by MAX PIZARRO
Long stretches go by in this northwestern district where there are no colorful campaign signs, only acts of nature and traces of people in the form of pickup trucks, narrow roads, fenced-in fields, and, in the distance, new luxury homes.
Whatever invasive species may upset the old order of these 31 towns and the land in-between that comprise the 24th district, the majority Republicans here hold fast to four principles that in the right hands are pure political wampum: 2nd Amendment rights, pro-life values, private property rights and low taxes.
They have a name for themselves.
"Mountain men," says Assemblyman Guy Gregg, eyes twinkling with mischievous delight in the region’s mythology, elusive to anyone who hasn’t seen how swiftly the shadows of cloud cover change the hills here.
Gregg's in a far rightward leaning fight to represent the 24th in the state Senate with Sussex County Freeholder Steve Oroho.
Gregg, 57, a former restaurant owner, has 13 years of experience in Trenton, and owns one of the most conservative voting records in the state. He lives in Long Valley, which is in the Morris County portion of a district that includes Sussex and Hunterdon.
A resident of Sussex, which absorbs 70% of the district, Oroho, 48, of Franklin Township, is a certified financial planner with Stonebridge Capital Management, and the man in this race favored by retiring Sen. Robert Littell, who now holds the seat Gregg and Oroho covet. Oroho’s firmly allied with Littell's daughter, Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, and fellow Sussex County Freeholder Gary Chiusano. They dub themselves “The Real Conservative Team” in their fliers.
Gregg, identified on his website as “The Right Republican,” crosses the long shadows of Spring Street in downtown Newton, which looks more like a Rocky Mountain mining town than it does Jersey City – and it's frankly hard not to hear the strains of Tex Ritter's voice singing "High Noon" in the background, because what's coming to a head in a few hours at the local high school is a pre-Election Day showdown between Gregg and Oroho.
It's been Heaven's Gate from the start, with negative television and radio ads and fliers ricocheting for weeks throughout the valleys, and barely murmured exchanges of "hi" and "bye" from the candidates when each is in the presence of the other.
Traces of the rivalry are everywhere.
In its lead story, The New Jersey Herald — offices right up the street — reports a dead-heat in the campaign spending department: $160,579 so far for Oroho, who now has $114,482 on hand, and $167,469 for Gregg, who’s now working with $51,746.
The paper will be hosting the Senate debate.
A few minutes after picking up the endorsement Thursday of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) at the Book Shelf, where Sean Hannity’s face smiles from several prominently placed dust jackets, Gregg walks into Lou’s Music Store, expecting a tale of local woe over business taxes.
Instead he gets an earful on Iraq and immigration.
"It’s a tough issue," Gregg confesses of the first before taking a tough stance on the second, then pulling the reins back to specifically local matters, and it’s here in this race that Gregg figures he has a decided edge, for many of the region’s property owners impacted by the Highlands Preservation Act are troubled by how it’s playing out in practice, and it was Gregg in Trenton and Gregg on the front page of the Herald railing against the act back when it was first proposed in the Gov. James McGreevey era.
”Most Republicans know who I am,” he says. “Republicans are engaged up here.”
He wants to go the Senate to impose Constitutional caps on state spending, specifically implementing a program developed by his friend, former gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler, who’s endorsing him. A friend of business, he says, Gregg wants to target the government-first approach he sees in many of New Jersey’s cities.
At one point he is alerted to the political catastrophism of tinkering with the fraternal traditions of paid urban fire companies, which, given the sense of pride that permeates those institutions, would not be unlike significantly changing the parameters of, say, the Marine Corps. The comparison proves unfortunate as Gregg straightens. The Assemblyman is in fact a proud former Marine and the caucus’ go-to-guy on all things military.
A quick-thinking bystander takes up the slack, "That’s comparing apples and oranges," and the remark momentarily appears to pacify Gregg.
But the Assemblyman broods on Oroho’s repeated attacks on his character, especially one ad that called him a liar. Although he’s burnished his thumbs-down voting on tax raises through the years, Gregg once voted for an increase in the cigarette tax, and the Oroho campaign grabbed hold of what they say is a contradiction, and worse. The Assemblyman’s critics have said his ads have been ponderous in response.
“Maybe it’s the Marine in me,” he says of his decision not to hit below the belt.
There is a sense in the small room of the showdown looming.
Farther north on 206 and nestled in the hills stands the little town of Franklin, home to Oroho, a one-time senior financial officer of an S&P 500 company and the archetypal square-jawed, no-nonsense high school coach and volunteer firefighter. His campaign headquarters stands in the center of town in an antique shop where the sign inside reads: "This is not a museum. This junk is for sale," and today with the lights dimmed in the big, barn-like building the place bears little more than the ghostly presence of scattered antiques.
It turns out the candidate on Thursday afternoon is sequestered elsewhere in serious debate preparation.
The hours go by slowly in Sussex. Half the town of Newton looks to be lined up at the movie house on Spring Street to see Shrek III.
Anyway they’re not at the high school, where finally in front of a large crowd of supporters evenly divided between the two men, Oroho walks onto a stage adorned with red, white and blue balloons and assumes the chair to Gregg’s right.
Score a quick point for the Freeholder, in a race so tight that every detail, every jab, counts.
But when they start speaking and Oroho the numbers man grips tightly a set of prepared opening remarks, it’s evident early that Gregg –schooled as a leader of his caucus and on the hardscrabble floor of the Assembly – is the more polished debater, relishing every well-chosen word.
The Assemblyman reminds the audience that seven times in a row voters have sent him back to Trenton, and says he wants to rectify the idea that he hasn’t received any relevant endorsements, rattling off a list of organizations and politicians, including the National Rifle Association, New Jersey Right to Life, numerous state senators and U.S. Reps. Scott Garrett and Rodney Frelinghuysen.
The debate’s moderator, Chris Frear, editor of the New Jersey Herald, brandishes a stack of campaign literature and wants to know about all of the negative advertising.
"There’s a difference between contrast campaigning, and distortion and lies," says the candidate. "Every bit of what we sent out was backed with truth. The pictures I used of my opponent I took out of his own campaign literature, assuming he picked them because he liked them."
Then he describes the unflattering pictures Oroho used of him and cracks a grin. "I thank my opponent for that gift," says Gregg, "for he has used something that works to my advantage when people come up to me and say I look better in person than in pictures."
Oroho tries to come back with his own charge that pictures Gregg has used of him show him with a beard. "I can’t grow a beard," he says.
Then Gregg goes after a point in one of Oroho’s campaign pieces in which the Freeholder attempted to depict the Assemblyman as a softie on illegal immigration. Oroho charges that Gregg voted against penalizing businesses that employ illegal immigrants, taking the next step to conclude that the assemblyman is friendly to illegal immigrants.
The bill, in Gregg’s words, would have severely punished businesses connected to any subcontractor employing illegal immigrants. The NFIB fought it, and so did Gregg.
"The four most conservative members of the House – Guy Gregg, Scott Garret, Richard Merkt and Michael Patrick Carroll – closed that bill down," says Gregg of a nine-year old measure. "It died because it was a bad bill. I don’t stick my finger in the air, I stick my nose in the bill. …It was not an easy vote, but it was the principled vote."
Oroho backs down.
But after some shaky early rounds it’s his turn to land some shots, and it becomes clear as he goes for his glasses and starts pouring over the numbers that Oroho isn’t joking when he describes himself as a hard-nosed fiscal conservative.
First he goes after Gregg’s vote for a $14,000 Legislative pay raise, and Gregg attempts the old “I’m a business guy, you get what you pay for” argument. Then Oroho stays on the offensive.
Gregg’s been walking around and in the friendliest tones describing his opponent as a "double-dipper,” a death knell charge in Republican country, as it refers to that most egregious of sins — bellying up to the public trough. It’s a stretch in this case, as Oroho proves when he jumps on the Assemblyman’s characterization and fairly bludgeons it off the table.
“He attacked me for finishing my commitment in Franklin,” says Oroho, who was elected Freeholder while still a councilman, “my $145 per-month for 30 to 60 hours of work per week. I finished my commitments. I keep promises and finish my commitments.”
Proclaiming his budgeting prowess throughout the debate and vowing to get Trenton spending under control, Oroho says he identified a debt problem in Franklin and helped solve it, then established spending benchmarks when he worked as a freeholder. He says debt increases in Trenton have risen from $4 billion to $40 billion, over a period of years in which Gregg served half in the majority party and half in the minority.
Gregg proclaims his record of 52 tax cuts, takes a swing at Oroho’s provincialism, then chastises him for presiding over a county budget that required tax increases while neighboring Warren County held the line.
There’s less than a decade between them, yet it’s the newcomer and the old-timer in there down the stretch, the brazen young man in the majority back home and the cagey old survivor in what nearly everyone in this room sees as the principled minority out there in the big world.
“The only thing growing in New Jersey today is state government,” says Oroho. “It’s time for a change in Trenton.”
Oroho says he’s been pro-life his whole life, reminds the crowd of his success at the company level and in government, where he has boosted the bond rating, thanks the troops for defending the country, and finishes his closing statement with a forceful “God bless America.”
Then Gregg: “Serving you has been the greatest experience of my life. If you elect me, you will have not just a member of the Senate, but a leader in the Senate.”
There’s an uncomfortable handshake at the end, no eye contact, and the auditorium empties into the night.
"We have a unity breakfast scheduled for June 8th," says Sussex County Republican Party Chairman Richard Zeoli. "I’m confident we will come back together. We must make sure that Sussex does not go the way of Bergen, and we must insist on our party picking up the pieces and coming together. If people are going to hold grudges, we’re going to ask them to leave."
That unity may yet prevail, but the sense is it won’t happen before Tuesday in the 24th, where after one long day’s build-up to one night of sustained civility, the tension resets and grows, the competitive fires blaze, and the fight between Gregg and Oroho resumes in this stronghold of mountain men.