Two Hope To Lead A Republican Revival In Pine Hill

Posted: October 26, 1998

PINE HILL — This is not the town a high-priced political consultant would pick for a Republican comeback attempt.

Once known around South Jersey for its raucous partisan battles, Pine Hill has been run by Democrats for seven years, since the Republicans who dominated the council in the 1980s were swept out. The constant bickering on the council led voters in 1991 to boot longtime Republican Mayor Joseph Nunes in favor of current Mayor Curt Noe, a Democrat who had no political experience at the time.

The local Republican Club was fractured almost beyond repair. In 1992, the last time the party ran a candidate for every available seat, the GOP had two feuding local chairmen and ran two competing slates in the general election. This year, only 36 people voted in the party's primary.

Despite that tortured history, two residents have launched a Borough Council campaign that they hope will double as a grass-roots Republican revival.

``We will still be outnumbered, but we can be the checks and balances,'' said Laura Adriano, a Republican candidate who is also running for Camden County's Board of Freeholders. ``Right now, there is no one doing that. It's needed.''

Adriano and running mate Wayne Tarus both moved to town after the fall of the local Republican Party. Neither one has been involved in politics for more than a couple of years. They have tried to use their status as relative newcomers to distance themselves from the Republicans whom people remember.

``It's awful,'' Adriano said. ``When I was out getting my petition signed, people looked at me like, `Are you part of that Nunes organization?' ''

For his eight years in office, Nunes influenced most everything that local government touched, according to Pine Hill politicians from both parties. His capture of the town for the GOP coincided with Republicans' county-wide strength in the 1980s, said Assemblyman George Geist, county Republican chairman from 1983 to 1992.

``During the '80s, we built the county party at the municipal level. . . . We established a network of municipal successes as a foundation for countywide success,'' said Geist, who was Pine Hill's solicitor from 1984 to 1989.

But in Pine Hill, a traditional Democratic stronghold that was once former Gov. Jim Florio's home, Nunes and the Republican Party's popularity ended when politics got so dirty that their opponents were able to retake the government by casting themselves as a breath of fresh air.

Now Adriano and Tarus hope to turn the Democrats' long reign to their advantage by using the same ``bring in a new perspective and shake things up'' arguments that finished the Nunes era.

``This very small nucleus runs the whole show,'' Tarus said. He said six years of unchallenged rule had left council members unable to consider opinions originating outside the governing body.

The challengers have built their campaign around promises to bring new businesses to town and lower residential tax rates, in literature that makes no mention of the Republican Party.

Their slogans are meant as an attack on the current council members. Though officials call plans for a new golf course the centerpiece of a massive economic development project, they have not said exactly how the course will help the town. The deal for the golf course is still not locked up, 10 months after its initial announcement.

Perhaps surprisingly, the two Democrats whose seats Adriano and Tarus seek said they would welcome renewed competition.

``They care, they're doing their homework, and that's a good thing,'' said Councilman Ray Muller, who has served since 1992. ``It's always nice to have someone out there bugging you. Having opposition is always a good thing. That's the way our system works.''

Council President John Maguire, who is also up for reelection, agreed, but added that the Democrats deserved credit for pulling the town up from chaos.

``Everybody had their own agenda,'' he said of the Nunes government. ``It was nuts in this town. . . . We were the laughingstock of Camden County. That's the truth. And I think we've eliminated all of that and brought back a lot of credibility that the town never had before.''

Both sides said they recognized the odds were with the incumbents, and Maguire and Muller admitted their magnanimity might come from a sense of security. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pine Hill by nearly 1,000, with only 507 people - 10 percent of the town's voters - listed as Republicans. Still, about 70 percent of the 4,996 voters are unaffiliated.

If Democratic control over government has hurt the town, though, few residents seem to have noticed. At some council meetings, Adriano, Tarus and some council members' families are the only residents who show up.

``We have a lot of things here for the kids, our taxes aren't out of this world. . . . I'm happy here,'' said Brenda Silvestro, 27, who has lived in Pine Hill for eight years. ``I haven't had a gripe yet.''

No matter what the outcome is, the race should go a long way toward reestablishing the GOP in Pine Hill, said Camden County Republican Chairman John Hanson.

``I think that Laura and Wayne are people that we can build a very, very effective party around down there,'' Hanson said. ``Of necessity, I take the long view.''

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