MORRISTOWN – The local Masonic Lodge stands like a mausoleum of the nation’s past in this sycamore bark-curling cubby-hole of American time, where evocations of George Washington come not just in off-handed references to the winter lodgings he and his men made here – but to estuary gracing the public spaces, leaving breathing mortals with the sagging task of trying to invest their own hourglass efforts with something meaningful if not memorable.
Sponsored by the local Women’s Republican Club and the Morris Republican Club, the second floor countywide GOP Primary debate forum – the last of the cycle with two weeks before Election Day – featured freeholder incumbents David Scapicchio and John Krickus and their running mate Deb Smith going mercilessly head-to-head against the team of incumbent Freeholder John Cesaro and his running mates Angelo Tedesco and Christine Myers.
A seventh candidate, Tom Mulligan, tried to shoehorn himself into the thicket of high stakes combat as “an independent thinker.”
But the muzzle flashes on either side of him quickly engulfed the charged political atmosphere. Krickus brought the hurt early, in his opening remarks, in fact. “A stunning new development,” said the freeholder. “Democrats are actively participating in a primary by funding our opponents’ campaign. That’s right. A Democratic PAC.
“Don’t get tempted, John,” the freeholder cracked, finding the grinning face of Morris County Republican Chairman John Sette in the back of the big room alongside an equally tickled Assemblyman Tony Bucco (R-25) (pictured together, below).
Not everyone was amused, and Bucco would later play a role in Team Cesaro’s rejoinder.
Cesaro would offer a cutting lawyerly rebuttal in what once again turned by subtle slow degrees finally into a Krickus-Cesaro sumo showdown.
In the meantime, Washington wanted a country without kings, but apparently his desire didn’t extend to King Penna, a GOP operative who professed to constitutional values as the reason he should stay installed at the forum despite repeated efforts by the local woman’s club to remove him.
“No video cameras,” said the host.
Penna folded his arms behind his mounted camera.
“I’m not shutting it of,” he said. “I have a right to be here, and I’m not shutting it off.”
Tedesco went back and talked to Penna, who works for the Cesaro/Myers/Tedesco team.
But Penna stayed planted.
“Once again, King, turn the camera off. Just be respectful,” said the host.
Penna evoked the 1st Amendment again and kept his arms crossed. No one removed him.
But if Penna temporarily won a small moral victory on the side of free speech, Krickus and company stayed on offense with their central argument about the influx of union and Democratic PAC-affiliated cash filing the coffers of their rivals in this GOP Primary. “What I find appalling is the payback that is expected,” said Smith, right away in hammer down mode and taking the team’s standard from Krickus. “Once this snowballs, they will be seeking more and more, and not just on the county level. They will be coming after you next.”
Cesaro slashed back, maintaining his proud Republican credentials and his commitment to keeping Morris the state’s biggest Republican County. “I believe we have Ocean County beat by 3,000 votes,” said the freeholder.
“More than that,” Sette barked.
A firefighter by trade in the role of team attack dog, Tedesco said Republican senators in Morris have also taken cash from the same union entities now objectionable to their rivals.
But “I’m pretty sure our senators and assemblymen haven’t taken money from a Democratic PAC,” Krickus gritted in response. “I’m going to go out on a limb here.”
Quietly brutally effective in Republican attack mode, Krickus caught an elbow from Cesaro, though, on the issue of the solar panel projects settlement. “Krickus voted for the settlement in closed session then flip-flopped in open session,” said his rival freeholder, chopping at Krickus’ self-professed image as a conservatives’ conservative.
Krickus slapped back, decrying as cynical Team Cesaro’s apparent believe that a flood of bodies and mailers will translate into victory two weeks from now. “This is not Essex County,” he said.
An attorney adept at argument, Cesaro kept coming, crying foul. “I’m glad my opponents’ Republican sensibilities are offended,” he said. “What happened a year ago with the county police program? What happened with the Passaic County, Essex and Bergen County police incursion?” That botched effort involved a program pitched by Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale (a Democrat), which Freeholder Tom Mastrangelo pushed, according to Cesaro. Krickus initially examined the program in earnest before distancing himself “when he didn’t get what he wanted, which is what John always does,” Cesaro said.
Then a battery of actual cops arrived and moments later and escorted Penna out of the room. After conferring with the officers, Penna reentered, shut off his camera, collected it, and exited.