Amidst internal disputes within both of Toms River’s major political party organizations, a consensus candidate with success achieving elected office in the township will represent the Democratic party to face GOP Councilman Dan Rodrick in November’s mayoral election.
Ben Giovine, who led a revolutionary ticket to a majority on the Toms River Regional Board of Education, ousting incumbents following the scandal that landed former Superintendent Michael Ritacco behind bars on corruption charges, has officially emerged as the Democrats’ choice for mayor in 2023. After his stint on the school board, Giovine, 40, went to work for newly-elected U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, who represented Toms River until earlier this year, acting as an advisor to the congressman and a liaison between his office and local mayors and officials, as well as constituents.
Giovine conceded that, numerically, his party is outnumbered in Toms River, but opposing candidates have seen success in recent years. A wave of three Democrats – Terrance Turnbach, Laurie Huryk and ironically, Rodrick, who was a Democrat at the time – won seats on the council in 2017. During the last mayoral election cycle, Democrat Jonathan Petro fell short of a victory, but still posed a significant challenge to Republican Maurice “Mo” Hill, who lost this year’s primary election to Rodrick.
Known as a firebrand who vocally identifies what he sees as corruption and unfairness in township government and overdevelopment springing up across town, Rodrick has developed a following of both ardent supporters and determined detractors. He is known to vote against specific items at council meetings with which he disagrees, especially matters concerning development projects in town. Giovine said this would not be his approach if he were to become mayor, and is – at least in part – what prompted him to run.
“He has a policy of ‘no,'” Giovine said of Rodrick. “I wonder half the time if he knows what he’s voting ‘no’ on. He doesn’t seem engaged in the job of councilman, so I don’t know how he’ll do it as mayor.”
Giovine also said he began to more seriously consider putting his hat into the race – and absorbing the inevitable mudslinging that would come with it – when some of his Republican friends in town began telling him they would be willing to break party lines to vote for him.
“I do have to say, we’ve had good leadership from the Republican side for a number of years, and I’m not sure Dan would bring that same type of leadership,” said Giovine. “A lot of the phone calls I’ve been receiving over the past few days have been from Republicans. I think there are ways to talk about issues without maligning communities, different groups and different areas of town.”
Giovine said that just a day into his campaign, he has already been compared with the so-called “Squad,” a group of controversial Democratic congressional members who represent the party’s far-left wing. He also said he has been labeled a “Washington D.C. insider” since he worked for Kim, though he mainly worked out of Kim’s local offices. For his part, Giovine said his experience dealing with the federal government would likely be a positive for Toms River, and is an example of bipartisanship.
“A big part of my job for the congressman has been to be a liaison between the municipalities and Congress,” he said. “In Ocean County, I was the main person dealing with all the Republican mayors as far as FEMA issues, floodplains – all of the things we’re facing as a town. I have a pretty good understanding of it.”
A project to build 10-story “twin towers” along Water Street on the Toms River has been approved as a centerpiece of a larger downtown redevelopment plan, but faced considerable pushback from some residents – especially Rodrick, who criticized the project’s density and said such residential development could turn Toms River into an urban center versus a suburban town. He advocated non-renewing the redevelopment contract granted to Capodagli Group to build the towers after a controversy arose regarding whether the contract had lapsed and whether Capodagli submitted required financial disclosure statements.
The township’s redevelopment attorney said a non-renewal could lead to litigation, prompting the majority bloc on the all-GOP council to vote in favor of renewal. But another controversy would swirl nearly simultaneously, as photographs of a revised six-story complex emerged after being shown at a campaign fundraiser for Hill at the home of attorney Robert C. Shea, who has represented Capodagli before the planning board. The redesigned six-story building, which would contain the same number of units, 285 apartments, has now been proposed to replace the ten story buildings. The revision is subject to planning board approval.
While Rodrick has more than solidified his stance on downtown redevelopment, a key issue in the GOP primary that ultimately led to Hill’s defeat, Giovine said he shares concerns about traffic and developing a cohesive plan that would bring the community together, but does not favor summarily stopping redevelopment efforts in their tracks.
“I’m a downtown resident and I have concerns about traffic and what a project like that can bring to the area, but I’ve also seen more businesses thrive in the area,” he said. “What did Dan do as a councilman to actually stop this thing? What he wants to do now is pull the rug out from underneath it, and all that will lead to is potential lawsuits.”
Giovine said Toms River is one of the few towns in Ocean County that has a unique downtown area, developed as a busy fishing village before many neighboring municipalities saw their largest periods of growth. He said the al fresco dining events that have become popular over the past several years, as well as the success of a distillery and brewery in the neighborhood, have proven that the downtown area can draw residents after the courtrooms and county offices close, and businesses besides law firms and accountants can thrive there. In Trenton, there has also been movement behind liquor license reform, which could help attract higher-end dining establishments.
“I do think that, maybe, Trenton right now is thinking of making some changes and some of them make sense,” he said.
His main mission, should he be elected in November, will be building bipartisan consensus at town hall. In that sense, he said, he would draw on his experience serving on the school board.
“The Board of Ed is a non-partisan board, but we have bi-partisan members,” said Giovine. “You have to build coalitions and check your politics at the door, and that’s the way I’d act as mayor. I have to, and will, commit to working side-by-side with the Republicans on council.”
On his chances of winning, given the conservative leanings of the Toms River electorate and the gap between registered Democrats and Republicans: “My boss (Kim) carried his district twice, and Trump won it twice. People are open to voting for the person, not necessarily the party.”