BRIDGEWATER – If he runs statewide, it’s unlikely Chris Christie will resemble Andy Unanue as a candidate.
But on learning that Passaic County Republican Chairman Scott Rumana tried to recruit Christie confidante Bill Palatucci to address municipal chairmen last week, Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham) feared the abrogation of process and quickly drew an analogy.
“It’s exactly the Unanue fiasco I want to avoid in the election,” said Merkt, himself a declared GOP candidate for governor. “I don’t want a (state Republican Party Chairman) Tom Wilson candidate to drive away other candidates.”An unknown, wealthy Latino businessman who was backed by the upper echelons of his party in a U.S. Senate bid, Unanue last year began sealing county committee support in absentia, effectively making other Republican primary candidates like state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) feel helpless – at least until Unanue’s campaign imploded.
Merkt wants to make sure he’s not getting Pennacchionized in the face of an establishment coalescence around Christie.
“I am surprised — and frankly more than a little disappointed,” said Merkt, “to learn that Chairman Rumana, who sits directly behind me in the Assembly GOP Caucus, would arrange a private meeting the Passaic County’s municipal chairs to hear from a representative of someone who is not yet even a candidate for governor, while at the same time excluding three Republican candidates who have already declared their interest in running for the office.”
Merkt referred to himself, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine.
Defending his actions, Rumana said the meeting last Monday night was a regularly scheduled meeting of the county committee – not a private or hastily scheduled function. His arrangement to bring Palatucci to speak was a last minute attempt to fill an otherwise empty itinerary, he insists.
“I needed something on the agenda,” said Rumana. “The meeting wasn’t a flop necessarily – as alleged – except no one showed. I am expecting Rick to issue a retraction. Look, when he started this running-for-governor campaign, I told him, ‘Anytime you want to come up to Wayne or Passaic, I’m your guy. I’d be happy to run with you.’ Unfortunately, he got sucked into this distraction.”
Merkt stood by his initial statement that Rumana’s attempt to get Palatucci to talk at the meeting last week was “improper.”
“It’s nice Scott was willing to run with me, but I’m talking about a meeting that could decide this election process,” said the Republican gubernatorial candidate. “Why would you invite one candidate’s representative and not the others unless you wanted to load the dice?”
Rumana said Palatucci canceled his appearance at the meeting, telling the chairman that he “got caught up with something.” His intention was to get Palatucci to speak not as a representative of Christie but as an important GOP fundraiser and party loyalist at a time when the party confronts real challenges, Rumana said.
“I asked him if he was going to be around in the area, he should come to the meeting,” said Rumana. “He specifically said he won’t talk about Christie because Christie is not a declared candidate for governor.”
Merkt didn’t buy the explanation, saying the only reason Rumana would have had Palatucci as a guest would be to serve as a Christie surrogate.
“If Christie’s not a candidate why was Palatucci exploding at me in Minneapolis for running?” he said. “The idea that he would have been out there to talk about how to bake cookies is ridiculous. On its face, it was designed to help a particular candidate.”