Assemblywoman seeks to unseat longtime incumbent county clerk

Assemblywoman Celeste Riley
Assemblywoman Celeste Riley
Posted: April 08, 2014

BRIDGETON When it comes to county clerk elections, Cumberland County's race this year could be one for the record books.

Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D., Cumberland) seeks to unseat a local mainstay, Republican Gloria Noto, who has been county clerk for two decades.

If elected to the full-time post, Riley, 54, of Bridgeton, would have to give up her Assembly seat and teaching job at the Morris Goodwin School in Greenwich. But, she laughs, she would be able walk to work at the clerk's office on Broad Street.

"For me, it just seems like a really great opportunity to come into an office that's been occupied by the same person for over 20 years and bring in some fresh ideas," she said.

County clerks are responsible for helping run elections and maintaining property and other essential records.

If Riley wins the office, she would leave the Assembly midway through her third elected term. She was named to the office in 2009 to finish the term of Douglas Fisher, who was tapped to become state agriculture secretary.

"I never thought it would be a lifelong commitment," Riley said Friday of her Assembly seat. "It's two-year [terms] for a reason. You bring different ideas."

Though some political analysts had considered Riley a vulnerable Democrat in the 2013 legislative election, she kept her Third District seat by nearly 4,800 votes. No Republican has represented the district in a decade.

As clerk, Riley said, she would work to educate young people about voting and use her technology background to ensure voting efficiencies. About 37 percent of the county's 88,000 registered voters turned out in November (statewide, 40 percent did).

She also would like to open a county store - similar to Gloucester's in the Deptford Mall - to offer information and services, such as passport processing.

Riley earns about $109,000 between her teaching and legislative salaries. The county clerk's salary is about $107,000.

Riley, chairwoman of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee, filed to run in the primary not long after introducing a package of 20 higher education bills that she said she was confident would succeed.

"If it's good legislation, then it will get taken care of," she said.

Cumberland County Democratic Committee Chair Bob Balicki said Riley, a former Bridgeton City Council president, was well-known in the county.

"Name recognition is big, so that's kind of taken care of," he said.

The party had considered nominating Bridgeton City Councilman Jack Surrency for the clerk's post, but, "When he found out Celeste was interested, he bailed out," Balicki said.

Noto, 81, said campaigning against a sitting assemblywoman shouldn't be different from her past challenges.

Before becoming clerk in 1995, Noto, a lifelong Vineland resident, had worked as a legal secretary and was a freeholder for one term.

"When I first went to [the clerk's] office, they had one computer in the entire office," she said. "It's become more technical now."

Noto said she was "very proud of the work we do there and what I have accomplished in my 20 years there." She said the office continually hosted satellite offices in Millville and Vineland.

She deflected claims that her office had been responsible for several election mishaps and delays in vote counts. She said, for example, that Hurricane Sandy had disrupted regular polling stations and displaced residents in 2012, delaying some ballots.

"They can't blame me for the weather or the storm," Noto said.

And she's not ready to retire.

"I'm really 36 in my mind," she said. "I don't get tired. Energy comes with the willingness to do it.

"My life is dedicated to this job."

Riley and Noto are uncontested in the primaries. The general election is Nov. 4.

More than half of the county's registered voters are unaffiliated, 28 percent are Democrats, and nearly 17 percent are Republican.



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