Burlington County Collision: Dems Threaten GOP Power At The Sheriff's Office
The retirement this year from law enforcement of Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield prompted the mobilization of three men from within the department to take her place.
It’s a four-man countywide race to succeed 18-year leader Stanfield, but the candidacies of Undersheriff Mike Ditzel, and sheriff’s officers Anthony Basantis and Erik Johnston specifically have the department itself stretched in different directions, and BurlCo voters sizing up their merits and assessing the value of continuing with GOP rule amid party fractures that have Democrats at the doorstep of a full-fledged county takeover.
Surging with expectations of Donald Trump troubles saturating the volatile county and propelling their candidacies, Democrats are up against go-getter Republican Ditzel and the institutional core of what Stanfield – now a GOP candidate for the Assembly in battleground LD8 – built. Groomed by the retired sheriff to take her place, the undersheriff has an enviable resume for the job, including a four-year stint in the Coast Guard and performance in nearly every facet of the sheriff’s office on his way up the ladder of a roughly 70-officer department that numbers close to 100 with support staff. A warrant officer early in his career, Ditzel (unlike Stanfield, an attorney and administrator who did not rise through the ranks) has been sergeant, lieutenant, detective, and taken a lead role in the development and maintenance of the county’s community programs.
Democrat Basantis has served as a Sheriff’s Officer in his home county for 15 years, including over two years of experience as a Probation Officer in the Judiciary, and as president of the Burlington County Sheriff’s Officers FOP Lodge #166.
Veteran Sheriff’s Officer Erik Johnston is running as an independent, and opposes what he calls the politicization of the department.
The three of them have their fan bases within the office, according to a source, who says everyone else is trying to stay low and unaccounted for until after the declaration of a winner on Nov. 5th. A fourth candidate, Robert Shapiro, is running with a slogan of Protecting Burlington’s Kids, and does not work in the Sheriff’s Office.
Stationed at Long Beach Island when he was in the Coast Guard, Ditzel of Medford Lakes went back to his native Burlington County to work in the warrants unit, where he helped find violent offenders willing to run. One of his best moments came when he helped nabbed a fugitive in Pennsylvania on a helicopter run. Lately, he has excelled in community outreach, which forms the basis for his public safety vision for the department he hopes to lead.
“What I would like to continue is to apply for grants that benefit the community, particularly in the area of community policing,” Ditzel told InsiderNJ, speaking to a role he has worked since 2016, when Stanfield brought him up to develop and flex his administrative skills.
“I’ve done every aspect of this job, not only with department but outside agencies,” the Republican added. “My leadership style is not a dictator. I like to be part of the problem solvers and to lead by example. I hope the voters see who is best to lead this large department.”
Acknowledging GOP struggles as Democrats bulk up in the Trump era, Ditzel trusts in work accomplished to translate to voter strength come Nov. 5th. “Obviously I’m new to this, but they’ve righted the ship after all the party-switching, and they seem to just want to let people do their jobs. Mr. Earlen [BurlCo GOP Chairman Sean Earlen] is doing a heck of a job and we are working our tails off.”
Arguably he is not without his Achilles heel, revealed at a golf fundraiser he and his fellow officers attended in honor of a fallen comrade (see video, bottom), which his detractors on background eagerly characterize as a combination of arrogance of power and immaturity, which makes him ill-suited to succeed the ever-dignified Stanfield.
“It was a lighthearted moment at a charity event for one of the funniest guys we have known,” said Ditzel, the married father of two daughters. “I feel my proven track record outweighs a lighthearted moment among friends. I’m a human being and I was at a private function for a friend.”
The episode doesn’t dampen Stanfield’s effusive enthusiasm for the man she wants to succeed her.
“Oh, my God, he’s great,” the retired sheriff told InsiderNJ. “He is an excellent officer who has the skills to lead the office with integrity. He has worked at every level of the office and distinguished himself. He has undertaken and delivered real work with our community outreach. When I retired I realized the impact of the office on so many people, who have come up to me and talked about our programs, and Mike Ditzel has been such an important part of that.”
Sources describe the hurtful irony of financially-well connected Democrats animated with national gun issues, as they seek to take over a department where Stanfield – with Ditzel’s help – has helmed an aggressive gun buy-back initiative, denounced as too liberal by the right of the Republican Party.
As for the Democrat vying for the sheriff’s job, Stanfield gives voice to a going off-the-record woe at the core of the sheriff’s contest, “People should be scared, that someone with no administrative experience is seeking the position,” she said, referring to Basantis. “This is someone who never even took the sergeant’s test.
“He doesn’t have the skills for the job,” the retired sheriff said. Star pupil Ditzel does. In spades, she insisted.
The Democrats, of course, disagree, starting with Basantis himself, and veteran leader state Senator Troy Singleton (D-7), who trusts Democrats run the table on the freeholder board to take 5-0 control. Vote by mail enthusiasm countywide and an energized party organization in search of running up the score in the legislature by competing in LD8, will contribute to catapulting Basantis into the sheriff’s post, said the senator, who, like others, note that Basantis’ obvious remoteness from Republican Party politics put him on the outside of their leadership structure. “He is the embodiment of the American dream, the son of Greek immigrants who came to this county in search of opportunity for their family, someone who has worked in public service at the Sheriff’s Office and who I truly believe is on the cusp of being the sheriff of Burlington County,” Singleton told InsiderNJ.
Born in Burlington Twp., Basantis went back to Greece as a child with his immigrant parents for four years, then returned to Burlington in 1985. He received his criminal justice degree from Rutgers and sharpened his professional teeth in the family restaurant business, where he honed his customer services skills. He offers his record of public and private professional work as an asset. Asked about his vision for the department, Basantis said Burlington officers are the lowest paid in the state, worse than Cumberland. He wants to change that.
“I think we’re both good guys,” the Democrat said of himself and Ditzel. “He has been in the warrant unit but I haven’t seen his leadership skills. He’s been in the limelight. I guess he’s a good worker. A lot of people respect me in the department, because I used to be the FOP president. In corrections, their supers make more than us. We’re not getting raises. We just want a fair and respectable salary so people can make a living.”
The 2016 presidential election woke people up, Basantis said. “It continues to bring people out and our numbers in Burlington are much higher than before, and I’m getting very good feedback every time I canvas,” Basantis said. “I think people are fed up.
“I can fit in anywhere you put me,” the sheriff’s officer candidate and married father added. “I never think of myself as higher than anyone. I’m part of the team. People feed off of that. It’s the difference between a leader and a boss. When I was in the restaurant business, I washed dishes, tables.”
One of his proudest moments at the sheriff’s office occurred one day in the courtroom.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there that day, but I’m glad I was,” Basantis said. “The jury came back with a verdict on a defendant to revoke bail. The defendant said, ‘I’m not going to jail,’ and refused to comply with the court officer.”
Basantis said he intervened and the defendant tried to grab his weapon.
“I ended up subduing the defendant,” said the Democrat.
In response to Stanfield, Basantis said he did, in fact, take the sergeant’s test, but the retired sheriff promoted someone else whe ended up getting fired in the aftermath of sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations. “A sign of her poor judgment,” said the Democrat (who subsequently furnished a letter he said he wrote to Stanfield in 2010, see below). “As for her saying I never took the exam. That’s a flat out lie.”
The third candidate from within the ranks of the sheriff’s office, veteran officer Johnston, comes across like a lawman with a fundamental distrust of politicians and political parties, and certainly doubt about their influence on law enforcement.
“The REAL issue sir,” he told InsiderNJ, “is the politics! If either of those gentlemen win, the party will be running the office not the candidate. I’m sure politics has its place in the world, but definitely not when it comes to public safety. My opinion.”
In a Facebook post, Johnston said he plans to implement 24 hour pickups of detainees for all municipalities of Burlington County, thus enabling local police departments to keep their officers active in their respected towns, instead of driving individuals to the County Jail. He wants to make the Burlington County Sheriff’s Office available as a community service site for individuals that have been ordered, by the court, to complete community service. He also has a plan to implement a program that focuses on redirecting youth’s behavior before it rises to the level that police involvement or court action is necessary. This program (Youth Redirect Initiative) will engage youth that appear to display concerning behavior, with the goal of showing them the benefit of a more positive direction.
“I stand by every word in my posts about no leadership, no accountability, no Officer equality,” the independent candidate said. “The list goes on and way on!! Basantis nor Ditzel offered no platform for what they will do as sheriff! Makes you think doesn’t it? Saying you want to keep the Dept. going the way it is, is NOT a platform. Better pay is not a platform!!! Voters want ‘CHANGE’ but it won’t come from the Democrats or Republicans. They promise ‘change’ but NEVER deliver.
“I’ll say this, regardless of who wins,” added the self-professed cop’s cop. “They will need to bring in a experienced support staff to help run that agency.”