27.3.07

The District 40 Republican Primary

With the activity in Passaic and Bergen County Republican circles following the announced retirement of State Senator Henry McNamara, I wrote the following article for The Record that was published today.
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With McNamara's departure, a spirited race arises
by GEORGE AJJAN - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Wyckoff politico Henry McNamara, a longtime District 40 state senator, dropped an electoral bombshell two weeks ago upon announcing his retirement. Because the district leans strongly Republican, McNamara's abdication has put intra-GOP machinations into overdrive, as ambitious Republican aspirants seek to fill the power vacuum left by his departure.

The first move played out in predictable fashion. Kevin O'Toole, an assemblyman from Cedar Grove, immediately announced his desire to assume the state Senate seat. Alongside O'Toole are allies Assemblyman David Russo of Ridgewood and Wayne Mayor Scott Rumana, who will seek to fill the Assembly seat that would be vacated by O'Toole. No surprises here. This arrangement had been anticipated and well plotted, particularly by O'Toole and Rumana.

Their political promotions, however, are far from guaranteed, because an aggressive slate of challengers has been organized to compete in the June primary, consisting of two Ridgewood residents – former Bergen County Freeholder Todd Caliguire and three-time candidate John Ginty – as well as Councilman Joseph Schweighardt from Wayne. All six of these contenders will have to shift into overdrive for a short and spirited campaign.

The Senate seat, which entitles the senator to block political appointments in his or her county, is a particularly ripe plum. If Caliguire is unsuccessful in challenging O'Toole, the clout of Bergen Republicans in Trenton will diminish. On the other hand, a victory by O'Toole would please Republican insiders on the state level by giving the GOP indirect influence on Newark politics, since O'Toole is from Essex County.

O'Toole has established a considerable profile for himself as a major player in the state GOP, but he is not without detractors. His critics view him as an "establishment" Republican who puts party maneuvering over conservative ideology. O'Toole has nonetheless proved his worth by putting his energy and talent to good use attacking Democratic excesses.

For example, during a hearing in Trenton last year, O'Toole rhetorically manhandled disgraced former Attorney General Zulima Farber as she bumbled her way through his sophisticated questioning to the delight of many in attendance, judging by the smirks on the faces of the press corps.

Furthermore, O'Toole has invested in young Republicans, even calling upon recent college graduates to serve as regional coordinators for his state Senate campaign.

Caliguire's persona

His opponent, Todd Caliguire, also has an impressive persona, which earned him the endorsement of The Record during the 2005 GOP gubernatorial primary. As a former freeholder, he set an example for ethical behavior and has consistently and articulately communicated the need to downsize government at the county and state levels.

However, Caliguire lost credibility in the eyes of many Republicans after a disappointing fund-raising effort in his race for Bergen County executive last year. He nonetheless still has a following in Bergen County, and given that nearly 45 percent of the primary voters are based in Bergen, compared to only 10 percent for Essex (the remaining 45 percent are in Passaic), O'Toole rightfully views Caliguire as a formidable opponent, despite already having won the backing of many key elected officials in all three counties.

Caliguire's running mate, Ginty, is a principled conservative who ran for the Assembly both in 2003 and 2005. Ginty deserves the admiration of Republicans for presenting himself as a candidate for the U.S. Senate nomination last year, attempting to inject some energy into the base that Tom Kean Jr.'s thoroughly uninspirational campaign did not.

Ginty, Schweighardt and Caliguire refer to their opponents as "Whitman Republicans," and criticize them for straying from conservative principles during the time that the GOP had full control of Trenton.

The other controversial candidate is Rumana, the popular mayor of Wayne who has struggled since being elected Passaic County Republican chairman last year with a strong mandate for change.

Rumana began with confidence and enthusiasm, but has neglected in recent months to effectively communicate with the county committee, which chose him as leader. Consequently, the GOP's candidate pool is anemic, even for freeholder, not to mention the Democratic-leaning Assembly districts covering more than half of the county, and Rumana has already given incumbent Sheriff Jerry Speziale a free pass for November.

At a minimum, the role of a chairman is to nominate candidates to carry the party banner, even when the odds are stacked against them.

Rumana's record

Rumana has proven himself as an elected official and would make a fine assemblyman, but Passaic County Republicans would taste a very bitter irony if they nominated as a candidate for a "safe" Assembly district a chairman who failed to find himself running mates in the less competitive ones. Rumana must deliver before the filing deadline for candidate petitions on April 9, and pledge to resign as mayor of Wayne if elected to the Assembly.

The stakes are high this week, as Bergen Republicans (in a proper grass-roots convention) and Passaic Republicans (in a cagey oligarchy) prepare to vote. The slate that wins those intra-party contests will have a significant advantage because it will be bracketed on the June ballot with the municipal candidates in each town.

So unless the losing slate recruits its own municipal running mates, it will face a very uphill battle.

All in all, this will be an exciting primary to watch, and one worthy of the attention of concerned citizens in Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties.

George Ajjan of Clifton was a candidate for Congress in the 8th District. He runs a political blog at www.georgeajjan.com.

O --- This article first appeared in The Record on March 27, 2007.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

George,

Good article but I sharply disagree with your assessment that the candidate pool in Passaic County is anemic. There are strong and worthy candidates in Passaic County who would go toe to toe with the likes of Duffy and Lepore in the fall. There are many who fed up with the freewheeling and overspending ways of the Democrats and would love an opportunity to make a difference.

What does not exist (at least not right now) is the willingness for these folks to run and the greenbacks to fund such a contest. Making matters worse are the destructive criticisms of folks (and we know who they are) who love to bash Rumana without offering ANY solutions of their own. What I appreciate about you George is that you don't give the Chairman a free pass (as JA accused you of) but you point out his weak points and make suggestions to improve the party. This is constructive criticism and greatly needed in these party rebuilding years.

George Ajjan said...

Anonymous 6:32,

Thanks for your feedback. I completely agree that there are many worthy potential candidates out there, but the party has to show interest, energy, and enthusiasm to convince people to take the courageous step of putting their names on the ballot. I feel that if there had been more communication from the Chairman in the past couple of months, more grassroots excitement might have been stirred.

Bashing Rumana for the sake of it is just "sour grapes", as Ayman Mamkej alluded to in the paper yesterday. Calling for the Chairman's resignation at this point is ridiculous.

I appreciate your recognition of my constructive criticism. Just because I strongly supported change in the party last year - and it happened - doesn't mean that I will not continue to advocate reform and transparency, even if that entails voicing disagreement with Rumana.

Yes, I would have liked to see a county committee convention this year like the Bergen GOP has. And I hope that all the Assembly slots will be filled, that would be terrific if we managed to find people to put their names on the line as candidates, even if they have slim chances of winning.

George Ajjan said...

Based upon the feedback I received from a trusted friend and fellow activist, I would like to clarify the statement:

'Ginty, Schweighardt and Caliguire refer to their opponents as "Whitman Republicans," and criticize them for straying from conservative principles during the time that the GOP had full control of Trenton.'

This was intended to inform, not endorse. The fact is, I happen to like and respect Governor Whitman and I greatly appreciate what she did to help me 3 years ago in my race.

Attacking her is unwise, especially in the context of a County Committee convention, because many of those voting have been lifelong Republicans who appreciate a personable, dynamic, and accomplished former Governor who proved the ability to win statewide.

Yes, there is a segment of the Republican base that resents Whitman. But my gut feel says that these individuals, in a primary, would probably not be voting for the "establishment" anyway. Attacking Whitman will not gain more votes, in my opinion.

I basically gave this feedback to Todd Caliguire directly at one of the Tuesday Group breakfast meetings in 2006.

Anonymous said...

George,

I agree again... I too am a big supporter of Scott and dare say, a friend of his team. But that should not make me or anyone else a rubber stamp or an automatic "yes man". Otherwise, we become no better than the previous GOP dictatorships er.. I mean, chairmanships.

Do we want to promote openness, diversity and democracy in the Passaic County Republican Party or do we want to revert back to the old style lock-in-step blind loyalties of Mecca and Murphy?

Anonymous 6:32

George Ajjan said...

Anonymous 6:32,

Thanks again for chiming in. We Republicans need to be less shy about demanding improvements to our Party operation. But then again, I'm a Chuck Hagel supporter.

Here is some feedback I've gotten today:

"...it was a huge mistake to send such a letter to the paper unless you no longer want to be part of the Republican organization...I am not certain how you can rectify or fix the damage."

"I thought you were a supporter of Rumana. I was surprised to see you attacking him publicly."


Again, I replied by restating my desire to see positive change in the NJGOP and particularly in Passaic County. If I stepped on a few toes in doing so, so be it. A functioning and healthy Republican Party that offers sound alternatives to the Democrats is a must, and that is the principle that I will continue to defend.

jayme alfano said...

good article George. I appreciate seeing the fairness. As much as people don't think I gave Scott and his team a chance I did. I voted for him, suppoted him , met with him and offered solutions but I can see when something isn't working and I have every right to point it out. If anonymous or anyone else would like to contact me directly, feel free, jaalfano@earthlink.net
I look forward to the primary.

TheLucidLibertarian said...

I agree that calling for Rumana to resign as chairman is unnecessary. However, George's critique of Scott's time thus far as the head of the Passaic GOP is on the money. There are plenty more slots to fill than just the freeholder seats. What about Assembly and Senate for District 34, 35, and 36? The GOP can not continue to write off these districts simply because they are located across "Democrat leaning" towns.

The problem, as has been discussed here before, is fundraising. The Passaic GOP needs to do a great deal more of it for Republicans to even have a shot at being competitive in elections. People are not going to put themselves out there on the ticket to run if they know full well that the party has no financial resources to support a legitimate campaign effort.

HaledonHound said...

O'Toole is definitely the best for party-building and in terms of experience, so he is my choice.

HaledonHound said...

Now that Guy Talarico has ruined the Bergen County GOP officially by nominating Doddering Caliliar again its time we make sure:

1) That Kevin O'Toole is elected.
2) That Talarico is done with politics.

watchem said...

David Russo is attempting to have his subpoena quashed in the township of Wayne. Judge Katz will not rule it a conflict of interest