Candidates limber up for tough GOP primary in Morris
By MAX PIZARRO
The Republican primary for State Assembly in the 26th district features three newcomers jockeying for two seats: one that belongs to Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, and the other now occupied by Joseph Pennacchio, who’s moving up to the State Senate.
Vying to represent the legislative district that covers part of Morris County and three towns in Passaic, in a contest that’s likely to get ugly quickly are millionaire developer Anthony Pio Costa of Montville, former Kinnelon Council President Lawrence Casha, and attorney Jay Webber of Morris Plains, who ran for Senate in 2003 and lost to incumbent State Sen. Robert Martin, who's now retiring.
By all appearances, no one’s outright challenging power-player DeCroce. It’s understood that the three new dogs at the starting gate are battling for the seat Pennacchio‘s leaving behind.
“Alex is definitely leading the band in this race,” says Leanna Brown, who represented the district in the State Senate and Assembly for thirteen years.
The question is which of the remaining three candidates will prevail and nail down that other seat in a district where most voters will see no organization line.
Pio Costa has the money. Webber possesses some name recognition from his Senate campaign. And Casha, a longtime county GOP stalwart, in large measure has the party machinery humming in his direction.
DeCroce is staying out of it.
“I believe any of the men would make fine legislators,” says the lawmaker, who’s been in the Assembly since 1989, where he says he’s proud to have secured legislative victories in the areas of transportation, victim’s rights and organ transplant.
“I am the leader of the Assembly Republicans,” DeCroce says. “I have the confidence of my Republican Caucus, and I will continue to fight for sweeping ethics reform to eliminate dual office holding, eliminate pension padding, and punish corrupt elected officials.”
The Morris County Republican Party is almost to a man behind DeCroce.
Morris County Republican Chairman John Sette says he wants to remain neutral, but admits DeCroce‘s performance as an assemblyman has been “superb.”
That’s an assessment that not many Morris County Republican officials challenge.
“Alex has certainly been around a long time, and there’s no reason to question his leadership ability,” says Freeholder Director Margaret Nordstrom.
She also likes Casha, as does her colleague, Freeholder John Murphy, who ran for governor last year and who now serves as Casha‘s campaign chairman.
DeCroce cringes at the Democratic Party’s notion of income-based property tax relief, what he calls an election-year gimmick.
“We have a plan to cut property taxes by 30 percent,” he says of the Republican alternative.
Webber too offers the party line on economics, and the man he’s targeting in the field is fellow attorney Casha, whom he describes as too tax-friendly for comfort.
It’s a notion he pushes aggressively.
For Murphy and Nordstrom, at least, Webber’s good — just not as experienced as Casha.
Webber, a self-described pro-life, anti-civil unions champion, counters by saying voters can do without Casha‘s kind of experience.
“The voters of Kinnelon rejected the school budget, and Larry Casha rubber-stamped it over the people of Kinnelon, without cutting a single cent,” says Webber. “That’s symptomatic of Larry’s inability to make tough decisions.”
Brown says the 34-year old Webber will be the one to watch in this district where voters lean especially rightward come primary season.
“Some people tend to underrate Webber’s credentials,” she says. “The fact is, he’s a heavyweight. I think this will be a very intense race."
Casha was not available for comment Tuesday.