Some In Burlco Resent Involvement Of Camden Democrats Former Burlington County Democratic Boss Ken Covert Admits That His Vision Of A United Force In South Jersey Failed.

Posted: October 26, 1998

To Burlington County Republican Freeholder Vince Farias, documents containing information about the personal lives of Republican candidates were just another sign that the powerful Camden County Democratic Party was operating in Burlington County.

The documents, he said, were the result of research of public records and interviews with local Republicans in Burlington County just weeks before the November elections. They contained information about personal bankruptcies and sexual relationships, and they were topped with a cover letter from the Camden County Democratic Party - a party with both a legacy of winning tough elections and a stigma of allegedly running Machiavellian campaigns.

Burlington Democratic leaders have said they never intended to use the information in the campaign.

It wasn't only the information that angered Farias. It was also the intrusion by a party from another county.

``There's nothing illegal about it,'' Farias said of the Camden County Democratic Party's alleged involvement. ``But this is Burlington County, and we should be fighting our own battles.''

In truth, Camden County Democrats' association with Burlington County Democrats predates Farias' criticism of the documents that landed in his lap. The two county parties began working together as early as the 1980s, and solidified that association in 1994 with the arrival of former Burlington County Democratic chairman Kevin Covert.

Covert took over the reins of the Burlington County party from longtime Democrat Joe Foy, who resigned under fire after revelations that his wife's electrical company had been paid nearly $1 million by the Burlington County Bridge Commission for no-bid work.

At the time, Democrats say, Burlington's Democratic Party was sagging under a shrinking political base in a Republican-controlled county, a dwindling war chest, and a tarnished public image. Covert, a young Haddonfield lawyer who had worked on Camden County Sen. John Adler's campaigns for Congress and the state Senate, was viewed at the time as a harbinger of change.

But Covert concedes today that his brand of change was not accepted by the party's old guard, in part because of his friendship and working relationship with Adler - and his emulation of George E. Norcross 3d, the chairman of the Camden County Democrats between 1989 and 1994. Norcross, an accomplished fund-raiser and strategist, had the reputation of running tough, marketing-driven campaigns.

Covert, both critics and supporters say, borrowed heavily from Norcross' brand of politics, using political strategies and techniques that Norcross pioneered in local races in the early 1990s: targeted mail, television ads, polling and media consulting; and behind the scenes, aggressive fund-raising, careful selection of candidates, and research on opponents.

Because those new techniques required money, Covert said, he looked for contributions beyond Burlington's borders - often into Camden County. That further fueled the perception that Burlington's old guard was being pushed to the periphery in favor of Camden County, which had a natural interest in its northern neighbor because parts of Camden and Burlington Counties lie in the Seventh Legislative District, said Bob Renshaw, the former mayor of Riverside. The Seventh District straddles Burlington and Camden Counties.

Camden County is controlled by Democrats and Burlington County by Republicans.

``As a political operative and as a fund-raiser, he [Covert] was very, very good,'' said Jeffry Mintz, chairman of the Democratic Party in Moorestown and a longtime county committee member. ``But some of us were concerned that he would have allowed the Camden County Democrats to call the shots.''

Covert today calls much of that criticism excessive. He said he took over the Democratic Party at a time of rapid population shifts from the county's river towns to newer, suburban areas - a change to which he says the old guard was slow to respond.

In Covert's mind, the party had to begin cultivating a base in suburban towns such as Mount Laurel, Evesham and Medford. It could no longer ``simply hold on to what it had.'' The party had to expand - much in the same way that the Camden County Democrats had done under Norcross in the southern end of the county.

``I always used to say that it didn't make sense to imitate people who lose,'' Covert said. ``You try to imitate people who are successful, and if you look around South Jersey, Camden County is one of the few beacons of success.''

``The [old guard's] mentality was . . . be a king of nothing rather than a prince of something larger,'' Covert said. ``And that is what they were: king of nothing.''

That ``something larger,'' local Democrats say, was a vision of a united Democratic front in South Jersey that was strong enough and large enough to have a say in promoting gubernatorial candidates.

The vision never quite got off the ground under Covert's tenure, he said. After two years of running the party - years marked by squabbles after losing two incumbent Assembly seats in the traditionally Democratic Seventh District - Covert announced in 1996 that he would not run for the chairmanship again.

Covert's successor, Lee O'Toole, ran the party for a year, but was dogged by accusations of disorganization. The reins of the party passed to Gary Karr in 1997.

Karr, a good friend of Covert's, is considered to take a more middle-of-the-road approach than Covert, according to Renshaw. When he first came on board, Karr said the Burlington County Democrats would be open to advice from Camden County Democrats, but must establish themselves without the influence of their southern neighbors.

But the recent documents suggest otherwise. The documents contained profiles of key Republicans, and were attached to a cover letter signed by Stephen G. Ayscue, the Camden County Democratic Party's executive director.

Karr said the information was compiled by his party and was not intended to be made public. When asked what Ayscue's role was, he said the Camden County Democrat was planning to send the information to contributors.

Ayscue did not return repeated phone calls last week.

Camden County Democratic Chairman David Luthman confirmed that the cover letter - but not the attached research on opponents - was Ayscue's. Luthman said he did not authorize, or have any knowledge, of Ayscue's actions.

Karr said his position on the Camden County Democrats has not changed since he took control of the party. He is open to advice from a party that has been successful, but will not let Camden County, or any other successful Democratic party, pull the strings.

``We are always open to advice and suggestions,'' Karr said. ``We'd be foolish not to be. But to say that Camden County is coming in and running races for us is ridiculous.''

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