teeth.
But the Democrat wants to keep the focus on Republicans’ inability to put their minority status in the legislature to effective use.
“I often tell people people when they say Democrats have controlled the legislature for 20 years, that there was a Republican governor for eight years,” she told InsiderNJ. “I don’t recall a complete logjam. The lesson was they had to figure out how to work together and get the job done. All 80 seats are up. There could be some surprises, this is a low turnout year. It’s a defeatist message to say ‘I can do anything because of the people in control.’
“I think it’s about giving voters a legitimate active voice,” the challenger from Lumberton added. “These seats have for too long belonged to a party and not to the people in the district.”
Peters, for his part, is in special operations mode.
“I love being in a battleground district,” he told InsiderNJ, eyes deviously gleaming.
He knows the history here: felt it, lived it, suffered it, and, he hopes, can buck it.
The politics of survival in the face of national GOP leadership (first with George W. Bush, then President Donald J. Trump) that tilted the electorate against the party long conditioned the actions and reactions of party leaders here.
Denied a shot at the senate seat, Assemblyman Fran Bodine switched parties and ran for the senate in this district. Running on a Republican ticket with assembly candidates Dawn Addiego and Scott Rudder, attorney Phil Haines clobbered Bodine in the general election.
Haines’s campaign manager, incidentally, was firefighter Jason Carty, who’s married to LaPlaca.
It took over a decade, but Addiego – once the faithful ally on the Republican ticket alongside Haines, who retired for a judgeship – went where Bodino could only bitterly dream of going but never attain: the senate, as a Democrat.
Earlier this year, in the aftermath of Dem Andy Kim’s
stunning victory over incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur with Camden County jumping at the front of the anti-Trump parade, Addiego changed from R to D, infuriating Peters.
The other lower house occupant on the team, Assemblyman Howarth wobbled in the throes of the same enticements that flipped Addiego, then turned hard right in a primary against his running mate Peters.
Peters wasn’t sufficiently in Trump’s corner, Howarth argued.
Running on a ticket with a newly summoned Stanfield, Peters ran over him.
Now Peters and Stanfield, and she – after a long career as a countywide winner – occupies the top position on the ballots and signs – are up against LaPlaca and attorney Mark Natale. In preliminary district-wide polling this summer, veteran soldier Stanfield came in first, followed by LaPlaca. A followup poll showed Stanfield leading the pack, with the other three candidates bunched together. But, as if in an act of symbolic defiance, Carty, now literally at the side of the Democrat hoping to buck the vestiges of what Paulsen-Layton built, owns the Norman Rockwell edifice in downtown Mt. Holly that once smokily housed GOP headquarters. It’s a fact he mischievously harps on by cheerfully sitting outside when Republicans pass by.
It’s a race filled with little cloven-footed details like that, on both sides.
In their opening salvo, Democrats hit hard and often.
Mailboxes popped open this month and two Democratic hit pieces (funded by George Norcross’ General Majority PAC) appeared, striking the GOP on their pro-NRA connections.
Peters said he anticipates attacks linking him, by virtue of his party affiliation, to Trump. He’s just too juicy a target for the Dems, even though Peters already manhandled Howarth.
By association he must suffer the toxicity.
“It does come up when I talk to voters,” LaPlaca told InsiderNJ. “People tell me ‘I can’t, in good conscience, support a Republican while he’s the leader of the party.’ But just as we can’t let what’s happening in the Democratic Party outside the district define us, we have to stay on course with very specific messaging.”
While she said she does not believe Peters’s GOP Primary beat down of Howarth inoculates him, she said she intends to emphasize her opponent’s voting record. “On gun issues, he didn’t support a bill that was going to increase penalties for gun traffickers, and he voted against bills limiting high capacity magazines.”
She also cited women’s issues and equal pay.
“They’re going to go there and vote in lock-step with the Republican Party,” she said of Stanfield and Peters.
For his part (and please see a more extensive InsiderNJ interview with the incumbent here), the assemblyman plans to go after that portion of voters alert to the dangers of giving more votes to Democrats controlled by the Camden County Democratic machine.
“It’s one party rule,” Peters told InsiderNJ. “There are so many Democrats that they’re fighting each other. We know why both sides are angry [the South Jersey faction and the Murphy faction]. My point is ‘here’s the obvious middle ground.'”
Peters notes too that with the move of Robert Andrzejczak to the state senate, he now occupies a unique space in the assembly – in a district home to a strong military presence.
“I am among a handful of veterans in the assembly,” said the veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I am vet dealing with those issues.
“Nobody believes Ryan Peters is a poor man’s Donald Trump,” he said with a laugh. “Neither can you say that Ryan Peters is so far left or right.”
He’s a military man, he maintains.
“Right now, it’s so controlled over there with the Democrats, there was an issue when someone resigned for a tough reason [George Youngkin, in the aftermath last year’s freeholder’s contest], so many Democrats said there’s no choice; they already picked the person [to succeed the disgraced Youngkin] in a nondemocratic process,” Peters said.
His Democratic opponents would exhibit the same subservience on the party machine, he said, a condition underscored by his (and Stanfield’s) endorsement by the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA), a labor organization that supports Governor Phil Murphy against the South Jersey Democratic Party establishment that backs LaPlaca.
Peters allies argue that Murphy – tormented by South Jersey Democrats – like the NJEA, must be privately rooting for Stanfield and Peters.
This will get bloody.
Peters said the Democrats will of course mercilessly outspend him and Stanfield.
But he’s ready for it, he insisted, and even thrives on it.
He’s been building, in accord with the advice of a mentor, another military man.
Shortly after he took the oath of office last year (the replacement for Maria Rodriguez-Gregg), the BurlCo assemblyman conferred with state Senator Chris Brown (R-2), who beat the Norcross machine in Atlantic County in 2017.
“Start building your breastworks,” newly sworn-in Senator Brown – a combat veteran of Desert Storm – told the
new assemblyman. It was one veteran’s counsel to another, a reference to the Union Army’s defense of Culp’s Hill at the Battle of Gettysburg, to check the advance of Lee’s South Army and stop their momentum. If he gets past the Democrats in 2019, he has unfinished business with Addiego in 2021. He’ll run against her in the general for the senate seat. “Crazy not to,” said a Republican source, “especially if the district gets better for the GOP.”
Payback for the grief, but also gratitude for the chance to redefine what’s left of those who stayed behind.
For the moment, the public service-centered Peters knows the South will come in force, with another white-haired leader, this one not named Robert E. Lee, leading the charge for the LaPlaca-Natale regiment, but he’s ready, he insists; and LaPlaca, schooled by her own mentor, former Speaker Roberts, who taught her policy based on deliberative research, knows the temper of times have forced her opponents into a defensive position for a reason, and the only thing not in doubt right now in LD8 is the inevitability of the collision.
- Andy Kim
- Bill Castner
- Bob Andrzejczak
- Burlington County
- Burlington County Democrats
- Burlington County GOP
- Camden County Democrats
- Chris Brown
- Culp's Hill
- Dawn Addiego
- Donald Trump
- Economic Development Authority
- equal pay
- Fran Bodine
- Gabriela Mosquera
- George Norcross
- George Youngkin
- Gina LaPlaca
- Jason Carty
- Jean Stanfield
- Joe Andl
- Joe Howarth
- Joe Roberts
- Maria Rodriguez-Gregg
- Mark Natale
- NJ Democrats
- Phil Haines
- Robert E. Lee
- Ryan Peters
- Sean Earlen
- Tom MacArthur
- Troy Singleton
Click here for the full Insider Index