Maurice “Mo” Hill eked out a victory over his Democratic challenger, Jonathan Petro, to become Toms River’s next mayor this past Election Day.
The race was an especially contentious one, with candidates’ attitudes towards the town’s expanding Orthodox community very much the center of attention, and likely the only reason that the contest was a competitive one in what is one of the area’s most reliable Republican strongholds. GOP candidates won the three open town council seats, easily maintaining the party’s 3–2 majority on the powerful board.
Though based on dubious factual evidence, several online groups and some associated with the Petro campaign produced much material attempting to cast Mr. Hill as the candidate who would take a more accommodating stance towards the Orthodox community’s needs and would pave the way for more residential development. Much of what was produced implied that the Jewish community had bought Mr. Hill’s support, and some of it was widely labeled as anti-Semitic.
Mr. Hill acknowledged the nature of the campaign in a speech to supporters shortly after his win.
“They threw enough dirt on me. … It was ugly,” local media reports quoted him as saying.
In the end, Mr. Hill was victorious in a final tally of 11,135 to 10,870 – only 265 votes.
Mr. Petro posted a concession statement on his campaign website:
“Tonight, the voters of Toms River made their choice as to the future of our hometown. While we did not get the result for which we strived, we are grateful for all of the wonderful people who supported us… We will continue to be dedicated to the future of the Toms River we love,” he said.
An issue that received much attention was the town’s zoning code that requires houses of worship to own a 10-acre parcel of land before building, which has stymied the construction of any shuls despite the fact that several hundred Orthodox families live in Toms River’s North Dover section. Under pressure from the federal Department of Justice (DOJ), which warned town officials that the ordinance violates religious land use laws and must be changed to avoid a legal battle, the council members had discussed plans to reduce the acreage requirement.
In what many speculated was an election-season stunt, a measure to loosen the ordinance was introduced to the town’s planning board, only to be taken off the agenda by retiring council president George Wittman. Mr. Hill, who is currently the Council’s president, repudiated the planned change, saying publicly that he would not support it. He later walked back his statement, saying that he would only back a reduction if the DOJ committed to accept the change and back down from threats of litigation. Yet, the highly publicized incident was used to paint Mr. Hill as overly eager to please Orthodox voters.
The Petro campaign and anti-Hill voices also frequently highlighted a $2600 donation to his campaign by a neighbor of Mr. Hill who is a member of the Orthodox community.
Overdevelopment was a frequent talking point as well, with Mr. Hill as a sitting council member blamed for a set of new housing starts in the northern part of the town. This construction is often erroneously associated with the growth of the Orthodox community. In fact, the vast majority of Orthodox residents in Toms River bought homes that were built many years ago. The new housing developments were approved long before the influx, and were partially mandated by state affordable-housing laws.
Much of the anti-Hill sentiment was openly anti-Semitic. In one of many examples, an online group named “Say no to Lakewood Mo” posted a sign with a Judaic-style font, falsely stating that Mr. Hill had been officially endorsed by Toms River’s Orthodox community.
Last month, the Hill campaign filed a complaint with elections authorities, claiming that a mailer from the Petro campaign, under the guise of a phony entity, accused Mr. Hill of “inappropriately colluding with the Orthodox Jewish community to amend the township’s zoning laws to allow for Houses of Worship on 2 acre lots.”
Mr. Petro denied any knowledge of the mailer. The complaint alleged that it was produced and distributed by Ryan Protter, president of Toms River’s Democratic organization and chairman of the county’s Democratic Balloting Committee.
Despite the cantankerous nature of the elections – and the undesirable position of being caught in the middle of the issues – representatives of Toms River’s Orthodox community said they were able to work constructively with both candidates and their staffs.
“What we saw in this election cycle is that the Orthodox community in Toms River was able to participate fully and to discuss our issues and concerns with the candidates,” Yisroel Schwartz of the Toms River Jewish Community Council (TRJCC) told Hamodia. “We look forward to continuing this dialog in the future with the new mayor and council, and with all candidates in elections to come.”
In a statement released after Mr. Hill’s victory, TRJCC congratulated him on his success and expressed a wish that his term would usher in a greater sense of unity in the town. The council also wished Mr. Petro well, saying that he “is a true gentleman and genuinely cares about Toms River.”
The mayor’s office was left open in this election after Mayor Thomas Kelaher, who is 87 and has served since 2007, announced his retirement.
Mr. Hill, 71, served as a dentist in the U.S. Navy for 35 years, rising to the rank of Rear Admiral. He left the service in 2005 and opened a private dental practice, but recently closed his office. He has served four terms on the council.
This year was not the first time in recent memory that tensions over the Orthodox community’s growth gave Democrats a foothold in Republican Toms River. In 2017, three Democrats won seats on the town council, largely by focusing their campaign on accusations that incumbents had gone too far to accommodate the needs of the Orthodox community. Shortly after the election, the trio’s most outspoken member, Daniel Roderick, rejoined the Republican Party, which he had been a member of before the elections.
This year, the three Republican council candidates on Mr. Hill’s ticket, Kevin Geoghegan, Joshua Kopp and Matt Lotano, beat out Democratic challengers by comfortable margins.
Booky Kaluszyner, another member of the TRJCC, acknowledged some of the unpleasantness of the campaign season, but was positive about the Orthodox community’s continuing role in the town.
“We know that Toms River residents are passionate about their town, so we were not surprised at how heated the election got. At the same time, we were very happy with the strong turnout from our community and are confident that as we continue to grow, that our voices will be heard and our concerns will be listened to.”