The good, the bad, and the 2007 Passaic County GOP screening

On Tuesday night, the Passaic County Republican Party held its screening for candidates seeking the official party endorsement in the June Primary election. By all accounts, the evening was a disaster and does not bode well for Chairman Scott Rumana's image. When I asked a staunch ally of his to rate the success on a scale of 1 to 10, he joked, "Zero...but on the positive side, nobody died."

First of all, attendance was low. Of the 400+ actual elected and appointed members of the County Committee, only 90 or so turned up (plus about 20 additional people who were not on the County Committee). This did not represent a quorum, and therefore a planned initiative to amend the bylaws in order to shorten the gap between the date for official party endorsement and the petition filing date was not even presented. This complicates matters because it puts Rumana and his team under the gun to recruit a number of candidates for various posts.

Former Little Falls councilwoman Jayme Alfano, who has signed her actual name to comments on this blog criticizing Rumana's leadership, wrote me the follwing:
"I am so sick of hearing people blame the president and the wave for Republicans losing. LF lost because we have no leadership and that is why we are in the mess we are in with the county. Scott needs to STOP pointing blame, take accountability and lead. There wasn't even a quorum there last night. Pathetic."
Ashley Kindergan of the Herald News, who has taken over for Paul Brubaker, has covered the fallout in today's paper:
"Republicans are short on candidates to run in the November elections, now that a freeholder candidate backed out of a race hours before he was supposed to speak in front of Passaic County committee members.

On Tuesday, in a screening meeting of the Republican County Committee, Russell Bleeker, did not appear as scheduled. Instead, officials said, Bleeker left a message on attorney Mark Semeraro's cell phone about an hour and a half before the meeting saying he had to drop out because he was worried about his business interests if he ran...

Rumana and other party officials said no one could have predicted that Bleeker would drop out. Semeraro said Bleeker was 'enthusiastically pursuing' the Republican nod right up until he dropped out."
So now the GOP is left with no Sheriff candidate (by design - more about that below), no State Senate candidate in District 34, no State Senate OR Assembly candidates in District 35, one empty Freeholder spot, and one endorsed candidate (2006 nominee Arthur Soto) rethinking the viability of his run.

This must be rectified immediately, and as I wrote earlier, a stronger effort to communicate with County Committee members over the past few months might have generated enough excitement and interest to spur more quality candidates to present themselves. We have a real crisis, because in the 6 towns of District 35, more than 1/3 of the county, loyal Republicans may go into the ballot box and see:

Sheriff - BLANK
State Senate - BLANK
State Assembly - BLANK
State Assembly - BLANK
Freeholder - Arthur Soto?
Freeholder - ???

Unacceptable. We cannot concede more races than we contest, even in towns like Hawthorne and Totowa.

Now, as for the Sheriff's race - in principle, I am against having empty slots on the ballot. We went through this in 2004, when I (to a far, far lesser extent than GOP Sheriff candidate Mark Michalski) faced pressure not to run against the Democrat incumbents. Among those taking my side: former Assembly leader Paul DiGaetano, who shares my disdain for conceding races without even fielding a candidate. The idea that an incumbent will "stay home" or "go to sleep" is a flawed one. First of all, an incumbent like Speziale who yields power on the local level and wins by very wide margins, has 2 principal opponents, neither of which is represented in the person of his challenger from the other party.

An incumbent's main opponent is his own performance in the last election. Incumbents love to tell people that they increased their share of the vote in each subsequent election, therefore suggesting that they have become more and more beloved by the people they represent. Logically, therefore, an incumbent whose numbers slip looks foolish because he appears to have lost popularity. So incumbents, driven at the most basic level by egoism, work hard to keep their numbers up, even with lame partisan competition.

In Speziale's case, his other main opponent is Bill Pascrell. The Sheriff trounced the Congressman in 2004 when they were both on the ballot (which pleases me from a certain angle, especially since Pascrell thugs stole not only my yard signs - which they tried to blame on Speziale incidentally - but even the Sheriff's yard signs as well). Riding the demagogic, I mean, Democratic wave of 2006, Pascrell managed to increase his share of the vote by a few points relative to 2004 - which puts Speziale under pressure to do the same.

However, Speziale (who rather fancies himself) knows that even his proven electoral clout will not be sufficient to drive more turnout in an off-off-off year than what he saw in the Presidential contest of 2004. And Pascrell knows that too. So raw numbers will not be a fair basis for comparison. However, percentage points would be. If Speziale had an opponent, even a weak one, he would presumably work day and night to best his 75% result of 2004. Hence the wisdom, loathe as I am to use the term, of allowing him to run unopposed, as 100% will suit him just dandy. Proponents of this view couple it with the suspicion that there is little love lost between Speziale and his running mates, Freeholders Terry Duffy and Pat Lepore (if you doubt it, check out this video), and thus the Sheriff sees little value in expending his considerable electoral war chest on their behalf.

Back to the screening - there were, however, a few bright spots to report. First, Assembly leader Alex DeCroce, who represents District 26, strongly endorsed Rumana and publicly addressed the need to investigate why a promising Freeholder candidate would drop out in such a manner.

More prominently though, was Passaic County native and 2nd time contender for office in District 26, my fellow Hopkins man Jay Webber. While his opponent Larry Casha read from cue cards, Jay took command from behind the podium and won over the crowd not only with his eloquence on the issues, but by touting his Passaic County roots: he is from Clifton, and his Mom from Paterson. His parents (who served at length on the County Committee) and grandmother still reside in Passaic County, and as a longtime GOP volunteer and staffer for former Congressman Bill Martini, Jay even handed out "Rumana for Council" cards during the Chairman's first campaign in 1994, when Jay was living in the AMRs.

Finally, plans are on track for a party convention in Passaic County for the Presidential contest, as covered by Ms. Kindergan earlier in the week.
"At its executive committee meeting earlier this month, the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization considered holding a convention in June to allow Republican Party committee members and members of municipal Republican clubs to vote on their favorite Republican presidential candidate. The state primaries will likely occur in early February. The executive committee, which consists of municipal party leaders and other party officers, will likely vote on the idea at its March meeting.

Some local leaders think the effort will draw marginalized or less active Republicans into the fray...

The successful candidate would get an endorsement from the county party. If the county's plan works as it is supposed to, the party will get an influx of fresh faces mobilized to work in local races...

Some even hope the process could expand further, and that a convention-style process could help the county committee to choose freeholder candidates in coming years."
This is absolutely a step in the right direction and is the best move Rumana has yet made. Despite the cynical attitude of his critics, including his predecessor who discounts the importance of the Presidential race even at this early stage, the Chairman should absolutely move ahead with any and all efforts that connect highly-motivated issue-oriented conservative voters scattered around Passaic County with the need to support Republican candidates at the local and county levels. This is one of the critical ways to widen the volunteer pool and fundraising base.