Personal Issues Come To The Fore Of Contentious 6th Dist. Campaign

Posted: June 02, 1999

It has been compared to a bloody street fight, a ferocious duel, and an all-out name-calling, mudslinging fest. In fact, both Democratic and Republican political insiders predict the Sixth District Assembly race will be all that - and possibly more.

Up for grabs are two Assembly seats held by Democrats Louis Greenwald and Mary Previte in the district that includes Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Voorhees and Merchantville. Out to sweep them from office are Republicans Gerard M. Banmiller and Robert Seltzer.

What has Democrats and Republicans alike energized about this race is not Tuesday's primary, in which all four candidates are running unopposed. It is the showdown in November between Greenwald, an assemblyman since 1996, and Banmiller, a banker who has built his reputation on his often-caustic remarks on Camden County politics.

``My anticipation is that this could be a rather vigorously contested election,'' Camden County Democratic chairman David Luthman said.

County GOP chairman John Hanson put it this way: ``It's going to be an interesting race, and an entertaining one, and we're going to win it.''

To a large extent, this race is a personal fight. Banmiller, 51, regional president of Hudson United Bank, has worked closely with Democrats in years past. He has served on the boards of the Camden County Improvement Authority and the Municipal Utilities Authority, and has supported Democratic candidates in local races. His foray into politics as a Republican left several Democrats feeling betrayed.

More recently, Gov. Whitman appointed him to the state board that oversees the City of Camden's finances. There, he has made headlines for opposing initiatives championed by Democratic Mayor Milton Milan.

``That was the crystallizing event that made me run [for the Assembly], because there, I directly saw and touched the abuses that on a regular basis are tolerated by government,'' Banmiller said.

Whereas fiscal responsibility in government will be the centerpiece of Banmiller's campaign, Seltzer, Banmiller's running mate, will home in on the issues of property taxes, education, and an area he knows a lot about: health care. A dentist from Cherry Hill, Seltzer, 52, describes himself as an ``idea man'' and a man ``who understands people,'' and said he would campaign hard and always be accessible to voters.

``We are going to take it to the people,'' Seltzer said. ``There are many out there who like the fact that we aren't politicians.''

The two Republicans face a stiff challenge. Democrats say Greenwald, 32, and Previte, 66, are inspiring candidates. The two incumbents are also endorsed by the powerful Camden County Democratic Party, which has a reputation for spending large amounts of money to ensure victory for its candidates.

On the issues front, Previte, who is seeking a second two-year term, has projected herself as a staunch advocate for children. In the Assembly, she has sponsored or cosponsored bills that would require the state to help school districts pay for courtesy busing, and set up staffing ratios for state Division of Youth and Family Services child-protection workers.

Outside Trenton, Previte is the director of the Camden County Juvenile Detention Center, known as much for her work with at-risk kids as she is for her quest to find the men who rescued her as a child from a Japanese prison camp. Her motto: ``An assemblywoman does much more than vote on policies and laws. We also have to lead the way in our communities.''

Greenwald, a lawyer who is seeking a third two-year term, has championed bills that would revoke driving privileges from students responsible for serious school pranks, such as bomb threats or false fire alarms; lower auto-insurance rates by 15 percent; and dedicate a portion of new revenues raised from the state's growing economy toward property-tax relief and school funding.

``I've worked hard to make sure the people of the Sixth District are represented,'' said Greenwald, the son of the late Maria Barnaby Greenwald, who was the popular mayor of Cherry Hill. ``And I will continue to work hard.''

But even at this early stage, the race has moved beyond the issues. In April, Greenwald launched his first attack against Banmiller, accusing him of running for office only after being promised a state government job if he lost. He said he had heard rumors that Banmiller was going to lose his job at Hudson United, and called on the banker to sign a pledge that he would not accept a government post for two years after the election.

Banmiller called the accusation ``a flat-out lie'' and said he would gladly renounce government employment - but only if Greenwald would agree to terminate any contracts he has with companies that do business in Camden County, which is run by an all-Democratic freeholder board.

Banmiller was referring to the fact that Greenwald's law firm was recently hired by U.S. Water at an undisclosed price to conduct privatization negotiations with the CCMUA, whose board members are appointed by the freeholders.

That exchange, political insiders said, was simply a preview of the fight to come as the candidates look to November.

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