A peek at Passaic County in 2007

I watched the disastrous November 6, 2006 election from London, where I was fortunate enough to be able to watch Fox News until 3 am at a friend's flat, while I logged on to NJN and watched TV coverage of the NJ races on the internet and simultaneously chatted via Skype with my friend Mike Klein, a longtime Democrat operative who happened to be on vacation in Buenos Aires. Global multitasking.

Republicans went down hard across the nation, and Passaic County was no exception. Not only did our Freeholder candidates lose by a whopping margin, but local Democrats made inroads in some painful places. They knocked out incumbent Haledon Mayor Ken Pengitore, plus Council members in Pompton Lakes and Little Falls. It was not a good night.

Looking ahead, it remains to be seen whether newly elected Republican County Chairman Scott Rumana will seek to keep his hard-fought-and-won party post. There have always been suggestions that his heart was never in it 100%. I have seen evidence that supports both conclusions.

Though he can write off his current 0-for-1 record to an overwhelming national trend, he will not have that luxury next year. His expectations for party rebuilding will increase exponentially, since he doesn't have a rough transition to blame for slow progress. Very soon the Republican base will want to know: what is the plan for building the GOP in the urban areas? How can we stop the encroaching Democrats in our traditional strongholds like Pompton Lakes? How are the party’s candidates selected? What is our fundraising strategy?

Furthermore, 2007 is the lowest turnout year of the 4-year cycle, with a very bottom-heavy ballot ideal for Passaic County Republicans to pick up some wins. In 2003, the electoral analog to 2007, turnout in Paterson was so low that the Republicans would have swept in 3 Freeholder candidates, had it not been for poor performance in up-county Republican towns.

Additionally, the big player next year in Passaic County will be Sheriff Jerry Speziale, who is up for re-election. Given the tone of the Freeholder debates even this year, Speziale should not be surprised if his budget comes under serious scrutiny during the campaign season next year. His 2004 challenger, Hawthorne policeman Mark Michalski, largely refrained from attacking the Sheriff. However, if a more aggressive challenger emerges in 2007, the campaign could be very intense.

As I mentioned earlier, the temporal distance from September 11, 2001 will weaken the political appeal of "Homeland Security". The last time Speziale ran was in 2004, alongside the first Presidential election following the attacks. It was largely a referendum on security, and the emotional stakes were high. Speziale did a great job of playing up his considerable credentials, and it was not difficult for him to ride "security coattails" to an unprecedented victory margin. But next year, those coattails will be long gone. Without any national issues at stake, and only state and local posts to be filled, the campaign will be about taxes, taxes, taxes – a liability for Speziale, whose Department accounts for over 50% of the bloated County budget.

Whether this will be enough to undo his immense popularity is unclear. It depends upon, first of all, whether the Republican Party will be gutless enough to discourage potential candidates and allow Speziale to run unopposed. For the record, I am 100% against that strategy as a matter of principle – it affronts democracy itself.

Beyond that, Speziale's fate will be partially determined by the strength of his GOP challenger, how much money is raised, and whether the local press continues to sharpen its teeth. Speziale should take note that in recent months, the Herald News has cracked open Totowa's nepotism culture, badly embarrassed Paterson Mayor Joey Torres, and strongly endorsed local Republican candidates. Paul Brubaker, the county political reporter, has a very good grasp of what is really happening and he will not be afraid to tackle the budget. Also, the departure of Alfred Doblin may change the disposition of the Herald's editorial board vis-à-vis Speziale. Although Doblin's new post at the Record will continue to improve that paper's coverage of Passaic County politics.

The other big question mark concerns Rumana's own intentions. Conventional wisdom says that Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole will wait for State Senator Henry "Hank" McNamara to retire, and then Rumana will seek to fill O'Toole's place in the Assembly for the 40th District. It doesn't look like McNamara's long-sought "golden parachute" is imminent, so he will likely not retire. He already has a declared challenger in conservative activist and self-proclaimed "RINO hunter" Joseph Tomanelli, but will O'Toole roll the dice and enter the race as well? Better question: will Rumana dump O'Toole and run for the State Senate himself, using his clout as County Chairman to secure "the line" for himself in Passaic County, which comprises 45% of the Republican Primary electorate? Some sources say that such a disloyal move is unthinkable for Rumana. Conversely, others argue that what Rumana surely possesses in cunning he lacks in courage. Either way, a Rumana/O'Toole divorce seems unlikely.

But he should consider his options carefully. Bergen County Republicans (who comprise another 45% of the 40th District Primary electorate – the remaining 10% are in O’Toole’s home county of Essex) in the 2006 Primary steered to the right and even threw out incumbents perceived not to be conservative enough. This even boiled down to the local level, with major upsets even in my parents’ hometown of Franklin Lakes, for example. Tomanelli is hard-wired into that strategy, and given the more democratic process for selecting candidates in Bergen (a County Committee Convention, imagine that in Passaic or Essex County!) he has a shot of tossing McNamara (who supported the losers in the 2006 Primary) off "the line".

Finally, to what extent will the previous Passaic County GOP regime attempt to make a comeback in 2007, or at least to play kingmaker? Peter Murphy is close to both McNamara and Speziale, which offers him the possibility to squeeze Scott Rumana from both sides. If Rumana thought his political headaches were over, he was dead wrong – they are only just beginning.


TheLucidLibertarian said...

It was fairly predictable that the GOP would get clobbered on all levels this year considering the anti-Republican tide around the country and especially in NJ. It would have been nice too see a stronger showing showing in the Passaic County Freeholder race, but the Democrats clearly have the advantage when it comes to GOTV on Election Day.

Also, after seeing the turnout for ballot initiatives across the country, I began to question why NJ doesn't do the same. Why is it that every year we are asked to vote on relatively meaningless questions like whether we should take an extra percent of the funds from Program A to pay for Program B, and so on? Ballot initiatives are the ultimate form of direct democracy and help legislators guage more accurately where public sentiment lies. Arizona had 19 initiatives for people to consider. NJ voters have just as much right to vote on issues that are important to them such as eminent domain, drug policy reform, minimum wage, partial birth abortion, stem cell research, affirmative action, and so on. I believe the addition of MEANINGFUL ballot initiatives is just one of several much needed reforms in the Garden State.

Anonymous said...

I don't see why the media pretended to be so surprised at the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld the day after the Democrat sweep of the Congress. It was bound to happen. Does anyone really think that Rumsfeld would spend the last 2 years of his distinguished public service career being attacked in one Congressional Hearing after another? Could you imagine the likes of Pascrell, Payne, and Pelosi (individuals who couldn't carry Rumsfeld's water if thier careers depended on it) sitting up there, trashing Rumsfeld's character, accusing him of being a liar and a torturer? His departure was inevitable once the Election night returns came in.

On a brighter note, with the appointment of Bob Gates as Defense Secretary and the inclusion of James Baker and Brent Scowcroft in the Administration's foreign policy decisions, perhaps some of the moves that people like George have been articulating (see the post on the Chronicles article) will finally become reality. We certainly have an interesting two years ahead of us.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone here seen the editorial on www.NorthJersey.com, calling for the creation of a County Executive position in Passaic County? Would this replace the appointed County Administrator? If so, sounds like a good idea. Passaic County definately needs anything that will improve accountability.

Route7Republican said...

I definitely think the County Executive thing is needed in Passaic County. The administrator position has no accountability and creates infighting between the freeholders and civil servants. As is seen in Bergen (where the county tax rate is the lowest in NJ and county services are excellent), the County Executive can rise above petty infighting and set good policies.

Anonymous said...

Dear George:

I hope this letter finds you in good stead.

After reading the article authored by you on November 11, 2006, I felt compelled to send you a quick response.

Undoubtedly, you interject your political view, which is solely based on your belief and opinion. I beg to differ with that opinion and it’s clear to me that you don’t know the voters of Passaic County or me at all.

As you know, my life and career is an open book and I am proud of all that it has symbolized. Unfortunately, you see me as a political foe, which is founded on politics.

I am secure in my position and standing with the voters of Passaic County and confident Karl Rove tactics of hate and deceit does not fool them. This is evidenced by the malicious campaign mounted against me by Ron Fava, a former Prosecutor and Acting Sheriff who ran against a relatively unknown.

I will never forget my reelection campaign in 2004, which ended unexpectedly two months prior to my reelection. My best friend of twenty-eight years, mother of my three children and the love of my life, my wife Maggie was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I can assure you that campaigning was the last thing on my mind. I was focused on taking care of my three children, holding my family together, praying for my wife’s recovery, taking care of her when she returned home and managing the department. The most important thing to me is my family, which I am so grateful for. Yet, through it all, the voters of Passaic County overwhelmingly reelected me for a second term by record numbers, (78%).

Nothing has come easy for me in life, I was shot, hit by a cab; fell off a roof, beat by rouge cops undercover and many other dangerous situations that nearly cost me my life. However, complex situations are when I am at my best, because I remain alert, focused, composed, resolute and steadfast in my abilities to handle the situation at hand. Believe in me, I worked hard and earned everything I have attained in life taking nothing for granted.

So, with that being said, I want to address your comment about Reporter Paul Brubaker. I have had the pleasure of meeting the Mr. Brubaker who has been fair and balanced in his reporting. I don’t believe for one minute that the Herald News, Record or Mr. Brubaker is going to engage in any conspiracy to assassinate my character in an effort to assist the Republican Party.

Certainly, they are aware of my record, accomplishments and services provided by the department. Nevertheless, I have opened my doors to Mr. Brubaker and the newspapers. In fact, unlike any other agency, I don’t require them to make written requests through the Open Public Records Act. Clearly, I make sure the documents released are not protected under any law or privilege and then release them immediately upon their request. I have met with him on a number of occasions and provided him all of the budgetary documents of the department and outlined the operation.

George, I would like to personally invite you to join me for lunch and a tour of the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department if you promise to be objective, non-partisan in your view and are open minded. Perhaps it would give you a clearer picture of the effective and efficient operation and our awesome responsibilities.

This is not about partisan politics, as you would like to have it. It is about public safety and providing essential services to the public at the most affordable cost.

Please try and understand that my budget is based on the cost of the agency to the taxpayers. With that being said, you will learn that during my tenure as the budget has increased because of contractual obligations among other things. The department operates with revenues and expenditure's ultimately being the bottom line to the taxpayers.

Since becoming Sheriff, I have increased my revenues by more than (100) million dollars offsetting the cost of the department to the taxpayers, my operating expenses have been flat for (6) years and the department has purchased all of it's vehicles and equipment with millions of dollars in drug forfeited funds. So when you look at the actual cost to the taxpayers and average out my years in office you will learn that we are operating about (15) million dollars under the cost to the taxpayers of my predecessor Ron Fava.

I welcome any debate on my budget and would only hope I get the chance to educate the public instead of the unsubstantiated propaganda spewed by people that have no clue how the agency operates.

As for my opposition, I welcome any candidate and will work vigorously to ensure my Victory in 2007.

In my opinion, turn out is not a factor for a candidate who won (15) towns overwhelmingly (3-4-5 and 10 to 1), and narrowly lost one.

As to be expected, I conduct poll data every year about the department and me, to include this year. Consequently, this years (800) sample poll has me even higher than my previous years, to include the year I beat Mr. Michalski and set record numbers in Passaic County. For the record, the poll data excludes Paterson and Passaic.

As for you absurd comment about the horrific events of 911 fading from the minds of our residents. Those terrible and tragic events will forever be etched in the minds of every American.

We have had great success in Passaic County in the area of homeland security as well as traditional law enforcement endeavors. We have modernized our infrastructure and have put into place a coordinated and cooperative effort to prepare ourselves for any contingency threatening our people. I do want to point out that this would not have been possible without the coordinated team comprised of our Police Chiefs and County Prosecutor.

Rest assured that the Passaic County Chiefs, Prosecutor and I have an extremely close working relationship founded on mutual respect, trust and friendship. Together, we have put together the finest law enforcement effort Passaic County has ever seen. The coordination between us all brings a keen awareness of balancing vigorous crime fighting efforts and criminal prosecution with just as vigorous protection of constitutional rights and civil liberties.

During my tenure, numerous programs have been initiated. These programs have been designed to improve both the services we provide and the relationships we share with the community.

I have dedicated my life to fighting crime and protecting and serving our citizens. So, as to be expected, I feel energized knowing that the people recognize and appreciate my abilities as their Sheriff.

So my friend, bring on your candidate, because I look forward to spending my million dollars to ensure that the public knows the truth about their Sheriff for a sweeping victory for me in 2007!


Jerry Speziale
Sheriff of Passaic County