Ballot Bloat Is Recipe for Defeat in Lakewood Primaries

June 18th, 2017
Ballot Bloat Is Recipe for Defeat in Lakewood Primaries

[Editor's Note: At 6:39 p.m. on June 20, at 8:43 on June 21, at 2:08 p.m. on June 22 and at 4:24 p.m. on June 26, 2017, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.]

The more the merrier is not a winning political strategy in New Jersey's fastest-growing municipality.

Republican candidates in Lakewood's June 6, 2017 Primary learned that lesson the hard way.

So did Democrats.

On Primary Day 2017, there were 6,679 Democrats, 16,521 Republicans and 22,164 Independents registered to vote in Lakewood.

Registered Democratic and Republican voters were asked to vote for two candidates in each Primary race.

Incumbent members of the Lakewood Township Committee that are seeking another 3-year term in office are Democrat Raymond Coles and Republican Michael D'Elia.

Coles has served on the local governing body since December 2001, when he was tapped to fill Deputy Mayor P.G. Waxman's unexpired term.

Waxman resigned to accept a seat on the Ocean County Tax Board, where he continues to serve.

Coles ran for and won a full 3-year term on the township committee in November 2002. He has served five 3-year terms on the local governing body and is now seeking a sixth 3-year term.

D'Elia is seeking his second consecutive 3-year term on the township committee.

On June 6, 2017, 1,207 registered Democratic voters cast their vote for Lakewood Mayor Raymond Coles, an incumbent minority member of the Republican-majority Lakewood Township Committee, giving him 44.05% of the total number of votes cast.

The next highest number of Democratic votes went to Coles' running mate, Moshe Raitzik, a member of the Lakewood Board of Education. Raitzik received 1,066 votes, or 38.91% of the Democratic votes cast on June 6.

Coming in third was David Gruman, winning 396 votes, or 14.45% of the total number of votes cast.

Democratic voters cast 71 votes for write-in candidates, totaling 2.59% of all votes cast.

In contrast, Republicans voters that constitute a greater majority of party-affiliated voters in Lakewood had a greater choice of candidates.

Incumbent Committeeman Michael D'Elia won 3,642 votes, or 33.35% of the votes cast.

His running mate, Michael Berman, came in second with 3,411, or 31.23% of the votes cast.

Coming in third, newcomer Aaron Hirsch convinced 1,263, or 11.56% of registered Republicans to vote for him.

In fourth place, Yosef Travis garnered 1,513 votes, or 13.85% of the total votes cast.

Rounding out the field, Avraham Sharaby earned a respectable total of 987 votes, or 9.04% cast.

While 105 registered Republicans chose to vote for a write-in candidate not on the ballot, compared with 71 registered Democrats, a greater number of Republicans participating in the Primary meant cast a smaller percentage of votes for a write-in candidate. Republican write-in candidates totaled just 0.96% of the total number of votes cast, compared with 2.59% of Democratic write-in votes.

There are 82,602 registered Democrats in Ocean County; 126,114 registered Republicans in Ocean County; and 185,513 Independents registered to vote in Ocean County in 2017.

There were 5,867 registered Democrats in Lakewood during the 2016 Democratic Primary; 15,043 registered Republicans; and 23,101 Independents registered to vote in Lakewood.

During the 2016 Ocean County Primary Election, there were 72,392 registered Democrats; 110,323 registered Republicans; and 203,705 Independent voters registered to vote in Ocean County.

According to one Lakewood political insider, who spoke to NJ News & Views off the record, Republican and Democratic challengers that inflated the field of candidates created a self-defeating recipe for failure.

Instead of running in the municipality's primaries, Lakewood citizens seeking to challenge partisan incumbents could have run as Independents in the township's General Election in November.

That will not happen in 2017.

According to county officials, no one in Lakewood had registered to run in the General Election as an Independent as of the Primary Day deadline.

Local, county, state and Federal partisans of both parties can learn from their mistakes, not just Lakewood candidates for elected office.

On June 7, a day after the Primary, a reporter for NJ News & Views paid a visit to the Ocean County Board of Elections to ask for the total number of Lakewood voters registered to vote in each of the Democratic and Republican Primaries.

In past years, this reporter has called in by phone for the same information and received it.

This year was different.

A woman working at the front desk informed the reporter that she should file an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the information.

This reporter responded by informing the woman that only existing documents can be requested under OPRA; the designated records custodian is not required to create a document that does not exist.

The woman continued to insist that the reporter had to make an OPRA request for the statistics. She asked the reporter to wait for the return of her supervisor, who was out to lunch.

The reporter waited an additional 15 minutes.

By that time, a man accompanied by several other men entered the room. Glancing at the reporter standing at the front desk, he told her, "File an OPRA request," and walked away.

Upon her return home, the reporter called Board of Elections Commissioner Yisroel Schenkolewski, a Lakewood resident.

Schenkolewski is not just a Lakewood citizen; he is also a member of the township's influential lobby group, the Vaad, which makes political endorsements for elected office and delivers a reliable voting bloc of Orthodox Jewish voters in local elections.

No elected representative sitting on the Lakewood Township Committee has won a seat on the local governing body without the Vaad's endorsement in over two decades. The last member of the township committee to win a seat without the Vaad's endorsement was John Franklin, who resigned one year later to accept a position as director of the township's Department of Public Works.

Franklin is now retired, but continues to serve his community as an appointed member of the Lakewood Planning Board.

After the reporter informed Schenkolewski what had happened and the information she was seeking, he said he would get back to her.

Approximately half-an-hour later, Assistant Supervisor Jason Varano called the reporter and told her he would e-mail the requested statistics, which he did. Varano apologized for what he described as a misunderstanding.

These days, personnel at the county Board of Elections have good reason to be wary of requests for public information.

Earlier this year, a Federal probe widened into the finances of county GOP Chairman George Gilmore, a Toms River attorney that also chairs the county Board of Elections.

For years, his law firm, Gilmore and Monahan, also has served as appointed special counsel in Lakewood.

At the June 8 meeting of the Lakewood Township Committee, a reporter for NJ News & Views asked committeemen if the township paid a retainer to its' special counsel, whether or not the firm performed any work in a given year.

Mayor Coles said no.

The reporter made an OPRA request with the township for Gilmore & Monahan's 2010-17 contracts, bills and invoices.

Lakewood Republicans became a majority on the Lakewood Township Committee in 2009.

In 2010, a reporter for NJ News & Views discussed a resolution just half-an-hour before that evening's meeting. The resolution called for the appointment of Gilmore & Monahan as special counsel. Following the reporter's discussion of the proposed resolution during a telephone call, committeemen pulled it from the meeting agenda.

Despite media scrutiny of the county GOP chair's municipal contracts, Lakewood committeemen continued to appoint Gilmore's law firm as special counsel during the following years that Republicans continued to represent a majority on the local governing body.

According to his 2017 state-required financial disclosure, Gilmore reported earnings of at least $2,000 or more as Lakewood special counsel.

That is not what Lakewood officials reported in response to NJ News & Views's OPRA request for bills and invoices that Gilmore submitted for payment in 2016. According to the Office of the Lakewood Township Clerk, Gilmore did not bill the township for any services in 2016.

On April 17, 2017, the Asbury Park Press reported that Gilmore & Monahan earned $2 million from municipal contracts.

Despite a financial disclosure flush with municipal and county positions from which he and his firm benefit, Gilmore is reportedly in arrears on many of his debts.

According to media reports, Gilmore failed to pay the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) $1 million in taxes. Now Federal officials are following the money trail in a full-blown corruption probe into his finances and those of his law firm, including transactions that involve county Board of Elections personnel.

In a March 30, 2017 post on Politico.com, journalist Matt Friedman reported that Gilmore & Monahan took out a $300,000 mortgage on the law firm's Toms River office building by borrowing the funds in September 2012 from Sally Kalksma, an employee of the county Board of Elections. The funds were still due and owing as of September 2015, the date for repayment of the mortgage.

According to Gilmore's 2016 financial disclosure, he reported earning of at least $2,000 or more from the county Board of Elections.

A reporter asked Varano if board commissioners received financial compensation for their service on the board.

In response to the reporter's question, High Enright of the county Board of Elections said that Gilmore received a salary of $22,500 as Chairman of the Ocean County Board of Elections.

He also said that under N.J.S.A. 40:9-22.6 et al, members of the Board of Elections are not covered under the Local Government Ethics Law.

"This is consistent with the policy prescribed by the Department of Community Affairs which has advised that Board of Election members are not required to file Financial Disclosures with the local Boards of Elections," Enright said. "Therefore, the Ocean County Board of Elections does not maintain Financial Disclosure Statements for the Board of Election Members."

Members of the Ocean County Board of Elections include the county GOP chair, the county Democratic Party chair, a member of the Vaad, and a local attorney appointed in 2014 by incumbent N.J. Gov. Chris Christie.

A reporter for NJ News & Views asked Enright if all commissioners on the county Board of Elections received a salary in compensation for their services.

Enright did not immediately respond to the reporter's inquiry.

Gilmore's salary as a commissioner on the board is not enough to pay his debts.

His I.O.U. is not enough to pay Kalksma's medical bills either.

According to Politico.com, Kalksma is battling Multiple Myeloma, an incurable type of blood cancer. She was reportedly on leave from her job at the county Board of Elections on the date the Politico report was posted.

Politico also reported that the loan from Kalksma is one of more than $3 million in mortgages Gilmore and his wife, Joanne, his law firm — and sometimes Gilmore and his law partner, Thomas Monahan — have taken out on Gilmore's home, his office and other properties in Toms River over the last several years. Some of the mortgages, like the one Kalksma gave Gilmore, have been short term.

Politico reported that at the same time, more than a million dollars in federal tax liens have piled up on Gilmore and his law firm, documents show.

The liens — nearly $3.2 million on Gilmore’s law firm and almost $1 million on Gilmore personally since 2014 — have reportedly attracted the attention of the FBI, which Politico reported as the basis for the FBI tax investigation.

A reporter called Schenkolewski on June 8 and asked him if he thought Gilmore should resign his position as a commissioner on the county Board of Elections.

Schenkolewski said no.

"We're living in the United States of America, where we're innocent until proven guilty," he said.

Other citizens take a different view of public service.

Their political platform of change was drowned out amid a collective chorus of appeals to both Democratic and Republican voters in New Jersey's fastest-growing municipality.

That chorus will only grow louder as New Jersey's Greek tragedy of political corruption continues to play out in town after town, county after county, year after year.

On June 8, 2017, defeated GOP candidate Aaron Hirsch congratulated incumbent Primary winners on the Lakewood Township Committee.

He also had a message for them.

"I'll still be around," Hirsch said.

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