Memories from the NJ Prez Trenches: ‘Keep that Effing Guy Away From Me’

Brendel, third from right, pictured earlier this year, worked for Hart in 1984 - and for Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Brendel, third from right, pictured earlier this year, worked for Hart in 1984 – and for Bernie Sanders in 2016.

1984.

For literary devotees, the year stands synonymously – and ominously – as the title of George Orwell’s greatest work of fiction, a lurid looksee into Stalinism on steroids.

But for veteran operative Barry Brendel, the year still sticks in the political memory like a hot poker in the eye.

It’s the year New Jersey had a chance to propel Gary Hart to the Democratic nomination for president, and instead sent him back to Colorado with a lesson in what not to say when you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with the hard luck, unforgiving electorate that lives here.

“The campaign told us ‘we’ve got California, now you’ve got to get New Jersey,'” recalled Brendel, who was Hart’s co-campaign director.

New Jersey for the ballgame.

“They told us, if you win New Jersey, we’ll have 50 congressman lined up the next day to endorse Hart,” Brendel said.

His voice trailed off dismally.

To this day, he’s not a big Hart fan.

Brendel wanted then-Senator Joe Biden to get in the primary. Polling by Pat Caddell showed a beatable former Vice President Walter Mondale, and in the lead up to the 1984 primary season Brendel helped furnish a platform for Biden – at the annual Democratic State Convention in Atlantic City – to make a national-sized statement and generate runway room for a campaign.

Biden more than delivered.

“It was the greatest speech I ever heard,” said Brendel. “I’ve never been as moved by a speech as I was by that speech by Biden.”

The U.S. Senator from Delaware looked like the perfect insurgent candidate to carry out the formulations of the Caddell memo. But then he suddenly announced that he wasn’t going to run.

“He didn’t think it was time,” Brendel said of the future vice president.

Instead it was Hart who entered the contest, becoming the progressive wing of the party’s darling to undo the inevitability of Mondale.

Former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler told PolitickerNJ earlier today that it was Hart’s refusal to rule out Jesse Jackson as a running mate that impaled his candidacy in New Jersey and, consequently, his shot at the nomination. But Brendel maintains – as Bob Schrum does in his book “No Excuses” – that Hart’s joke about New Jersey – more than anything else – sank him here.

“The good news for her is that she campaigns in California, while I campaign in New Jersey,” Hart said at a Los Angeles fundraiser in reference to his wife Lee’s campaign assignments compared to his own. “I won’t tell you what I got to hold: samples from a toxic waste site.”

On the heels of that remark, Brendel said he watched Hart’s lead instantly shrivel.

“I watched it go down by the hour,” he said.

To make matters worse, Hart showed up in New Jersey and proceeded to publicly make more toxic waste jokes. Brendel said he was so frustrated that he lit into the candidate.

Hart apologized.

But Brendel was not in the mood.

“Keep that f**cking guy away from me,” the New Jersey operative seethed to another campaign organizer as Hart tanked in Brendel’s home state on June 5th and fumbled away New Jersey by 15 points and in the process, blew a shot at the presidency.