The Scam of ’84

One of the legendary scams in Bergen County politics came in 1984, when Republicans were considering candidates to newly-elected Democratic Congressman Robert Torricelli. Torricelli had won the seat two years earlier, when he ousted three-term GOP incumbent Harold Hollenbeck by a 53%-46% margin. The political climate in 1982 (and congressional redistricting in the 9th) favored Democrats and Torricelli leveraged the national contacts he made working for Vice President Walter Mondale and running Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign in Illinois to help him raise $266,000 — about $70,000 more than Hollenbeck had. Ronald Reagan’s popularity heading into the 1984 election, and a new congressional map (the ’82 redistricting plan was tossed by federal judges), gave Republicans reason to believe Torricelli could be beaten. The 9th district went strongly for Reagan, giving him a 59%-41% win over Mondale — a plurality of almost 47,000 votes. Party leaders had several attractive candidates, including newly-elected Assemblyman William “Pat” Schuber and Bergen County Sheriff William McDowell, but decided to go with a unknown insider, Neil Romano, who had served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee in the late 1970’s. Romano appeared before the Bergen GOP screening committee and sold them on his ability to raise money — saying that wealthy family members and politically connected friends would provide him with a hefty campaign warchest — the type of money a challenger would need to take on Torricelli. The problem for the Bergen GOP is that they were scammed. Romano had practically no capacity to raise money and the personal wealth he pledged just wasn’t there. The lethargic Romano raised just $89,166 — giving Torricelli an almost 6-1 edge in fundraising. Torricelli won a second term with 63% of the vote, with Romano running more than 60,000 votes behind the top of the ticket.

The Scam of ’84