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.