Democrats aim to pick up seats in District 8, Republicans say not so fast

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

The 8th Legislative District has long been a Republican stronghold, but early this year, its state senator, Dawn Addiego, switched parties and became a Democrat. One of the two Republican Assembly members, Joe Howarth, flirted with joining her and ended up running in the primary as a Trump Republican and losing.

That’s when Republicans turned to 18-year Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield to become their other candidate.

“I wasn’t planning on it. I retired as Burlington County sheriff in May of this year and my intention was actually [to] stay home and babysit my great grandchildren,” said Stanfield. “But when all this happened, Dawn Addiego flipped to become a Democrat, Joe Howarth wanted to become a Democrat, and I saw Ryan Peters out there just on his own, and Ryan has such integrity and he really cares about people, and I didn’t want to see him out there trying to fight all by himself in what’s going to be a very tough election.”

Ryan Peters, a lawyer who was in the Navy SEALs and is still in the Reserves, is a first-term Republican assemblyman. On what the race is about, he had a clear answer.

“Really the biggest things is one, taxes, as everybody knows,” said Peters. “It’s very expensive to live in New Jersey, and we know why, because its expensive all the patronage that goes out on the Democratic side. And a lot of people are frustrated with the one-party rule concept.”

The Democratic candidates are Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale. LaPlaca is a former Assembly staffer who went on to lobby for Verizon and Anheuser-Busch, while Natale is a lawyer who represents employees in workplace disputes. The latter says that the two have been going door to door aggressively.

“The number one thing I hear at the doors that’s more powerful than any particular policy point is some of the surprise and how grateful people are just at the simple fact that we’re there, that we’re talking to them, because they haven’t had a state Assembly candidate come to their door, reach out to them, learn what’s important to them in years,” said Natale. “It’s a district that’s been taken for granted, and I think more than anything it’s being present and being willing to stand up and fight for them.”

“These seats in this district have been traded as though they belong to a party instead of to the people,” said LaPlaca. “For us, it’s not about being Democrat or Republican. It’s about representing the unique issues we have here in the 8th district, and Mark and I are both ready to stand up to our own leadership if necessary to make sure those issues are addressed.”

The 8th Legislative District is made up of 15 towns in Burlington County, four in Camden and one in Atlantic. It overlaps with some of the towns that elected Democrat Andy Kim to Congress over Republican Tom MacArthur last year.

RELATED: Morris County Assembly race heats up as historically red district becomes more blue

Republicans say the South Jersey Democratic machine is playing heavily in the 8th District, and they point to the issue of school funding and the cuts in state aid that occurred in some school districts.

“They’re being funded by Sweeney and Norcross,” said Peters. “The bill that cut the school funding is S2, put up by Sen. Sweeney. So they’re essentially campaigning on, ‘The people funding my campaign, I’m going to go against their S2, their primary bill that cuts school funding.’ So, I think what they do is they have all this money, they’re doing all the polling and they realize what we know by going door to door that moms, parents, everybody are upset that their schools are not being funded properly.”

Peters and Stanfield call LaPlaca and Natale part of the “Camden Cartel.”

“All I can say to that is, I’m a Democrat who happens to live in South Jersey. But I’m not running to represent any party, I’m not running to represent any individual. I’m running to represent the people of the 8th District,” Natale said.

“They have a super majority in the Assembly, Michael,” Peters told NJTV News. “You know that? It’s veto proof. What do you get with two more votes other than just more control for the South to vote against other progressive things in their food fight with the governor?”

The Democrats would turn the spotlight on Peters and Stanfield.

“Ryan Peters has a record in the Assembly that people can and should look to get an idea of how he’s represented them thus far and how he would represent them going forward,” said LaPlaca. “Jean Stanfield has a very long record as an elected official here in Burlington County, part of the same Republican machine that’s been in control of the party for 40 years and which people have turned their backs for good reason. So for us, I think it’s about direct connection to the voters. It’s about speaking to the issues they care about.”

The Republican message boils down to this: “We want to keep New Jersey a place where people can afford to live,” said Stanfield. “We want to cut property taxes, we want to increase school funding, which will again reduce property taxes. We just want to make this a better place, cut the wasteful spending. It’s become a nightmare, and we just want to bring some reason back into Trenton.”

A Democrat says if the party is to pick up any seats next month, the 8th District is the likeliest place. A Republican counters by saying, “We’ll run a Navy SEAL and a sheriff against a lobbyist and a lawyer any day.”