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.