GOP plays Gipper card in ’07 Senate race

by MAX PIZARRO
PoliticsNJ.com

At the Republican Convention in Somerset County last month, no fewer than three of five Freeholder candidates invoked the memory of President Ronald Reagan, including the daughter of a former governor.

A week earlier, at the Monmouth County Republican Convention, a candidate brandished an issue of Time Magazine with Reagan on the cover and made an impassioned appeal for party unity.

Then there was that bill last year authored by Morris County lawmakers seeking to designate Route 15 the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway; the emergence of "Another Ronald Reagan" blog; and the continual homage paid to"the Great Communicator"in off-the-cuff GOP remarks to reporters.

The overall effect is a metamorphosis of GOP candidates and apologists into the apparently infallible, purely authentic nimbus of Reagan.

"President Reagan is an important part of the Republican Party," admitted Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance. "In my view, he is the most successful president of the last generation."

But even as the GOP attempts to burnish Gipper iconography in the minds of the party faithful, and hopes to entice swing voters and the so-called "Reagan Democrats" with whispers of yesteryear when Reagan conquered Jersey in back-to-back elections, the party now labors in the shadow of the much-perceived belly-up presidency of George W. Bush.

And as Republicans here from municipal to Legislative races lavish praise on a majestic, 20-year old memory, they are speedy to remark that Bush is irrelevant.

"Only the most astute people in this state will be voting in the upcoming election, and they know that Bush has nothing to do with the property tax problems of this state," said GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson.

Outrage over property taxes didn’t produce a mad rush of Republican revolutionaries at the state Division of Elections office in time for yesterday’s primary filing deadline, however; and today Democrats gleefully proclaimed victory in April, citing a Republican Party so demoralized that it’s not bothering to come off its stool.

"Democratic candidates have filed to compete in 118 of the 120 seats in this year's legislative races, demonstrating the party's determination to compete on the entire playing field with top-notch, energetic candidates," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, the Democratic State Chairman. "In contrast, Republicans failed to produce candidates for 16 seats, continuing a downward trend of the €˜incredible shrinking minority.’"

Wilson rejected Cryan’s characterization.

"Our chances of winning Hudson County are pretty marginal," he scoffed. "Our chances of winning in downtown Newark are pretty marginal."

But the problem is those Democratic Party lock districts are not the only places where Democrats are strutting around with an attitude — and that’s what pumps up Cryan.

The Republicans had a chance to go toe-to-toe in the 3rd district, for example, where Democratic State Sen. Stephen Sweeney last year offended at least two big public employees unions in his district. Sweeney wanted the employees to pony up more money for their pensions and make what Sweeney saw as other sacrifices for the common good of taxpayers.

As a consequence, the CWA and AFSCME were prepared to sacrifice Sweeney — even if it meant recruiting a Republican to carry the union banner.

The locals went so far as to welcome would-be Republican candidates in for talks.

"We sat down with two different people," said Brenda Carpenter, executive director of AFSCME Local 71, which serves 7,000 union members in the South Jersey area. "We had phone conversations with a couple of others."

They flipped on the high-beam interrogation lamps, Carpenter said, but apparently the prospects couldn’t pass the Bill Baroni test.

"Ultimately, we realized we couldn’t find a candidate who has the passion for working people that Steve has," said Carpenter. "That’s why we jumped on board with him to start with. He may have been misguided on this one issue, but he understands. His impact on public employees may be bad, but he’s better than wimpy Republicans."

Carpenter said the public employees were able to extract a mea culpa from Sweeney, which they appreciate — although they’d have preferred a public apology. Still, they can live with it. The fact that his pension recommendations stalled heartens them somewhat, Carpenter said. If Sweeney had made the policy suggestions then actually ram-rodded legislation that hurt the public employees unions, they’d be out there fighting him. But he was nullified on that point, and so they were mollified – though the unions are both refusing to endorse anyone in the district 4 race.

They figure they can sit this one out.

"Basically the Republican Party is very weak down here," said Richard Dann, president of CWA Local 1085, which serves 1,600 members in Gloucester and Salem counties.

"The Democrats raise a lot of money. The Republicans don’t."

The bigger fact is that Sweeney is powerful on his own. He has $600,000 to run his re-election campaign, money he amassed not only from the Democratic Party but from his political action committee. He’s solid enough to ward off Republican and Democratic foes alike.

But he’s still a Democrat in a state Senate where the Dems hold a 22-18 advantage – and Sweeney’s not the only intimidating Dem down there.

The Republicans also failed to summon marquee opposition in district 4, where State Sen. Frederick Madden won by just 63 votes four years ago. It was the most expensive election in state history: a $4 million fireworks display of inter-party warfare.

This year the Republicans are sending in a candidate Democrats say is a second stringer at best.

Wilsonvigorously disputes the notion that attorney Mark Cimino — who lacks the support of the Gloucester GOP Chair in his race against Sweeney — and John Jankowski, who stepped up to run against Madden after Gloucester Township Councilman Dan Hutchison was talked out of running — are less than exciting, viable candidates.

"Look, we’re going to a deeper field to find people who don’t have a Wayne Bryant record of public service," Wilson said. "We’re getting people to run who are sick and tired, just like everyone else."

But "sick and tired" carries vestiges of battle fatigue that don’t exactly translate into a seven-league boots mind-set.

Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce acknowledges redistricting puts the opposition on better footing from the beginning.

"There’s no doubt their advantages are based on the existing map we’re working on," DeCroce said. "It gives the Democratic Party a large part of the area. In certain districts, it’s much harder for us to win those districts."

Wilson, DeCroce and Lance all maintain they will win come November.

"The bottom line is there is no one on my side of the fence who has been subpoenaed or indicted," said DeCroce.

"People are tired of politics as usual in Trenton," said Wilson. "They are tired of what Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine and Carla Katz have done."

But Cryan still wants to know why the numbers are diminishing for the GOP.

"In 2003, Republicans ran 119 candidates," he said. "In 2005, they ran 114 candidates

This year, their shrinking team of 104 candidates is a pale reflection of the GOP's shrinking minority in both houses. On a percentage basis, the starting teams of Republicans have fielded has gone from 99 percent to 92 percent to 86 percent in four short years."

The Democrats boast that not only are they bulking up in one-time battleground districts, they’re also recruiting candidates from the other party’s leadership ranks.

In the 8th district, Assemblyman Francis Bodine last week announced he was switching parties to run for State Senate, earning him a Benedict Arnold award from the Republicans — and high fives of welcome from the Democrats.

Republicans fumed about party loyalty, but their adversaries rejoiced with the news that Bodine’s opponent, County Clerk Phil Haines, is hardly a longtime Republican stalwart, having himself changed parties, going from Democrat to Republican.

Just as Reagan did.

GOP plays Gipper card in ’07 Senate race