It looked as though the 24th district race for State Senate was going to be a classic showdown between the patrician chieftan and upstart blue collar pupil. Then State Sen. Robert E. Littell announced this week he wouldn’t pursue another term, and endorsed Sussex County Freeholder Steven V. Oroho to run for his seat on a ticket with the Senator’s daughter, Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose.
Assemblyman Guy Gregg didn’t flinch.
If he wouldn’t be facing the man himself, Gregg knew in the Republican Primary he would have to contend with some embodiment of the man’s political principles, and the extended arm of Littell’s Sussex County family. That it would now be Oroho – and not Littell, or Littell’s daughter €” hardly mattered.
“We’re in the first inning and we’re on the third pitcher,” Gregg told his supporters Tuesday night.
McHose had already chosen not to run for her father’s seat.
That surprised some people, given her advantageous position not only as the offspring of the venerable Littell but as representative of the Sussex County portion of the 24th District, which claims 70 percent of the voters – the rest divided between Hunterdon and Morris. People figured her appointment to the Assembly in 2003 was a King Lear move by the aging senator. An elected official since 1967, he was starting to divide the kingdom, and McHose was obviously being positioned to take his place.
It was right around that time that Virginia Littell said she noticed a chill emanating from the Morris County corner of her husband’s domain, home of Gregg, who’d done what he felt was a decade of hard labor in the Assembly, gotten dirt under his fingernails, only to then be cut in line by a lovely, well-groomed heir.
Gregg denies it was McHose’s swearing-in that frosted his relations with the Littells.
“Over the past few years I’ve been uncomfortable with the fact there’s talk of betrayal on my side,” said Gregg. “I supported Alison the last time we all ran together.”
But Gregg’s political instincts told him he was already out in the cold, and if he ever wanted to claim what he saw as rightfully his by virtue of work and politics, he had to be prepared to move quickly.
So he did.
What happened next was a sign of disrespect, say the Littells, who would have hoped for some face time with Gregg €” even a phone call.
Gregg said he couldn’t do it.
“It was very hard to talk to the senator. He was unapproachable,” the assemblyman said. “I told him at some point, €˜I think it would be good for us to talk.'”
They never did talk.
Instead the Littells received the same mailed note from Gregg’s office as everyone else.
He would indeed be running for Littell’s senate seat, confirming the long whispered rumor that he was getting impatient in the lower house. A line scratching out the senator and his wife’s typewritten names, supplanted by the more personalized handwritten “Bob and Ginnie,” only underscored the assemblyman’s clumsy effort at etiquette, in Virginia Littell’s view.
“He never had the courtesy to have a meeting or make a call,” she said of Gregg.
The senator was extremely disappointed with Gregg, a good-natured restaurateur the old master had helped shape into a star.
The assemblyman confesses he could have done things better, but said he mentioned to Alison McHose before he went public that he would be running for her father’s seat. He also suggested politicians can only hear the voices of the people finally €” mournful, celebratory… or discontented.
In any event, while celebrating the older legislator’s “remarkable career,” Gregg himself had long tired of what he describes as Littell’s over-eagerness to compromise with unprincipled and spendthrift Democrats €” in the single most Republican district in the state.
“There’s a difference between working with Democrats and working for Democrats,” said Gregg. “I think he crossed over that line.”
While the assemblyman has never supported a tax increase, the Senator cast the deciding vote on what Gregg calls “a massive increase to the budget” initiated by the Democratic majority. There were other things, too.
But at the heart of it was the Highlands
“Bob Littell dropped out because of the Highlands vote,” says former Assemblyman C. Richard Kamin, a senior advisor to Gregg. “It’s the big issue, a confiscation of property without compensation. Many people were hurt.”
Given the constituent outcry over the effects of the Act, says Gregg, he feels vindicated in having stood up against it, and unabashedly points out that Littell’s complicity in the Highlands legislation represents a glaring example of how the old ways of doing business proved obsolete.
“I’ve got people coming in and telling me, €˜You just took away a farm I was going to give to my children?’ And I’m supposed to feel good because I got a fire truck out of the deal?” said Gregg.
Of course, the Littells see the more classically hard-line Republican Gregg as a dividing force, waylaid on his way to the negotiating table by his own bull-headedness.
Of her husband, “He's a Republican,” Virginia Littell says proudly. “Sometimes you vote with the Democrats. Hello! You run in a Republican primary but when you go to the capital the people put you in the general election.”
“You get what you can get through the process of negotiations,” she said. “My husband is not a traitor; he's a trader, a horse trader."
Virginia Littell, who served as Republican State Chair in the 1990’s, speaks passionately about her husband’s successes.
“There’s never been a quid pro quo. He’s brought the bacon back to this district, money for infrastructure, the High Point monument, vocational training, County College of Sussex, Ginnie's House,” she said. “Things without a brass band, without a microphone in your face. It's about serving the people, not getting your fat ass picture in the paper.”
Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance describes Littell’s record as “unparalleled in the history of New Jersey,” and “magnificent.” He said he remembers Littell and himself standing up in opposition to the pension bond issue in 1997, which makes the two of them feel vindicated, he said, in light of the state’s current troubles.
Lance said he hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate to replace Littell.
“I know Guy and I know Alison,” he said of the two biggest names in the opposing camps. Of Oroho, Lance said, “I don’t know the freeholder.”
A next-door neighbor of Senator Littell’s who made his money in midtown and served as a Franklin Borough councilman before being elected Sussex County freeholder in 2005, Oroho says he got started in politics because "Alison asked me to sit on the economic development committee in Franklin.”
Though not known outside of his home county, he's known in the lion's den of Sussex, where Oroho can lay claim as the erstwhile retainer, in contrast to roguish outlander Gregg.
“We must protect the institutional assets that Senator Littell protected,” Oroho declared this week.
Referring to Gregg’s failure to kiss the ring of the Godfather, Oroho said, “Every time you have something like that, the classy thing to do is reach out and say, €˜This is what I want to do and this is why I want to do it.'”
Freeholder Harold J. Wirths, who is running for re-election on a slate with Oroho and McHose, said he had to make a tough decision between the two GOP Senate candidates.
Based on Wirths’ loyalty from election years past, Gregg approached him about forming a team. But Gregg said he’s also approached a lot of other people through this whole proc
So far he’s still alone.
Wirths ended up siding with Oroho, a man he’d already battled in a three-way 2004 election for freeholder. Wirths and Oroho hit each other with everything they had over the course of an expensive campaign.
“There are good reasons why Steve Oroho and I shouldn’t be speaking to each other,” says Wirths.
But at one point in the action, Wirths says he realized Oroho was a standup guy. He said their shared Irish American heritage helped give context to the bitter back and forth. Then there was Oroho’s response to Wirths’ wife, who was sick at the time.
“He said, €˜I’m saying the rosary for your wife,” Wirth recalled. “I have no doubt he prayed for Debbie.”
Since then they’ve worked on the county budget together and their mutual respect has deepened. And they serve together on the board of Noble Community Bank.
The fact that everyone in Sussex County seems to have lined up behind Oroho €” Freeholder Gary R. Chiusano has decided to run for the other vacant Assembly seat – makes the ticket top-heavy with Sussex pols.
But Gregg is the one in the race with thirteen years in the Assembly.
“What you’ve got with Gregg is high name recognition, a good reputation among the rank and file, and endorsements from leadership,” says David P. Rebovich, chair of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics. “I would not discount Gregg's ability to win this primary.”
Gregg says he doesn’t care that he’s out in the cold.
He’s used to it now.
He’ll pull a team together, he says.
There is the possibility of Sussex County Freeholder Susan Zellman and Newton attorney Eric Wood — all declared candidates who as of Wednesday hadn’t publicly committed to one camp or the other. Someone else may get in the race.
But for a man straining to get into the Senate where he believes he can be the tough guy in a Statehouse run amok with overspending, Gregg knows the race will ultimately hinge on his own record. Whatever happens between now and the primary, against a backdrop of emotion over the departure of a legend, the man from Morris runs alone.
“As an old marine I realize I have one target in front of me,” said the candidate. “This race is about Guy Gregg and Steve Oroho.”
With the legacy of Littell hanging in the balance.