The Battle of Mahwah

As April closed out, marking just 5 weeks until Republican voters in Ridgewood, Midland Park, Mahwah, Wyckoff, Franklin Lakes, Oakland, Wayne, Ringwood, Wanque, Little Falls, Cedar Grove, and Verona go to the polls to choose the GOP nominees to crush the District 40 Democrats on the November ballot, a candidates forum was held at the Mahwah Senior Citizens center, featuring countywide candidates as well as the battling candidates for District 40 itself.

The small turnout of about 30 people witnessed a very civil and typically Republican (who as local political guru Jimmy Marotta likes to say, "don't like street theatre") exchange, but not without hints of sarcasm, bitterness, and anger.

I will discuss the candidates in order of appearance, highlight their key statements, and interject analysis along the way. (continued...)

Charles Kahwaty

I promised Charlie, a fellow Aleppine Elephant, that I would dig up a photo of the 1st grade class at St. Basil's Melkite School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, because there is a chance his father and my grandfather were classmates there before the families left for New Jersey in the mid-1920s, eventually landing in Franklin Lakes. Small world.

Charlie, an accomplished attorney and former President of the Bergen County Bar Association, began by referring to Bergen County as the "new old Hudson County". He related a bet offered him by Bergen County Democrat County Chair Joe Ferriero, whom Kahwaty described as an acquaintance ("friend would be a bit strong", he said), that he could cluster bomb any town in Bergen County and win it for the Democrats. "I didn't take that bet, because I knew he would win that bet," Kahwaty remarked, as the kickoff to his overview of the fiscal problems facing Bergen County and how he planned to approach them.

Kahwaty is articulate, demonstrates strong grasp of the issues, and his speaking voice has an appealing tone that made me forget for a moment how annoyed I am that politics is overrun by lawyers.

Paul Duggan

What a delight it was to see the very affable Paul Duggan behind the podium. He is an immigrant from Ireland and his passion for the United States of America is refreshing and a great reminder. He began by praising the US for allowing him to break not through the glass ceiling, but through the "class ceiling" that he experienced in Europe.

He then outlined the LEGAL process of immigrating to the United States, saying that we have failed to understand the assimilation process. He recalled a civics test, and his oath of Citizenship, sworn on the Bible:
I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic...
Duggan then gleefully recounted, "Nobody had ever asked me to lay down my life for anything before...I ran like a little boy to the County Clerk's office to get my passport."

Switching to a discussion of the race, he touted the factor that likely earned him the most votes at the County Convention on March 29: "I am the only candidate from south of Route 4." While Kahwaty addressed the nuts and bolts of a the fiscal issues quite well, his running mate Duggan considered that box checked and devoted his time to discussing several out-of-the-box ideas. He advocated creating, not at taxpayer expense, a "County Harvest", which would offer citizens more than a "pathetic brown paper bag made by inmates".

He recalled working for the US government in Germany under the leadership of Colin Powell, who created a compensation system whereby employees who proposed cost-saving ideas would be rewarded financially. Duggan would like to implement a similar program in Bergen County, which would be outstanding. He doesn't seem to care if people think his ideas are far-fetched: "Some of the best ideas start at the kitchen table and finish in legislation."

Duggan is truly a breath of fresh air who is committed to strengthening the Republican Party as well. He has been a key person in RED faction, working closely with Joe Caruso, and has equally creative ideas for party building that I look forward to exploring.

Bob Yudin

Yudin, a 30+ year fireman and Board of Education member in Wyckoff who ran unsuccessfully for Freeholder in 2004 and 2006 (when he victoriously aligned with the Caliguire slate in a very divisive and bitter primary), is back for a 3rd try. He largely devoted his talk to the mechanics affecting the Freeholder candidates as a result of the D40 primary:
"We will be in court on Friday. The County Clerk has ruled that we are not entitled to a line, but she awarded a line to 'Kevin's group'. We have sued Kathe Donovan...we will get a judicial hearing and hopefully a ruling.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place, because we are running all of Bergen County, not only in District 40, which has only 6 of the 70 municipalities in the county. That means that 91 or 92% of the towns we are running in are not in District 40, thus it is important to be on the organization line. We disagree with Kathe...we filed the petitions the exact same way that we filed last year. We cannot file a petition easily with 3 names on the petition. We also filed a bracketing request, properly filed within the time window, and all documents have been presented to the Judge."
What that means is that each of the three candidates collected their signatures on an individual petition, and presented a document indicating the intention to run together as a slate. The trouble is, last year Donovan was on the ballot and thus recused herself from the petition submittal process. And according to her, she is following the letter of the law in denying Duggan, Kahwaty, and Yudin the BCRO line because the bracketing of all 3 candidates was not indicated on the petition itself.
"We go through a vetting process. We were vetted in NERO (North-East Republican Organization, or D39) in a contested race, on a secret ballot. Then the policy committee of the BCRO, consisting of more than 100 people including all the municipal chairs, recommended that we get the line. Then, we went to the convention, which was also contested, and we won handily by nearly a 3:1 margin."
Yudin expressed several times that submitting the petitions was a "very extensive, very exhaustive 6 month process" and boasted of being "vetted by the voters, the Republicans who are active in Bergen County". Taking a swipe at "Kevin's group", as he refers to his opponent, Yudin quipped, "we didn't just sign a petition the day before and say 'we're running.'"

For the record, as I have written previously in my rebuke of Guy Talarico from last week:
"I do hope that the candidates chosen by the County Committee in the convention are in fact permitted to bracket together and form a line. O'Toole recruited Freeholder candidates not to defeat those chosen by the Bergen County Committee (Paul Duggan, Charlie Kahwaty, and Bob Yudin) but merely to strengthen his ballot position. The convention results should be respected and I hope Donovan has the integrity to recognize that."
Nevertheless, Yudin's arguments were not convincing. We will find out on Friday if their process satisfies the letter of Title 19, but "Kevin's group" insists that Yudin and his running mates have no shot at a line. The "contested" vetting processes mentioned by Yudin were not all that dramatic - there were 4 candidates and 3 were chosen. Even if it would have been impolite to have circulated the petitions with the expectation that Talarico's hand picked Lloyd Winans would flop, the final step of the "extensive, exhaustive, 6 month process" was on March 29. Petitions were not due until April 9, which means there 11 days to collect 100 signatures on a properly notated joint petition. That's 9 signatures per day. Not exactly a tall order to fill. I do hope that Duggan, Kahwaty, and Yudin win in court on Friday, but if they don't, they can only blame themselves.

Vince O'Brien

O'Brien was the first candidate from "Kevin's group" to address the audience, and among his opening remarks was "I'm a strong supporter of Kevin O'Toole and our ticket". He told of his extensive financial experience, including a high-ranking position in the Treasury Department of E.F. Hutton. He joked that he once had a beard, but when his former Wall Street colleague Jon Corzine ran for the US Senate 7 years ago, he shaved, because "we are fire and ice in politics".

O'Brien has quite an impressive CV. He worked with USAID in Macedonia after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and wrote the country's first financial instruments. Creating fiscal solutions for bankrupt countries, O'Brien asserted, really prepares him for Bergen County and New Jersey. His only weak point was mentioning "I can't really say what I would do specifically," which indicates what he essentially admitted: that he does not possess a deep-rooted desire to be a candidate, but decided to take the plunge on O'Toole's behalf.

Scott Pruiksma

Pruiksma is a Councilman from Midland Park, a very active volunteer firefighter, and a religious conservative who serves as a fire chaplain. He too spoke of his fondness and personal loyalty for O'Toole and Assemblyman David Russo, and described himself as "approachable".

In terms of his goals as a potential Freeholder, Pruiksma spoke about his desire to implement his self-created "help the helpers" program, a support for volunteer and emergency service workers, on the county level. He comes across as a very sure and steady elected official who approaches his work seriously and conscientiously.

Pat Pignatelli

Pignatelli is a Councilman from Oakland and a public health specialist. He listed his extensive credentials and certification in both Public Health and Environmental health domains.

Rather than say much about the primary itself, he criticized the Democrat Freeholders saying that they spend disproportionate amounts of open space money on recreation in the municipalities controlled by the Democrat Party. By contrast, Pignatelli wants to preserve open space to protect the environment and quality of life - claiming that the tendency to "turn everything into blacktop" leads to potentially hazardous flooding (like we recently saw) because of too many impervious surfaces which don't allow precipitation to naturally rejoin the ground water. Pignatelli also spoke about reforming health benefits for county employees.

now for the fun part (the District 40 candidates)...

John Ginty

I have described Ginty previously as a "principled conservative" and his performance on Monday night, as well as my discussions with him afterwards, gave me no reason to change that description. Ginty ran for this same Assembly seat in 2003 and 2005, and also stood up and ran in last year's US Senate primary on behalf of Republicans who were dissatisfied with Tom Kean, Jr. campaign. I was among the 25% who voted for Ginty on that basis.

Ginty is a confident and articulate speaker quite at home behind a podium. He began with a strong endorsement of his senatorial running mate Todd Caliguire, expressing his faith in Todd's ability and platform.

It's all about the issues was Ginty's theme. "What my opponents don't want to talk about are their records. It's easy to say what you will do in the future, but your record is told by what you've done in the past." He began by imploring the audience:
"Ask David Russo why he voted for the $8.6 billion school construction fiasco. People pleaded with Russo - 'don't vote for this'. It's money flying out of District 40 into the rathole in Newark, Jersey City, and Camden, and we got the shaft."
Then he turned to the topic of the pension bonding scheme under the Whitman Administration, saying that "conservatives pleaded with Whitman not to pass it, and now we are $100 billion in the hole of unfunded pension bond liabilities". On other ethical issues, he criticized Russo for not pushing to further investigate State Senator Wayne Bryant, who is in a load of legal trouble. Ginty said that Senator Cardinale pleaded with him to push forward on that issue.

Addressing the dynamics of the primary, he said:
"This is not about how well people get along, how well they slap each others backs, or how long you've been around. Republicans need to be willing to step up to the plate to fight Democrat incumbents."
Where I felt Ginty got off track and diluted his message was in attacking the fact that his opponents earned the endorsements of the NJEA and the Sierra Club. For one thing, Ginty's running mate Joseph Schweighardt, who didn't show up on Monday night, earned the endorsement of the teachers union in his previous campaigns in Wayne. Plus, Schweighardt's wife is a teacher. It is inconsistent and less than professional in a "team" race like this to be indirectly assailing your running mate. Secondly, despite Ginty's critiques of the Sierra Club as a leftist organization, there are good Republicans who earn the Club's endorsement, including New Jersey's own GOP Congressmen Jim Saxton and Frank LoBiondo.

Ginty closed strong, however, by outlining a:
"positive platform that pays homage to the 50 or 60 thousands people who move out of this state every year. We need a business-friendly environment, we need to get rid of the estate tax, get rid of the millionaire's tax, which is the half-millionaires tax in reality, and the mansion tax. These are oppressive, retrograde taxes."
Scott Rumana

Rumana has been waiting a long time to run for the Assembly, and McNamara's resignation has finally given him his chance. There was speculation that he would ditch O'Toole and use his clout as Passaic County GOP Chairman to go for the Senate seat instead, but that seems to have been totally out of the question.

Rumana began by rebutting Ginty, who suggested that Rumana would have voted identically to Russo, simply because he's running with him, on the controversial topics like the pension bonding scheme, school construction, etc. Rumana stated, "I'm just not going to speak to votes that I didn't vote on."

An outsider to Bergen County, Rumana pledged to be an advocate and then devoted most of his time to discussing his track record as Mayor of Wayne. He cited the cutting of 26 jobs under his Administration's (and Judy Orson's), which he said is moving in the right direction - providing the same level of services, actually more services because the population has increased, with less staff.

He also addressed the Sierra Club critique by touting the energy plan for Wayne which:
"reduces emissions in the immediate community, plus is projected to save $20 million over the next 20 years. It is the only plan in the nation that I know of that is so progressive."
Scott considers himself an advocate for transportation improvements, saying that "this is a place where government should spend", as well as open space, saying, "the more development that occurs, the higher property taxes go up."

Rumana closed by saying:
"I think Kevin O'Toole and David Russo have done an outstanding job in district. I'm proud to have been asked to run with them, and we will be able to do more because of the overlap between all 3 counties."
On a side note, I sat with Scott the following evening in Passaic at a fundraiser for Councilman Jonathan Soto, who is also the Republican municipal chair in that city whose population is 80% Latino. It is important that the elected Republican leaders show an interest in the urban areas, as I have argued endlessly. We have lots of work to do there, and it's not going to get done by hiding in the comfy suburbs.

David Russo

Russo kicked off with a trip down memory lane, mentioning McNamara as well as former Assemblyman Nick Felice, expressing his appreciation for all the votes turned out in Mahwah, particularly since it is a non-partisan town and therefore people are less motivated to go the polls in an off-year November election because the ballot is less full.

He spoke a good deal about Mahwah itself, and the "planned, intelligent growth" it has experienced. "Here, we're still building schools, because there is a need - people want to move here." Then he turned his attention to the primary, saying:
"It hurts me to stand here to talk to you tonight. It's a difficult thing to watch at the county level and at the local level. From Route 4 north, we should be generating more Republican votes. Instead, people who like each other are forced to fight each other in a 'created primary'. That's what this is.

We have no Freeholders, no County Executive, and less and less local elected officials....When we're having trouble demographically, let's take on the people that get endorsed without filling out questionnaires (a dig on Ginty's comment about the NJEA and Sierra Club)... we get endorsed by both labor AND business. Why? Maybe we're doing a good job.

It's EASY to lose elections (another swipe at Ginty's 0-for-3 record), but Kevin, Hank and I have won with large margins for years and years. Kevin and I have never gotten less than 65%, is that because of ego? NO. Because what we did counted...

We can help local candidates, and we always try to help the ticket. The Freeholder people are excellent people - Charlie Kahwaty, Paul Duggan - we've been friends for years...

We as a party have limited resources because we are out of power. The solution is to create a primary in a Republican district and to spend money, for WHAT? When have we been against anybody, except Democrats?

...It would have been nice if Kevin O'Toole, Scott Rumana and I had the opportunity to be picked by the county committee. Instead, we were told, 'you are not worthy of the Bergen County organization slogan'. The convention was not allowed. We weren't allowed to have people vote for us or against us. If we've been around too long, fine, then give people the opportunity to vote us out.

I've got to explain to my dad, who is 77 years old, why I'm a defendant in a lawsuit brought by the BCRO, and why I'm being sued by my friends Charlie Kahwaty and John Ginty. And these people (pointing on the legal paperwork to the names of the Freeholder candidates on his slate), what did they do to anybody?

I want you to send a message to Republicans statewide and in this county. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. You are throwing out loyal, hardworking, conservative Republicans.

Our only chance is to get together, pool our resources, and not fight."
Wow. He was fired up, and displayed some sarcasm at times, but the message was clear. A different point of view was advanced by Ginty's former running mate, Mahwah resident Joseph Tomanelli, who runs the New Jersey Republican Assembly and wears a pin that has the word RINO on it with a slash through it. He wrote:
"When (trial lawyer) David Russo spoke he came off as a crybaby, whining...Russo failed to answer any of Ginty's questions about his liberal voting record. Russo should have acknowledged that he is a defendant in a lawsuit solely because his pal Kathleen Donovan, County Clerk, recently abused her power in an attempt to disqualify the bracketing of the Bergen County Freeholder Candidates in the Bergen County Republican Line... I think that the whining by O'Toole and Russo was not very becoming of elected officials. It was apparent that if they are elected, New Jersey will be doomed to campaigns of whining about entitlement rather than discussions about voting records."
I happen to think Tomanelli way overstated his case. And I agree with Russo's sentiments about the lack of a convention as I explained in the comments section of my previous analysis on this issue.

"...had Talarico extended the already existing convention process for Bergen County to D40, the County Committee members of Franklin Lakes, Oakland, Wyckoff, Midland Park, Mahwah, and Ridgewood would likely have voted overwhelmingly to give the O'Toole team the line. In such a scenario, the likes of Caliguire/Ginty/Schweighardt would have seen that they had relatively little grassroots support and if they chose to continue their candidacy into the primary, it would be a financially low-key effort based on principle (like Ginty did in 2003 and 2005) - which is healthy for the party in my opinion.

If however, the County Committee split nearly evenly between the 2 choices in a convention, that would indicate that a full-fledged primary would be necessary for Republicans as a whole in D40 to select their preferred choice for November.

Thus, a convention is a good barometer that could have averted the wasting of hundreds of thousands of dollars that will go down the drain very shortly to provide a margin of victory for the O'Toole team that they would have had automatically if Talarico had held a convention on March 29."

Russo was comfortable with the crowd - the fact that he has represented the town for years shone through. But in my opinion he did show a little too much how irked he has been by the whole situation.

Todd Caliguire

Calguire, who had a 7th place showing in the 2005 GOP gubernatorial primary, which was supposed to set him up to run for Bergen County Executive in 2006 but never fully did, began with an analogy to the Battle of Thermopylae, inaccurately rendered in the movie 300. For him, facing the Democrats in 2006 was akin to the 300 Spartans who battled a massive Persian invasion centuries ago.

He then addressed this year's race:
"I was shocked when I heard that Hank was not running for re-election. He did tremendous work for this district, particularly in the area of environmental protection...I didn't expect to be up here. But Hank called me to encourage me to run, so that we would not give up a State Senate seat to Essex County."
Then McNamara largely regurgitated Chairman Guy Talarico's talking points about the vulnerability of Gerald Cardinale in District 39. He defended the Chairman in the name of "democracy", and quoted Churchill, quite effectively, which is quite rare amongst Republicans these days.
"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."
He made a good point by bringing up that it is only the 2nd time in 40 years that the 40th District has an open senate seat. I would argue that beckons a county committee convention to test the waters before an expensive primary.

Caliguire then flexed his fiscally conservative muscles, but frankly I found him far less convincing than he was in the 2005 and 2006 primaries. He used an effective example - Illinois has the same number of state employees as does New Jersey, but it has 50% more people. Then he echoed Ginty:
"It's easy to talk about what you're going to do when you're not in power. But what did the Republican Party do when we were in power...we heard the same kinds of arguments when Scott Garrett was running for Congress - he can't win, he's too conservative."
I have seen Caliguire sharper than he was on Monday, but I am pleased that the whole ridiculous and futile Reagan/Whitman analogy did not pop up.

Kevin O'Toole

O'Toole began by offering his sympathy to the personal difficulties faced by the Caliguire family that evening. Then he outlined the dynamics following redistricting in 2001, in which both he and McNamara were serving in the State Senate and were consolidated into a single district. O'Toole agreed to abdicate and go back to the Assembly so that the party leaders wouldn't "kill each other".

He touted the help that he, McNamara and Russo gave to local Republicans in District 40, particularly in Oakland, where they were instrumental in helping current Mayor John Szabo oust the "Ferriero regime" (coincidentally, the former Democrat Mayor Bob Piccoli is running on Caliguire's line). In 3 years, O'Toole said, Oakland went from being totally Democrat to being solidly under GOP control.

Then, he began to discuss the primary itself, and things got juicy.
"It is insulting not to take part in that democracy that Todd Caliguire spoke so eloquently about. 90% of the rank and file, guess who they're supporting...to them, I wasn't the 'Essex Kid', I was the District 40 legislator.

The line should be awarded to the most qualified...The criteria should be my votes, not my zip code. We don't believe in affirmative action."
Then he seemed to take a swipe or 3 at Caliguire, mentioning that primary shouldn't be about "servicing someone's ego.":
"I'm not running for County Executive, and I'm not running for Governor. I will NEVER run for another office than being a state legislator. That is what I believe in my heart that I am good at."
Then O'Toole turned his attention to the fundraising aspect. "There has been no more prolific fundraiser for this district than yours truly." He confidently stated that the organization candidates in 3 out of the 4 towns with partisan municipal primaries (Franklin Lakes, Oakland, and Midland Park - not McNamara's hometown of Wyckoff) have chosen to bracket with O'Toole's "Bergen County Conservative Regular Republicans" even though they got kicked off the organization line, but Tomanelli took issue with this:
"O'Toole bragged about all the endorsements his team received from 'important people', members of the 'ruling class', and rattled off Mayors, Councilmen, Police chiefs, etc. who endorsed them. Unfortunately, all those endorsements were from people with their hands out to the State and County Government for more money (Tax Dollars.)"
O'Toole closed up with extreme confidence.
"Politics is a silly little game that causes egos to get bruised. I've got nothing to lose. I know what's going to happen. We're going to win.

This is picking a fight in District 40 to service someone's ego. Wouldn't it be better to find a candidate for District 36 or District 38? We have become the laughing stock when we don't have a candidate in the most vulnerable district in the state where subpoenas have rained down, and we're monkeying around in District 40.

Well bring it on. It warms my heart to have support from the local officials in District 40. We'll see you on victory night, June 5."
I really cannot add much, other than to say that I would not want to be Guy Talarico on June 6.


Adam said...

I was at the event on Monday night and I thought Kevin, Dave and Scott made a good case as to why they merit our support.

There is something to be said about working hard and putting in your time. All three of these gentleman have learned the issues, served in pervious office, and will do a great job representing D40.

I think the three freeholder candidates running on the "O'Toole" line are very good candidates. In fact, I would venture to say that any of the six candidates from either team would be well suited in office.

Lets see if we can get ANY freeholder elected this time. I guess that will require TIME and MONEY. Both could have been saved without a D40 primary. But, that's neither here nor there, we have what we have. I agree George, I would not want to be at the BCRO when election results start coming in.

For those who did not attend this event on Monday, all I can say is it was the start of an interesting few weeks.

Dan Beckelman said...

In a state like NJ, to be calling people like O'Toole, Russo and Rumana liberals is quite ridiculous. These people have stood for the GOP and against the Democrats time and time again.