By MATT FRIEDMAN
The Republican primary battle in that district echoes last week’s reverence for Ronald Reagan at the Republican Presidential debate, with both of the leading State Senate candidates evoking the Gipper to set them apart from the rest of the state’s Republican Party.
Former Bergen County Freeholder Todd Caliguire and Assemblyman Kevin O’Toole are the main contenders for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat of Henry P. McNamara, who’s retiring after serving as a Senator for 22 years. Caliguire is running with two Assembly candidates: conservative activist John Ginty and Wayne Councilman Joseph Schweighardt. O’Toole, the frontrunner, shares a line with incumbent Assemblyman David Russo and Wayne Mayor Scott Rumana. A third candidate, Wayne attorney Victor K. Rabbat, is in the race as well.
“I think our party needs to get back to the principles of Ronald Reagan — articulating the fact that government is not the solution to our problems,” said Caliguire. “That was Ronald Reagan’s touchstone.”
Indeed, Caliguire’s strategist, Kevin Collins, bills the slate as the “Reagan Republican Team,” and initially tried to use the ballot slogans of “Reagan Republicans for Essex County” and “Reagan Republicans for Passaic County” in the parts of those counties that fell into the 40th district.
To hear Caliguire tell it, O’Toole belongs to part of the state Republican Party that has strayed from its ideological roots of small government and low taxes – a party that gets less and less discernable from the Democrats every day. Caliguire argues that state and county governments are too big – citing that the state of Illinois has 50 percent more people than New Jersey but the same size state government.
Caliguire thinks the state could cut 15 percent of its state government jobs. O’Toole, he says, has done nothing to downsize Trenton, and is too liberal on social issues. Caliguire proudly says that everyone on his slate is pro-life, anti-gay marriage and anti-civil union.
“I think that we need a change in Trenton. The leadership of the Republican Party has failed to articulate a coherent conservative agenda that provides an alternative to Democrats,” said Caliguire, who served as an aide to Gov. Thomas H. Kean in the 1980’s.
But O’Toole, the Essex County GOP Chairman and Assemblyman since 1996, also claimed allegiance to Reagan’s legacy, saying he’s been endorsed by Charlie Black, political director of Reagan’s 1980 campaign. O’Toole characterized Caliguire as a “Johnny-come-lately” who until now has done little to push the party in a more conservative direction.
“They don’t speak for the Republican Party. They’re not he heart and conscience because they say they are,” said O’Toole of Caliguire and the other candidates on his slate.
O’Toole said that he’s endorsed by 90 percent of local elected officials, and that Caliguire is backed by Bergen County Republican Guy Talarico, who’s been criticized by some on the right for being too cozy with Democrats, and who O’Toole says was spotted singing karaoke with Democratic chairman Joseph Ferriero. He went on to defend his record as a fiscal conservative.
“We are the ones who put together a $2.2 billion budget reduction which we formulated and took to the Governor,” said O’Toole. “Todd is just out for Todd. I’m out for the Republican Party.”
While Caliguire is optimistic about his chances, O’Toole is sure of himself, saying he expects to beat Caliguire by a two to one margin. “There’s no formula that says we’re going to lose this race, but we’re running hard,” said O’Toole. It doesn’t help Caliguire, said O’Toole, that he lost the election for Governor in 2005 and for Bergen County Executive in 2006.
“I just think he’s incapable of winning,” said O’Toole.
Despite such harsh rhetoric, both candidates say they have a friendly relationship when not campaigning and will continue to do so once the election is over.
“We’re very cordial,” said O’Toole. “We can talk about a lot, but when it comes to this he’ll never see it the way I see it, and I’ll never see it the way he sees it. After the race is over, I’ll be ready to shake his hand.”