Races for freeholder in Camco

works as a human-relations consultant.
works as a human-relations consultant. (Eugene Lawrence)
Posted: April 03, 2012

Democrats have dominated local politics for so long in Camden County that freeholder races have come to be seen as foregone conclusions.

But county Republicans, pressing their message that two decades of one-party rule have left taxpayers worse off, on Monday announced a slate with a couple of faces familiar to voters from last year's contest and expressed hope that this will be the year in which they make a breakthrough.

"What the people want is better control of spending and a more transparent government where they can see what's going on," said GOP freeholder candidate Gene Lawrence, who ran unsuccessfully for the office last year. "When [the Democrats] lose this year, they'll have to start to listen."

Lawrence; Ian Gill, who ran last year as an independent; and Diana Escobar-Wachter will likely face the official Democratic slate of incumbents Jeffrey Nash and Ian Leonard, and newcomer Gloucester Township Councilwoman Michelle Gentek, in November. But first the Democrats have to get past a primary challenge in June from Michael Leonetti of Collingswood. There is no GOP primary.

Gentek, a 43-year-old single mother who works for the New Jersey lobbying and consulting firm Fox & Shuffler, is seeking to replace Freeholder Rod Greco, who has announced that he is not running for reelection.

Gentek came into the public eye four years ago when she successfully led a campaign to ban hunting in Gloucester Township after her children were startled by deer hunters in her back yard. She beat back opposition from the National Rifle Association.

"Up until then I didn't know much about my government," she said. "I see myself as a regular resident fighting for what they believe in."

Nash, 54, who was first elected to the freeholder board in 1991, is a real estate attorney with the Philadelphia law firm of Cozen O'Connor.

Leonard, 35, once chief of staff for former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, is the New Jersey political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The GOP's Lawrence, 59, works as a human relations consultant and is the great-grandson of one of the first African Americans to own land in Gloucester Township.

Gill, 46, of Mount Ephraim, is an EMT.

Escobar-Wachter, 34, of Sicklerville, works for Access Abstract, a company in Holmes, Delaware County, that is owned by her family.

They will be facing off against a Democratic organization that is not only well-oiled but also has brought millions of dollars into the region in state and federal funding.

The Democrats' latest campaign is for a county takeover of Camden's police department, which they say would double the number of officers in the troubled city.

The Republicans are taking aim at the Delaware River Port Authority, where Nash serves as vice chairman.

In a toughly worded report last week, state Comptroller Matthew Boxer described the bistate bridge authority as a "personal ATM" for the politically connected.

The report exposed an insurance payback deal allegedly orchestrated by George E. Norcross III, the insurance magnate who is chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital in Camden and a Democratic Party power broker. Norcross is also a managing partner of an investor group that on Monday purchased Philadelphia Media Network, The Inquirer's parent company.

Norcross has defended the DRPA transactions as legal under state insurance regulations.

But Lawrence said a criminal inquiry was necessary.

"We're not going to have the U.S. Attorney's [Office] look into it or the [New Jersey] Attorney General's office look into it? That seems like a big disservice to the taxpayers," he said.

In the wake of the report, the DRPA issued a statement thanking the comptroller and saying it had already implemented many of the changes recommended in the report.

Asked about accusations of political cronyism in Camden County, Gentek said she was "proud to be a Democrat."

"I can say that I've never been asked to compromise myself. They have been great for the county," she said.

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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