MAYS LANDING – Organizers of a meet the candidates forum held at Mays Landing Golf Club Thursday evening seemed ill prepared for the turnout to hear from the two candidates in November’s Atlantic County executive race.
The local chapter of the American Association of University Women Atlantic County held a dinner meeting in tandem with League of Women Voters prior to the candidates’ forum.
Moderator Arlene Groch said the groups were expecting about a dozen interested voters to attend the forum portion of the meeting but many more showed up to hear from Republican incumbent Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson of Linwood and his Democrat challenger Susan M. Korngut, an attorney and Northfield councilwoman. The start of the debate was delayed so country club employees could set up additional chairs for spectators.
In his opening remarks, Levinson said he runs the finest county government in the state, free of scandal and corruption. He touted 20 “perfect” audits, bipartisan freeholder support for annual budgets, equipping all police cars with defibrillators, and his work diversifying the Atlantic County economy with the creation of the Aviation Research Park and Atlantic City campus of Stockton University.
Korngut, who was born in Atlantic City and raised in Margate, said she returned to the area after law school, but today’s college graduates rarely return due to a lack of opportunity. She said the county leads the state in sex trafficking, infant mortality and foreclosures, and has the lowest median wage for women. As county executive, she would stand up for the voiceless, who she said are not now being seen or heard by county government.
Korngut asked the first question of her opponent: what has he done about systemic racism and institutional bias in county government, to which he responded, “It doesn’t exist.”
“If it did, you have plenty of Democrats sitting on the Freeholder Board that haven’t brought that up. In the 20 years as county executive this is the first time I heard this,” he said.
His comment drew a loud response from Korngut supporters in the room.
Levinson’s first question to Korngut focused on her touting her “shining star” volunteer service on the board of CASA, a court-appointed child advocacy group.
Levinson said Korngut served just four months on the board about 16 years ago.
“What else have you done?” Levinson asked.
“Who died and left you arbitor of what I should be proud of,” Korngut replied.
Korngut retorted that although Levinson has received numerous awards, most of them were received when she was still in high school. His question was “beneath the dignity of his office,” she said.
She also objected to Levinson’s assertion that he “innovated” to expand Stockton University and the Aviation Research Park.
“We backed the bonds, that’s all we did,” Korngut said, but his accomplishments over his 20-year tenure is “just not good enough”
She said although the county had a rigorous “pay to play” policy, Levinson used his influence to rescind the policy after just three years.
Levinson said the Board of Chosen Freeholders was the entity to rescind the policy, “because no one paid attention to it,” he said.
After a short break and before accepting questions from audience members, LWV Chairwoman Rosemary Goldberg asked the audience to refrain from loud clapping and heckling from the “peanut gallery.” The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization and the forum should be conducted as such.
Responding to a question about diversifying Atlantic County’s economy, Korngut said she would bring in cybersecurity training and technology jobs to “change the economic paradigm” of the county. She said she would like the county to be viewed as the “Silicon Shore” of the East Coast and offer incentives for environromental retrofitting of the Atlantic City casinos.
Levinson said the county can no longer be “Atlantic City centric” and stressed accomplishments of county school, the importance of STEM education, and creation of the Aviation Research Park.
Korngut said recent legislation providing homeowners with education and resources could help stem an increase in foreclosures.
“We still need more reach out,” she said.
Levinson said although the county is no longer leading in foreclosures, Atlantic City still has the highest foreclosure rate in the state as a result of casino closures, 40% of the people live below the poverty level, and that the state’s takeover of the city has just made things worse by increasing its annual debt service to $68 million.
“They can’t get out from under this burden,” he said. “On top of that there’s a 40% poverty rate.”
City officials don’t know what to do about the poverty rate, dropout rate, low test scores and infant mortality rate. Levinson said when asked the county stepped forward to help by taking over public health services, saving the city about $2 million a year.
He said although Lt. Gov. Shiela Oliver picked him to lead a task force to investigate how to improve the city, “but in 24 hours it was over because the Democrats complained. They understand the county is run extraordinarily well, and when they ask for help, we give it to them,” he said.
Korngut said she would not wait until asked, but would do everything she can to improve life in the city.
In their closing arguments, Levinson said that the county is a better place since he’s been county executive and Korngut said she would not be satisfied being the first female county executive.
“I will be proud when you say that I am the best county executive,” she said.