Republicans take the offensive

After facing criticism for not being aggressive enough against Democrats, Republicans have coalesced around a new cause.

Although Republicans offered no comment on Sunday or Monday after The Star Ledger broke the story about Gov. Corzine’s $15,000 gift to ex-girlfriend Carla Katz’s brother-in-law Rocco Riccio, the GOP has now seized on this latest scandal to erupt over Gov. Corzine’s relationship with Katz in what appears to be a coordinated effort to turn it into a campaign issue.

In the latest twist involving Corzine’s monetary relationship with Katz, the governor gave Riccio $15,000 after he was forced to resign from a job at the Turnpike Authority, following rumors that he had looked into the tax record of Corzine’s political enemies. Corzine also promised to help find Riccio work in the private sector.

GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson, who has been the Republicans’ point man in Katz-related issues, came out swinging yesterday, comparing Corzine’s monetary gift to Riccio to the Watergate scandal. That same day, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce called on Attorney General Anne Milgram to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the dealings.

Today, the Assembly Republicans suggested to reporters “some questions Riccio should answer,” including “What exactly did Corzine Administration officials promise Mr. Riccio when he lost his job at the Turnpike Authority? Why did Governor Corzine pay Mr. Riccio $15,000, and who was the first person to bring up the issue of money? Did Riccio ask for money? Did Corzine or his aides suggest a payment?”

And in the 12th district, Republican Assembly candidates challenged their opponents to join Alex DeCroce in a bi-partisan call for an investigation into the messy matter.

Assembly Republican spokesman Bill Guhl said that DeCroce was being no more aggressive than he had been before, and that they had previously left it up to Wilson to attack Corzine over Katz-related matters. But some of the revelations contained in the Star-Ledger article were too blatant to ignore, said Guhl.

“This goes beyond the relationship between Katz and Corzine,” said Guhl. “We have a person who was a state employee who was apparently using that position to conduct research on behalf of Corzine into tax records that he probably should not have had access to, and we have a situation where apparently the governor’s staff was negotiating with this individual over a possible payment…. It would be hard not to come out and ask these questions after these developments have come out these last few days.”

Twelfth district Republican Assembly candidates Declan O’Scalon and Caroline Casagrande obviously got the memo. They put out a press release today challenging their opponents Mike Panter and Amy Mallet to join them in supporting DeCroce’s call for an independent prosecutor.

“This is yet another chance for Mike Panter to stand up to his Democratic leadership and be a voice of reform,” said O’Scanlon. “We’re asking that he and Amy Mallet do the right thing and support us in a bi-partisan call for an investigation into this somewhat bizarre set of circumstances.”

The 12th district Assembly Democratic candidates declined to join the call for an investigation, but issued a sharp response to O’Scanlon and Casagrande.

“For two career political hacks to hide behind nonsense press releases when they’ve done nothing to stand up for real reform is deplorable,” said the Democrats’ spokeswoman, Tali Israeli.

Conservative campaign consultant Rick Shaftan, who’s often critical of the state Republican Party, wasn’t impressed with the new line of attack. He said that Republicans should be spending more time talking about taxes and illegal immigration.

“The worst things these republicans do is whine about other peoples’ money. So what if Corzine wants to pay off everyone in the world? That’s his problem.”

Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute for New Jersey Politics, noted that the 2005 gubernatorial campaign focused on Corzine’s relationship with Carla Katz – when Corzine was actually on the ballot.

“I think they’re trying to question the line between public and private, and it seems to be an area that has become a strategic one for the Republicans,” said Katz. “The question is whether this is what people care about? Is this what’s on their minds when they think about who they want to represent them in Trenton?”

Republicans take the offensive