AFTER 32 YEARS, N.J. MAYOR HAS A STRUGGLE
Author: James Asher, Inquirer Trenton Bureau
William G. Rohrer is confronted with something this year that he has rarely faced since becoming mayor of staunchly Republican Haddon Township in 1951: a serious challenge to his power.
The challenge springs not just from his years in office or from the natural tendency of politicians to make political enemies. The assault, by three political newcomers, on Rohrer and his two Republican running mates comes at a time when the mayor is besieged.
In December, his wife, Mimi Rohrer, was indicted in the 1975 death of the couple's 2 1/2-year-old adopted son. She is scheduled to stand trial in September. More recently, allegations have surfaced from investigators for the state Division of Criminal Justice that the killing may have been covered up because of Rohrer's influence.
While the opposing candidates have said they will not make the mayor's personal problems a campaign issue, others see the recent publicity as a boon to the opposition.
State Sen. Lee Laskin (R., Camden) said last week, "The Democrats probably figure that Rohrer is weakened because of the bad publicity. It is time to make a show. . . . It may not be the public issue, but we know from a political viewpoint, they (Democrats) have to believe it has weakened Bill Rohrer."
John Wilson, a Camden lawyer who ran against Rohrer in 1971, said Rohrer last faced serious opposition in 1963. "It is not unusual to oppose (the incumbents). What is unusual is that there are three very good candidates who are getting a lot of support in the community."
The township's three-member commission is up for election in the nonpartisan vote May 10. The three winners select one of their members to
serve as mayor.
The others seeking re-election are Richard Hardenbergh, a commissioner for 20 years, and Gerald DeFelicis, a commissioner for 12 years.
Running against them are Nicholas J. Laurito, an employee of the Camden County Park Commission and a member of the county Democratic Committee; Charles Pietropolo, a registered Democrat who is a school board member and a computer analyst, and Antoinette Parkinson, an independent and an officer in the PTAs of two township schools.
One gauge of the seriousness of the campaign is the amount of money being spent in this community of about 17,000 people.
Laurito said last week that he and his two running mates had earmarked about $12,000 for the campaign. Rohrer said his slate would spend $7,000.
During the most recent legislative election, 90 of the 262 candidates for the state Senate and General Assembly spent less than $12,000 each in their races.
Laskin said the combination of money, Rohrer's lengthy tenure as mayor and his other problems were producing what he called a "golden opportunity" for the opposition. As a result, Rohrer Republicans are campaigning "more than they have done in modern times," Laskin said.
In an interview last week, Rohrer said he had assurances from his opponents that they would not mention his wife's indictment or the accusations about a cover-up. "They told me that it would not be an issue in the campaign," Rohrer said. "It hasn't come back, but as you get closer to the day of the election a lot of that kind of stuff comes out all at once."
Rohrer believes that his opponents decided to run for office because of their ambitions. "I don't see what they can offer the people," Rohrer said. ''We can give them experience which they don't have."
Democrat Laurito and his "New Directions" slate see the situation differently.
"It is time for a change," he said. "I've seen the town go down. In the last several years, services have declined."
Laurito said his slate was formed 11 months ago, before Rohrer's personal problems became public. "They (Rohrer's personal problems) have absolutely nothing to do with the campaign. It is an unfortunate situation. I don't believe it will help us. We are selling the idea, we are promoting the idea, that we do have problems in the township. We won't have any part of the mayor's problems."
Others believe the allegations will be a factor.
Carol Barrett, an environmental activist, said, "People would be disturbed if they are guilty of a cover-up. It would presume that they closed the door on the investigation. I'm sure (the people) would be concerned."
But she also said: "The three commissioners have been in for too long. They do not respond to people and their problems. What is having the biggest impact is that the three people running are fresh, new faces. Their background and their activities are for civic betterment and it is more than time for a change."