Rob Ortiz and the BCRO

I turned up last night at the hallowed HQ of the Bergen County Republican Party on Main Street in Hackensack, as County Committee members voted from 5 pm to 7 pm to elect a new Chairman. Given the inclement weather, a surprisingly high crowd of 458 voters turned out. The final count:

Rob Ortiz - 263 or 57%
Ben Focarino - 171 or 37%
Bill Thompson - 24 or 5%

The 20-point win gives Ortiz a strong mandate in moving the organization forward. Aside from a few minor whispers of negativity by loyal-to-a-fault supporters, this was a near-totally positive campaign in which all 3 candidates behaved like gentlemen, and all graciously thanked one another and pledged to work together. There was a refreshing absence of rancor in the air at the BCRO last night.(continued...)

The Record sketched Ortiz as follows:

Ortiz, a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, is regarded as a highly productive fund-raiser for the national GOP. He raised money in New Jersey for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and is working in behalf of Rudolph Giuliani's presidential bid.

That fund-raising experience, Ortiz has said, shows him that Bergen has plenty of eager GOP donors. "I know plenty of people who can write the $4,600 maximum contribution level to the president," he said last month. "The task is to translate those large donors into local donors as well."

Ortiz said the party also needs to make better use of technology, communicating and organizing quickly via e-mail. And it needs to cultivate a deep bench of potential candidates for higher office -- by reaching out to local GOP mayors and council members.

For my part, I generally kept a low profile, observing the action from behind the hot-dog cart set up by Ortiz - since I am not a Bergen resident and don't wish to be seen butting into affairs that don't directly impact Passaic County. However, I was a strong supporter of Ortiz and furthermore a number of local political junkies do look to this blog for details on local happenings. Matt Friedman of PoliticsNJ also quoted me:

Republican blogger and former Congressional candidate George Ajjan, 31, who designed Ortiz's Web site, was there was well, although he lives in Passaic County.

"Bergen is like a big brother to neighboring counties," said Ajjan. "For Passaic to have a chance at rebuilding a strong Republican organization, we need a strong organization in Bergen."

For additional coverage, see Tom Jennemann's piece in Campaigns and Elections. As Friedman further noted, I was not the only non-Bergen person to turn up. State Chairman Tom Wilson addressed the crowd, and District 26 Assemblyman, State Senate Nominee, and possible candidate for the US Senate in 2008, Joe Pennacchio, also appeared.

Pennacchio worked the crowd with ease, and created some buzz amongst insiders present about the conspicuous absence of Anne Estabrook, the political neophyte whose hopes for winning the GOP nomination hangs on a steering committee headlined by Congressman Mike Ferguson, with Larry Weitzner (of conga-line of corruption fame) conducting. Pennacchio's ability to connect and his mainstream conservative credentials, matched with the collegial respect and likely support of his Assembly peers will make him tough to beat in a GOP primary, regardless of the dollars flying about Estabrook's been-there-done-that elitist fundraising scheme.

Getting back to Bergen, much has been made of age as an subliminal issue in the campaign. After all, Ortiz is in his mid 30s, far younger than either of his 2 opponents. This created a natural appeal for young activists like me keen to see one of "our own" ascend to the GOP Chairmanship in such a critical county. But as the crowd rolled in to vote yesterday, the average age of County Committee members was closer to Focarino's than to Ortiz's - yet the younger candidate won decisively.

For certain, towns like Ramsey - which turned out 100% of its County Committee - played a big role in that. I mention Ramsey because it is a town under complete GOP control, and one that has successfully reformed the County Committee by bringing on younger members - like Mayor Chris Botta, soon-to-be-Councilwoman Vanessa Jachzel, as well as County Committee members Laura Behrmann (with whom I attended Franklin Avenue Middle School) and former staffer to Chuck Hagel Deirdre Woodbyrne - to compliment the skills of veteran activists.

One should never assume, however, that there is a straight-line correlation between age and willingness to change or adopt new methods. I have seen this demonstrated both in professional (factory workers that I managed only a year away from retirement who learned to use new computer-based inventory management systems in a snap while "younger" workers sulked, pouted, and probably filed grievances) as well as political contexts (recovering angry conservative Steve Lonegan remarked to me last month that the average age on one of the most prominent right-leaning blogs is 55!).

The point being: the average age of County Committee does not match the average age of the voting population, and that needs to change - not by booting out anyone with gray hair, but by replicating what has worked successfully in Ramsey: cultivating a healthy mix of young and old on the County Committee for a Republican Party that looks, thinks, and acts like the electorate whose votes it seeks. This, I hope, will be one of the foci of Ortiz's plan.