BY CLYDE HUGHES | AC JosepH Media
PENNS GROVE — Two local branches of the NAACP and its State Conference have joined to look into allegations of racism against Penns Grove Mayor LaDaena Thomas in what amounted to one of the most unusual elections in 2023.
The case of Thomas, who made history in 2019 as the first African American woman to ever win a mayoral election in Salem County, and the forces swirling around her trying to make sure she didn’t repeat the feat in 2023, has been immense.
The allegations of racism, which came against an employee who was fired from a firm as its solicitor by Thomas in 2021, is just part of what Thomas has endured to win a second term.
Thomas won a write-in campaign in November, defeating former Democratic Penns Grove Mayor John Washington in 2019, as well as Republican Louis Pasquale. The election certification, however, was not obtained until a month after Pasquale filed a lawsuit because of an unrelated legal matter Thomas was involved in more than two decades ago.
Thomas launched her write-in campaign after the local Democratic Party opted not to support her, instead throwing their support behind Washington, who eventually came in third in November’s general election. Washington had held the mayor’s seat for four consecutive terms for over 16 years before he was beat by Thomas.
In the middle of the struggle to get re-elected, a recording emerged — allegedly by John Groff, an employee of the Lento Law firm that once served as Penns Grove solicitor — in which he made racist comments against Thomas, vowing to “destroy her.”
In a Dec. 11 article by the political website New Jersey Globe, reporters posted the recording allegedly of Groff, calling Thomas a “black f***ing n****r b***h” and that he would “f***king destroy her” back in 2021. That year, Thomas replaced Lento Law as its solicitor for alleged “unethical behavior.”
“It is our duty as a civil rights organization to support all who are threatened and attacked because of their background,” said Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County NAACP, who met with Thomas and Salem County NAACP President Nelson Carney. “If I said what I heard was appalling, that would be an understatement.
“We will be working with Mayor Thomas, council, and residents of Penns Grove Borough for justice, to eliminate race-based hatred, to restore respect for those elected, and to ensure these types of threats that hold communities of color down are eliminated and those responsible will be held accountable.”
NAACP New Jersey State Conference President Richard Smith said such racist comments have been increasing and have been used as a way to rally the base of the far-right against Blacks and other minorities.
“In the past several years, political candidates have increasingly levied racially charged accusations to mobilize who they believe are ‘their’ voters,” Smith said in a statement. “Explicitly racist or otherwise biased messaging has and will continue to show up as we approach each and every election.”
The incident caught the attention of influential Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who issued a statement about the recording on NJ Insider in December defending Thomas.
“I am appalled and disgusted by what has taken place and especially after hearing the voicemail recording,” Baraka told NJ Insider. “Anyone of good conscience in this state should stand by Mayor Thomas and condemn the racist, white supremacist comments.
“This is a clear attempt to bully, intimidate, and stoke fear into this African American woman and I want her to know she’s not alone … that ALL of us in Newark and throughout this state will work to ensure that the only thing that will be destroyed is hatred, racism, misogyny and ignorance.”
Groff told the New Jersey Globe in December that despite the investigation conducted by the NJ Attorney General Office, he has not spoken to anyone there because “that can’t be verified that it was even me” on the recording.
Wilfredo “Wil” Rojas, communications chair of the Gloucester County NAACP and a diversity and inclusion instructor, called on Lento Law to fire Groff.
“While there has always been a fundamental rift in Salem County between Blacks and Whites over inclusion in government and community institutions, we cannot allow a law firm to acquiesce in permitting an employee to engage in racist, terroristic behavior,” Rojas said.
“The Gloucester County NAACP and other organizations are increasingly uncomfortable about Mr. Groff’s manner of addressing Mayor Thomas, as an employee of the Lento Law Group is demanding that the firm share responsibility for Mr. Groff’s racist conduct and take punitive action against him.”
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