Candidates in South Jersey have little to no political experience

Democrat Gary Catrambone.
Democrat Gary Catrambone.
Posted: April 06, 2013

A fresh crop of South Jersey candidates vying for legislative seats this year have impressive backgrounds but little or no political experience.

On the Republican side, they include a Marine who participated in the invasion of Iraq, and his running mate, a law firm partner who was a Delran police detective, sheriff's officer, and appointed mayor.

The Burlington County Democrats, for their part, are fielding the retired administrator of Buttonwood Hospital, once a government-run nursing home and psychiatric institution that was highly ranked by Medicare. Among others, they also are backing the Delran Township Council president, who works as a technology company executive and moonlights as a disk jockey for charitable organizations and an Internet retailer.

If this group of endorsed candidates wins their parties' nominations in the June primaries, most will face uphill battles in November against incumbents in the Seventh and Eighth Districts, which include swaths of Burlington and Camden Counties.

But don't tell them that. The Republican novices quickly note that Gov. Christie, who remains popular, will be at the top of their column, and the Democrats point out that New Jersey voters usually lean left.

"When some of the party leaders asked me if I wanted to screen as a candidate, I was humbled. . . . This is a tremendous, unique opportunity," said Jeff Banasz, a Moorestown Republican who served in Iraq.

Now a broker for the Graham Co. in Philadelphia, Banasz, 36, has never run for office. He is one of four candidates endorsed by the Burlington County Republican Committee to run for state Assembly in the Seventh or Eighth Districts.

But first, the four must win primary races, where they face candidates fielded by the conservative West Jersey Tea Party.

The Democrats have no primary contests in the two districts.

All 120 legislative seats are up for grabs in November.

"Serving as a leader in combat has definitely prepared me to run for office. . . . Getting people to trust you and follow you and to be able to think on your feet are pretty important and qualities you need for serving in public office," said Banasz, who rose to the rank of captain.

His running mate in the Seventh District race, Anthony Ogozalek Jr., 43, a former police detective who lives in Delran, said he was running because he wanted to be part of Christie's team in cutting taxes and spending. "I believe in what Chris Christie is doing," he said.

If the two men advance to the general election, they would face Democratic Assemblymen Troy Singleton and Herb Conaway.

In the district's Senate race, Gary Catrambone, a Democrat and newcomer to state politics, has been endorsed to oppose longtime Republican incumbent Sen. Diane Allen.

Catrambone, 55, noted his political experience on the municipal level, citing the tough fight he had when he first ran for Delran mayor in 2000 and lost. He said he learned from mistakes in that race and was later elected and reelected to council, where he serves as president.

"Once we figured it out, we've been winning ever since," he said of himself and his running mates.

In the Eighth District, Democrats have endorsed newcomer Javier M. Vasquez of Medford, a designer of orthodontic equipment. He will oppose Republican Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, who previously served as an assemblywoman.

Democrats also are backing two Assembly candidates in that district: Ava Markey, 22, of Marlton, an education student at the College of New Jersey; and Robert McGowan, 64, of Medford Lakes, who retired as Buttonwood Hospital's administrator.

They will oppose Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown and also run for a seat that will become vacant as a result of Assemblyman Scott Rudder's recent decision not to seek reelection.

That means at least one of the neophytes will likely emerge victorious.

The Republicans have endorsed a college student, too: Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, 31, of Evesham, for Rudder's seat. She attends Rutgers-Camden.

The two students were unavailable for comment, but McGowan said he was running for office because he has "a lifetime of experience in large organizations" that includes the development of multimillion-dollar budgets.

A retired Air Force major, he also does volunteer work at a Burlington County nursing home for veterans and attends Medford Lakes Council meetings regularly. He ran for council in 2009.

Why run for a state office? "My interest in any organization is to do whatever I can to make it sound and get the operating wheels to turn. . . . Instead of sitting back and letting others do it, I step forward to give the people a choice," he said.

The West Jersey Tea Party is endorsing Scott Fay, 58, a Medford business consultant; and Gary Jacques, 62, of Westampton, a purchasing director for the Lutheran Social Ministry, for the Republican nod to run for two Assembly seats in the Seventh District.

The splinter group also is supporting Conni Hare Murray, 49, an office manager from Moorestown; and Joe Siano, 54, a media director from Burlington City, for two Assembly seats in the Eighth District. The party is not running Senate candidates.


Contact Jan Hefler

at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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