Move in Camden to return to local elections without party affiliations

Posted: June 05, 2012

Camden activists have launched a campaign that could lead to the return of nonpartisan elections in the city.

The group, led by Frank Fulbrook, is circulating a petition to get a November ballot referendum allowing voters to decide whether they prefer municipal elections in which candidates do not indicate their party affiliation.

The goal is to give anyone a chance to be elected mayor or council member, not just those with party backing, Fulbrook said. In nonpartisan elections, most often held in May, all candidates’ names appear in the same column, which is fairer, he said. In partisan elections, candidates’ names are grouped on the ballot in columns, each for a different political party. The names of independent candidates could be in a fifth or sixth column.

"Nonpartisan elections often takes away the power of ‘the line’ … the preferred ballot position," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

In Camden, the "line" with the most clout is made up of candidates endorsed by the county Democratic Committee, Dworkin said. The majority of voters in the city are Democrats who vote the party line, sometimes without much information about candidates.

Now, Fulbrook said, "we have machine Democrats and independent Democrats." Members of the latter group have been known to switch their affiliation to Republican to be more prominent on the ballot. "There aren’t any real Republicans in Camden," he said.

A nonpartisan election — which would require amending the City Charter — doesn’t guarantee someone who refuses to go along with Democratic Party leadership will win, "but keeping it partisan guarantees they won’t win," Fulbrook said Friday.

Camden County Democratic Committee executive director Matt White declined to respond to Fulbrook’s assertion that machine politics control Camden municipal elections. Asked about the possibility of a nonpartisan election, he said, "It’s up to the Camden voters to choose."

The city had nonpartisan elections from 1960 to 1992 and from 1996 to 2007. The most recent return to partisan elections, approved by referendum, was after City Council argued that the spring election cost the city $83,000 and double that if there was a runoff election. By taking advantage of the November general election date, the county would absorb most of the overhead, Camden City Clerk Luis Pastoriza said Friday.

Even if those backing Fulbrook — including activists Mary Cortes, Eulisis Delgado, and MoNeke Ragsdale — gather the 950 signatures needed to get their ballot question and then have it approved by voters, City Council could pass an ordinance to move the nonpartisan election from May to save money. Just before leaving office in 2010, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a bill that allowed dozens of municipalities to move their nonpartisan elections to November.

Though the petitioners would prefer spring, Fulbrook said he understood the cost concern and would not object to a November date as long as the ballot showed all the candidates’ names in one column.

Mayoral and City Council candidates who ran unsuccessfully as Republicans or independents in recent years were in front of City Hall last week at a small news conference to draw attention to the petition for the ballot question. Asked which of them might run again if the system were changed, former Councilman Ali Sloan El said the question was premature. After the referendum is approved, he said, "then we decide as a group who will be mayor."

Democratic Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd is 2 1/2 years into her first term, and, if the referendum were approved and she decided to run again, her name would be on the first nonpartisan ballot in 2013. Redd was on council in 2007, when the switch to partisan was made.

"The mayor believes that we would have to look at the same issues, such as cost effectiveness and fairness to voters," before endorsing the nonpartisan plan, city spokesman Robert Corrales said.

Contact Claudia Vargas at 267-815-1953, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on www.philly.com/philly/blogs/camden_flow

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