In Mt. Holly, a bruising town council primary contest

Posted: May 28, 2014

Mount Holly Township is witnessing its first partisan primary election race in the longest time, and it has quickly turned nasty and peculiar.

Famous for a decadelong housing-bias case that led to a date with the U.S. Supreme Court, Mount Holly is embroiled in a new battle - for party control of the five-member town council - after voters in the town of 10,000 tossed out its long-standing nonpartisan form of government in November.

As the June 3 primary nears, a bewildering cast of contestants has emerged for the two seats up for grabs after one member resigned and another decided not to run for reelection.

One candidate, a former member derided in recent years, is hoping for a comeback. Another speaks darkly of the role of a town "political boss." A third is the wife of the current mayor. And the township GOP chairwoman is going door-to-door handing out fliers supporting one of the Democrats.

On the comeback trail is former Mayor Jules Thiessen, who was defeated four years ago when the expensive bias litigation became a political liability.

Thiessen, a Democrat who was on the council for 16 years, has in recent years been dismissed by some as part of the "old regime" that created the controversial redevelopment plan calling for the bulldozing of Mount Holly Gardens, a neighborhood occupied mostly by minorities.

"It needed to be done, but it could have been done with a gentler hand," Thiessen said in an interview last week. He asserted that the neighborhood was crime-infested and deteriorating.

Thiessen said he was running again because he cared about his town. He said he has a good relationship with the current council, though it has blamed his administration for the town's $18 million debt and settled the lawsuit last year by offering replacement homes to the 20 residents who refused to move.

Thiessen's running mate is Brian Grant, chairman of the planning board and a school board member. Both are party-endorsed.

Grant recently came under fire for supporting a new redevelopment plan that targets businesses and houses in another part of the town.

Grant promised he would never vote to use eminent domain against owners who maintain their properties well, but still voted in favor of the plan, which gives officials power to condemn any property in that zone.

Then there's Tim Young, a maverick Democrat who says that "political boss" Jason Carty has been calling the shots in town and did so even when the council was supposed to be nonpartisan.

Young, vice president of the school board, said he was running because he wanted to bring transparency to government and get rid of pay to play, in which donors are awarded township contracts.

He alleges he is being attacked by Carty, who he says is the author of a caustic Facebook page and website that calls itself MountHollyTruth. The sites have called Young a computer "hacker" and a "high school dropout."

In an interview, Carty laughed and said he was not a boss, just a lifelong Mount Holly resident who works as a firefighter in Willingboro. He denied he created the Facebook page and website, though he has contributed postings and offered suggestions to the authors. He declined to identify the authors.

Then Carty volunteered that Young was a dropout, had hacked into the site, and was unfit for office. Young has denied hacking into the site and notes that he has a GED and is now enrolled in college.

A registered Republican, Carty said he does not control campaigns but is "politically influential" and has helped two Democrats get elected to council - Lew Brown and Jason Jones - besides Republicans.

He said he had cohosted a $300-a-plate fund-raising event for Mayor Rich DiFolco, a Republican, in 2012 when DiFolco ran for the council. Carty said that he had also "helped elect" Young to the school board.

Carty had mentored him, Young acknowledged, and after he was elected, Carty would make suggestions on board matters.

"I thought he was being helpful," Young said. "But when I didn't vote specifically to hire certain people," Young said, Carty began sending him nasty texts. He produced one, dated June 6, 2013, as proof. It said: "U only hurt yourself. . . . There is a right way to do things and alienating the ppl that helped u get elected isn't the right way."

Carty said he didn't recall the text but said, "It sounds like something I would say." He said the text was sent in response to Young making inflammatory remarks about other elected officials who had supported Young's candidacy.

On the Republican side, the primary for the two seats is uncontested, though the township GOP committee has not endorsed either candidate.

Cindy Regn, chairwoman of the committee, said it had not endorsed because "this is the first time the council is holding a partisan election" and the committee plans to reorganize after the primaries.

On the ballot are Janet DiFolco, the mayor's wife, and Patricia Cauley.

Mayor DiFolco said his wife attends most of the meetings, "knows what's going on in the town" and had expressed an interest in being on the council. She has never run for political office before.

Neither she nor her running mate returned calls. The MountHollyTruth site has speculated that the two are "place holders" for other candidates of the GOP's choosing in the November vote.

In yet another quirky development, though, GOP head Regn said she was backing the Democrat Young. She said she had been hand-delivering his fliers door-to-door because she, too, sits on the school board and has seen him in action.

"Tim is the one who has a lot of common sense on the board, and if there's a discussion, he's very levelheaded," she said.

But once the GOP makes its endorsements, Regn said, she will work to get those candidates elected.

Even Carty seems to be puzzled by how things have turned out.

"I was in favor going partisan, but recently I have had second thoughts," he said.

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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