Aspiring to a "cagey oligarchy"

The GOP Primary contest in NJ's 40th District, the germination of which I discussed in a Bergen Record op-ed last month, has morphed into a full-blown intra-party battle that stakes the political future not only of the candidates, but several key insiders as well.

Recap: the resignation of longtime D40 Senator Hank McNamara prompted incumbent Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole to launch his candidacy for McNamara's vacated slot, accompanied by Assemblyman David Russo and Wayne Mayor Scott Rumana. Shortly thereafter, 0-for-his-last-2 former Bergen Freeholder Todd Caliguire announced his opposition to O'Toole, joined by 0-for-his-last-3 conservative activist John Ginty and incumbent Wayne Councilman Joseph Schweighardt.

The O'Toole team emerged, not surprisingly given the fact that 2 of the 3 are presently incumbents in D40 and the 3rd is the Mayor of a town which comprises nearly 1/3 of the GOP Primary voters, as the early favorite. Accordingly, since O'Toole doubles as Essex County GOP Chairman (Verona and Cedar Grove are in D40) and Rumana doubles as Passaic County GOP Chairman, the O'Toole team won "the line" in the "cagey oligarchies" that award it in those 2 counties.

Things got interesting, however, when it came to the traditionally more democratic process of awarding "the line" in Bergen County. (continued...)On the night of the Bergen GOP convention, which took place on March 29, the County Committee voted to endorse countywide candidates: Harry Shortway for Sheriff with 199 votes, Paul Duggan for Freeholder with 206 votes, Charlie Kahwaty (to whom I am admittedly partial given overlapping familial trajectories: Aleppo - Central Falls - Franklin Lakes) for Freeholder with 190 votes, followed by 0-for-his-last-2 Bob Yudin for the 3rd Freeholder slot with 178. Bergen County Chairman Guy Talarico's favored candidate, Lloyd Winans, trailed way behind with only 58 votes.

No conventions were held for the Assembly districts, even in D40 where 2 full slates were competing based upon the opening of the all-important Senate seat (which carries with it the ability to block in-county appointments and therefore influence others). Apparently, I was incorrect when I wrote in the Record that the Bergen GOP would sponsor a "proper grassroots convention" for D40. In fact, the track record shows that the Assembly/Senate Districts have not been historically included in the convention process.

To be clear: this is unacceptable. Regardless of past precedent, McNamara's retirement made this Primary completely different from any in recent memory, and since the convention mechanism was already in place for the countywide candidates, it should without question have been adapted to D40. Given the high stakes for Bergen County (which wants to keep a 2nd Bergen-based Senator in addition to Gerald Cardinale from District 39), the County Committee should have had the all the more opportunity to express its will.

But that was not to be. Talarico simply awarded "the line" to the Caliguire slate, in a move that made the "cagey oligarchies" of the other 2 counties appear models of transparency. In making this autocratic move, Talarico cited the ever-invoked bylaws (side note: my admiration to Passaic County Republican legal adviser Tom Segreto for posting the PCRRO bylaws online -a first), which he asserted gave him as Chairman the sole authority to designate the official GOP organization endorsements for the Primary. According to his logic, he backed the Caliguire team because Todd Caliguire is from Ridgewood and therefore his victory would ensure continued senatorial courtesy for Bergen Republicans.

Yet, in doing so, he jettisoned incumbent Assemblyman David Russo, who also lives in Ridgewood, as does John Ginty. If Talarico's goal was "Bergen First", then he could have made a statement by offering "the line" to the 3 Ridgewood contenders. His reluctance to do so his illustrated the flaws in his logic and consequently Talarico's actions have come under intense scrutiny. Some former political allies have attacked him with gusto, including former BCRO Finance Chairman Joseph Caruso, who resigned in protest of Talarico's maneuvers:

"Your decision to instigate and encourage an unnecessary and disastrous Primary Election in District 40 demonstrates to me that you have a far different agenda than the one I originally understood. There is no way a Primary in District 40 makes strategic sense for the GOP.

It is difficult to understand how we can allow two hard-working and valuable incumbents – who have generously supported the Bergen GOP financially -- to be challenged by candidates who have demonstrated repeated failure at the polls. The Primary battle that you sanctioned in District 40 has succeeded only in further dividing the party and diverting time, money and attention from real opportunities to mount challenges in other districts and towns...

I do not wish to waste my time and effort bolstering personal agendas and feeding vendettas. Nor do I wish to watch the money I have helped raise for the BCRO -- which has amounted to a considerable sum -- be squandered beating up on fellow Republicans...I do not wish to be party to efforts that only make the Democrats' job easier in November."

Then this week, a coalition called "Anybody But Guy", led by Fair Lawn Councilman Ed "Steady Eddie" Trawinski and NJ Christian Coalition head Bill Thomson, began circulating a petition to try to force Talarico's ouster.

Personally, I find Talarico's decision illogical and unbefitting what used to be one of the finest GOP organizations IN THE ENTIRE UNITED STATES. If he has, as Caruso suggests, been "feeding vendettas" against O'Toole and his running mates, so be it. What he should have done was announced a convention for all Bergen GOP County Committee members in the towns of D40 (Mahwah, Franklin Lakes, Oakland, Wyckoff, Midland Park, Ridgewood) to vote for 3 out of the 6 candidates who presented their credentials to the Chairman. That's called democracy. If he as the Chairman wanted to influence the process, he would have been entirely within his rights to have sent a letter to all of those County Committee members strongly expressing his reservations about O'Toole, etc. and endorsing Caliguire's team.

But Talarico didn't do that, probably because he knows that the Caliguire team would have had a snowball's chance in hell to have won the line. I'm not saying that just to throw flowers on O'Toole and his running mates, but simply because O'Toole in particular has worked his tail off to win this Senate seat with a strong mandate. Have a look at the list of endorsements that he and his team compiled, and that is just a partial one. Wow. Within the district itself, just about everybody except the town of Wyckoff endorsed the O'Toole team. That's an impressive ground game.

Watching O'Toole in action of late reminded me of something a relative of mine had told me 3 years ago when I told him I had sought O'Toole's support for my congressional campaign. He said, "Well, I haven't seen O'Toole in a political context, but as an attorney, he's a scorched earth litigator." In other words, look out Guy Talarico, Kevin O'Toole wants the Senate seat and will take no prisoners. Others seem to realize this and have deferred to him - consider that the Passaic County Executive Committee voted UNANIMOUSLY to award "the line" to O'Toole for State Senate, even while former Freeholder candidate Victor Rabbat, who lives in Wayne, presented himself as a 3rd candidate, and while the committee had dissenting votes for the 2 Assembly seats, prompted by North Haledon Mayor Randy George.

In Bergen County, the O'Toole team seems to have accepted Talarico's authority with respect to the bylaws and not opted to bring the BCRO to court to demand a convention. Instead, they have chosen to politically annihilate him. While Freeholder candidates Duggan and Kahwaty endorsed O'Toole's team, even seeking the ability to split their bracketing by district (illegal since it's a countywide petition), O'Toole went and filed competing Freeholder candidates, not to defeat Duggan and Kahwaty (not sure if they care much for Yudin since he didn't endorse them) but rather to strengthen their ballot position. But that's not all. The most impressive flexing of political muscle was translating the endorsements in Franklin Lakes, Oakland, and Midland Park to convince the municipal candidates in those 3 towns to file on the "Bergen County Conservative Regular Republicans" line (O'Toole's team). This has effectively nullified "the line" that Talarico gave to Caliguire's team.

In Passaic County, none of the 4 towns included in District 40 saw competing municipal slates filed, although 2 opposing Freeholder candidates have presented themselves and aligned with the Caliguire team (Claire Wollock from Wanaque and Jeffrey Miller from Wayne), largely suspected to be the proxies of delusional ex-Chairman Peter Murphy. Under that same category, file Rabbat, a close friend of former Chairman Mike Mecca. I suppose the logic is that Rabbat, being a Wayne resident, can focus his attention on Passaic County exclusively and make the case for senatorial courtesy (which currently doesn't exist since the Passaic County GOP has no elected resident in Trenton at all). If Rabbat peels off enough votes, he would split the vote with O'Toole and thus propel Caliguire to victory. This can only be described as an electoral Hail Mary pass.

One has to wonder whether principled, thoughtful conservatives like Caliguire, Ginty, and Schweighardt feel entirely comfortably pinning their hopes for electoral success on the half-baked strategies of Peter Murphy, when he barely qualified 2 Freeholder candidates (I am told most of the signatures were from Totowa) and couldn't even manage to recruit competing municipal slates. Even if Scott Rumana is as rotten as his detractors say, shouldn't there be a handful of people in Wayne who'd stand up to fight him? Ginty faces a particular irony, since the very people with whom he has aligned himself in 2007 were attempting to discredit him back in 2005 when he also ran for the same Assembly seat, only then they attacked Ginty on O'Toole's behalf! You gotta love politics.

Further complicating their lack of ground game is the fact that Rick Shaftan, the Garden State's go-to guy for insulting GOP voter intelligence with ethnically offensive ragsheets, is reportedly supporting the O'Toole team (while we are on the subject, so is Alcalde Lonegan - they were both seen at a recent monster O'Toole fundraiser that probably netted 6 figures). I suppose someone else will have to be hired to compute the least common denominator for this race.

Frankly, Talarico's logic in pushing this entire primary escapes me, and I am inclined to concur with Caruso's sentiments. Though he has been polarizing as a Chairman of the BCRO, I always liked Talarico since I first met him during my campaign in 2004. At a time when my GOP County Chairman was actively working for my Democrat opponent, I looked over to Bergen and saw a Chairman that, at least, stood up for local Republicans. I recall speaking with Talarico after the 2004 annual Arab-American Institute's Candidates Night, when he bore the distinction of being George W. Bush's bearer of glad tidings to the community. Rather than focus on safe socially conservative positions that would have at least tempered the audience's hostility to Bush's Middle East policies, Talarico instead read through the standard talking points and got heckled. It was like a bad episode of "Shoot the Messenger". He shouted back, "I would expect you would show some respect as I'm reading a statement from the President of the United States!!!" He was right. In other cases I came to appreciate his disdain for "sanctimonious liberals," as he called them.

But how can Talarico, in good conscience, force a primary in a safe GOP district, to spite incumbents that have been quite generous to local Bergen candidates, when other arguably winnable contests have been abdicated? The waste of resources is beyond comprehension. O'Toole plays to win. He and his team are raising money like mad, and they are going to spend it. We're talking well into the 6 figures. Imagine that money that could have been diverted to municipal races in towns like Little Falls, where the Democrats have been encroaching. Not to mention District 36, which only 2 years ago was held by a Republican. Talarico could manage to find only one candidate for the Assembly, Carmen Pio Costa (whose dad just dropped out of the GOP primary against Jay Webber, Alex DeCroce, and Larry Casha in District 24), in an area where the Democrats could be quite vulnerable.

Speaking of District 36, the other person who really surprised me in this situation is Paul DiGaetano. In 2005, DiGaetano actually held this seat, which he gave up to run for Governor in the GOP Primary. Only 2 years later, we cannot even find a candidate to win, let along just to "take one for the team". I find this particularly disappointing because I always respected DiGaetano as someone who would do the right thing for the Republican Party. When some in the Passaic County GOP wanted to muzzle Sheriff's candidate Mark Michalski and I 3 years ago, and allow the Democrat incumbents to run unopposed, DiGaetano spoke out against that and expressed his belief that the GOP was not well served by empty slots on the ballot. Thus, I find the abdication of D36, of all places, troubling - particularly since it has been suggested that DiGaetano is working actively behind the scenes to help the Caliguire slate (and it's no secret that he is close to Peter Murphy and had a major falling out with Kevin O'Toole in 2005).

DiGaetano has no shortage of smarts and skills - it's no wonder that even Bret Schundler said in one of the 2005 gubernatorial primary debates that if elected he would choose Paul DiGaetano as his Lieutenant Governor - but if indeed DiGaetano has interest in being NJGOP State Chairman, failing to find a successor for his own Assembly seat is not a great closer.

I wrote earlier about the possibility of DiGaetano moving to District 40 to get back at O'Toole and get himself into a safe Senate seat. That was not to be, and instead he seems to be backing Caliguire's ambitions. It's unclear to me how much influence he has on Talarico and how much DiGaetano's maneuvering lead to the awarding of "the line" to the Caliguire slate. My gut says, their marriage is one of convenience, as it has also been rumored that DiGaetano's behind-the-scenes operative Kevin Collins is interested in being Bergen County GOP Chairman, which would mean a face-off with Talarico.

Regardless of all this gossip, the main point is: there should have been a convention for District 40 in Bergen County on the night of March 29. Period. I have been advocating grassroots conventions for the County Committee for a long time now, which is not to say that these processes are flawless and the answer to all of our prayers. Conventions give the County Committee members purpose. The more they feel that they have a genuine purpose, the more engaged they will be. The more engaged they are, the more involved they will be in recruiting and promoting candidates in their neighborhoods. This is a long-term building process. Holding a convention ad-hoc just for the sake of saying "we held an election" is a waste of time.

Case and point: the idea was floated to Talarico that a District 40 convention would be held for all the GOP County Committee in all 3 counties, with the agreement of the other Chairs (O'Toole and Rumana) - but Talarico apparently rejected the proposal. 2 comments on that: first, as said before, shame on him, he should not have behaved so autocratically. Secondly, equal shame on O'Toole and Rumana. If they were willing to hold a convention for District 40, this suggests the ability to organize one swiftly. Why then, did they not do so anyway regardless of Talarico's objectives? If giving the County Committee a voice is the desired goal, and it was within their means to do so, then there should be no discussion. It's the right thing to do for the Republican Party. For a Chairman to want to hold a convention in a limited fashion only when he knows the outcome will anoint him personally with a strong mandate is selfish. This is yet another example of why elected officials should not be County Chairs. There will always be conflicts of interest.

As for the rest of Passaic County and the GOP's candidates, Rumana managed to present a decent slate. I am still not 100% pleased, but our ticket is not the disaster I had feared. The idea that Rumana has been a total failure and should be recalled is ridiculous. No wonder Peter Murphy's pathetic petition effort has been such a dismal failure. Anyway, in District 34 we have 2 candidates from Montclair - the radical Reverend Clenard Childress, accompanied by Robert Bianco. Sadly, Senator Nia Gill will run unopposed. Ditto for John Girgenti. However, Paterson Board of Education President Chauncey I. Brown, III has submitted petitions for Assembly in District 35. Assuming he survives the rumored court challenge, he will head the GOP ticket in Paterson, Haledon, North Haledon, Prospect Park, Totowa, and Hawthorne. Look out Nellie Pou. Brown III's ties in the black community, coupled with hostility to Pou within the Passaic County Democrat Party, could make things very interesting. In a sense, I may have to backtrack and state that this lone candidate situation may actually help, because it facilitates bullet voting for Brown III.

Surrogate Bill Bate has a challenger in the name of Jeremias Batista, while Sheriff Jerry Speziale faces an opponent, Ricardo Perez. This will be their 2nd face-off, as Perez previously ran against Speziale in the Democrat primary of 2001. I have not met either of this individuals so I can't say much for the moment.

Finally, I'd like to close by addressing some of the feedback I received from last month's op-ed piece in the Record, partly recapping what I noted in the comments section. Probably the most hilarious feedback I received was an angry reader accusing me of being "bought off" by Peter Murphy!!! I told the individual:
Go to google.

type in "12677-050".

Click "I'm feeling lucky".

Also, click here, here, here, and here.
I was further accused of "attacking" Scott Rumana. Attacking? I have voiced criticisms, and I will continue to do so. As I recently told a key political ally of Rumana's, responding to his assertion that much more activity is happening in the Passaic County GOP than in the past 10 years, "yes, that's true, and it's terrific, but that will not stop me from levying constructive criticism."

Also, the line "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" was intended to inform, not endorse. The fact is, I happen to like and respect Governor Whitman. Like her or not, she was a winner! 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.

Does that mean that Governor Whitman is beyond reproach? Absolutely not. A debate about the disposition of the NJGOP during the Whitman years is a healthy one. 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.

Additionally, the contrast of 'Whitman Republicans' and 'Reagan Republicans' is ridiculous and not compelling. The Caliguire team even tried to use a ballot slogan with Reagan's name. Caruso lashed out at this once again, in a stinging press release:

"Frankly, after what I have seen of the financial acumen of the chairman and of Todd Caliguire and the campaigns he has run, their claim to be the Reagan Team is an insult to Ronald Reagan and to good Republicans everywhere. Ronald Reagan didn't pile up campaign debt, didn't get his party evicted from its headquarters, and didn't leave behind unpaid campaign bills.

Ronald Reagan was a great man of principle, honesty and integrity – unfortunately the same can't be said of Talarico and Caliguire. It's really a desperation tactic for Mr. Caliguire, who lost election last year by nearly 53,000 votes to claim to be a descendent of Reagan. Comparing Todd Caliguire to Ronald Reagan is like comparing Nancy Pelosi to Thomas Jefferson; it's a deceitful joke.

I would hope that Caliguire's running mates – if they had real concern for the Republican Party and their political futures -- would abandon this self-destructive initiative. They have nothing to gain by supporting Caliguire in another failed venture.

Ronald Reagan was all about winning and helping Republicans win. I don't see any effort by Caliguire or Talarico to help Republicans win anywhere, especially in Districts 36 and 38, where the GOP has great opportunities. The last thing President Reagan would endorse would be a self-centered campaign in a Republican District that will do nothing but weaken the Republican Party."

In the end, O'Toole and his team will likely emerge with a strong mandate from the GOP primary, and they will cruise to election in November. They have the money to do a massive mail, radio, and even TV campaign if they wished it, plus a ground game unparalleled. It's hard not to be impressed with how hard O'Toole is working to win this seat, and win big. 45% of the voters will come from Bergen, 45% from Passaic (and 2/3 of those from Wayne), and the final 10% from Essex. Essex will break 9:1 for the O'Toole team, which is a safety net to put them over the top even if Bergen splits 50/50 and Rabbat somehow manages to pull 15% in Passaic County.

Talarico will therefore have been marginalized and discredited, and the final nails will be driven into Peter Murphy's political coffin. He will have lost another proxy battle in the Passaic County GOP, but furthermore will have lost strong influence on a sitting State Senator. He will have nothing. Free beer only goes so far. Once his foot soldiers realize that he can no longer affect the disposition of HR departments in government agencies, their willingness to put up yard signs on his behalf will mysteriously vanish.

Less than 7 weeks to go. Stay tuned.