Trash talking



October 26, 2003
Candidates trash-talking in Mullica
By DEREK HARPER Staff Writer, (609) 272-7203

MULLICA TOWNSHIP - The worst thing about hanging out in front of the old town dump around election time isn't the smell. It's the cold.

It's when you're wearing heavy clothes and you're still shaking, explained Larry Angel, candidate for Township Committee. And as he spoke, another pickup truck approached the gates.

Angel instantly switched into campaign mode as the old, red truck slowed to a stop: "Hey, how we doing?" he said, approaching the driver with his photocopied flier in an extended arm. "Property taxes are killing us here. Maybe we need a change?" he said, as the driver nodded politely and smiled.

"We got nice people sitting up there, but they aren't just getting the job done."

The driver silently kept nodding, and then turned left, accelerated and drove away on Elwood-Weekstown Road. "Leming-Angel!" said Angel, shouting his and his running mate's names as the man drove off.

He and Kathleen Leming are Democrats running for Mullica Township Committee. For several hours Saturday, they laid in wait for residents just outside the chain-link perimeter of the rural town's former landfill, handing out literature and asking for votes.

As Angel handed out fliers, Leming and fellow Democrat Patricia Hutchinson talked with the people who pulled over.

The 6,000-person town does not have trash pickup, so instead of paying for private carriers, about two-thirds of the town drives their garbage to the township transfer station, where Atlantic County picks it up. The station is open only between 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Aspiring politicos know this: if more than a thousand people can be counted on to pass by one spot in the sprawling pinelands community, then the road to office leads through the dump.

The tradition is a holdover from the past, when many towns had their own dumps. Some older residents in southern New Jersey still remember scavenging for goodies among the debris and ruin while their parents met and talked business. Time and newer environmental laws shut down almost all the local dumps and convinced towns to start collection.

Burlington County's Bass River Township and about a half-dozen Cumberland County towns are about the only municipalities in southern New Jersey that still keep a local transfer station in business. Mullica's station takes in oil, bulk trash and batteries.

In Mullica, the transfer station is such a prime spot for campaigning that the politicians keep a code of conduct. For years, said Deputy Mayor Kathy Chasey, Angel's Republican opponent, the candidates would meet to pick dates out of a hat. Otherwise, it just gets silly.

"What do you do, arm wrestle each other to get a piece of paper out to the people?" she asked.

She said she is going to be out there today to get her message out.

Trash dump politics can sometimes turn partisan. Angel recounted a shouting match he once had with current Republican Committeeman Dan Turygan.

At a little before noon, another pickup truck pulls to the gate. Inside, the driver, Mullica's Republican Mayor Robert Hagaman, 72, winks hello. He's retiring at the end of the year.

"Hey, am I gonna get a flier?" Hagaman asks mischievously, smiling.

Angel lays into him: "Hey Bob! Jesus loves you and so do I! You're going to get a redemption in the next life for all the corruption and deceit that you put this town through!"

Hagaman says nothing, takes the flier and leaves.

Aside from needling their enemies, the venue also allows politicians to expound on local issues.

Angel told residents he believes the town would save money if it shut down the transfer station and started collecting their garbage. He believes the town should tighten the zoning map. And he listened when another man in a pickup wanted the town to pave Fifth Avenue, currently a dirt strip through the pines.

Most drivers took the papers Angel proffered. While most leave, some stay and talk, leaning on their car door and sharing local gossip - like who is going to be the next police chief.

A few speed by the gate, their windows rolled up, and campaigners quickly step out of the way.

The sparking clear Saturday was cool and beautiful. The rusty orange oak leaves stood out in the sharp sunlight. When the light breeze passed over the station, the only odor was pine needles, faintly. Saturday was the kind of dry, pleasant day that reminds you that winter is coming.

For years, the aspiring pinelands politicians gathered down the road from the trash compactor. They get to meet with their potential constituents and chew the fat. And unless the station is closed, that's the way it will remain.

"If you have a nice day to do it, I would say it was always an enjoyable experience," recounted Chasey. "You catch up with people you haven't seen in a while, and you realize exactly how many people still use the transfer station."

To e-mail Derek Harper at The Press: