by MATT FRIEDMAN
An “insurgent” Republican primary campaign against a popular, prominent figure. Campaign literature that refers to an opponent as a “loser.” An inflammatory flyer that has brought accusations of race baiting.
Depending on who you’re talking to, the 40th district Republican primary is either a spirited campaign by the underdog, Todd Caliguire, or Guy Talarico’s last grasp at power and influence within the Bergen County Republican Party.
It’s been an especially nasty fight for the Republican State Senate nomination in the 40th district, with three candidates slugging it out. Bergen County Republican Organization backed Todd Caliguire, who was fielded by Talarico, is the main contender against Assemblyman Kevin O’Toole. Wayne attorney Victor Rabbat is running independently, but is not considered to have a realistic shot at winning.
The theme of Caliguire’s campaign is a fight the heart and soul of the Republican primary, to bring it back to Reaganesque conservative principles. But to O’Toole’s campaign, Caliguire’s challenge is nothing more than Bergen County Republican Chairman Guy Talarico’s last grasp at power and influence within the party.
Caliguire is from Bergen County, the traditional home of the seat of the district’s State Senator, and Talarico is trying to keep it that way. O’Toole is from Cedar Grove, one of the district’s two Essex County towns.
What happens in this election could have serious repercussions on Talarico’s career: if Caliguire wins, the seat will remain in Bergen County and Talarico’s position as BCRO Chairman will be strengthened. Ultimately, he’ll have a better chance off fending off challenges for the job. If O’Toole wins, Talarico will likely meet with a strengthened opposition to his chairmanship come the election next June, if not sooner.
“I think that certainly if Talarico could win this, it would be a sign that there is life in the party,” said Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers. “If they lose it, it will be another strategic mistake, another inability to really pull an election together the way you need to in order to win, and so it just leaves Bergen County Republicans even weaker.”
The Bergen County Republican Organization has seen better days. Republicans have not been faring well in county-wide elections, losing their last freeholder just last year, and losing the race for County Executive by a wide margin. Their fundraising numbers have been no better than poll results – the organization has been strapped for cash that they were almost evicted from their Hackensack headquarters.
Caliguire is putting up a spirited, if controversial fight. It’s a long-shot candidacy, and critics say that Talarico is spending scarce resources on a race against another Republican, money that should be used against Democrats. And over the weekend, the BCRO sent out a direct mail piece that pictured O’Toole next to Al Sharpton, accusing O’Toole, who’s half Korean-American, of having his seat exempt from redistricting because of his ethnicity and therefore benefiting from affirmative action.
The campaign ad provoked outrage from the O’Toole campaign, who accused Talarico and Caliguire of race baiting. O’Toole campaign manager Thom Ammirato called the ad an act of “desperation” in a race that he thinks is the last straw for Talarico and Caliguire. Ammirato also mentioned robocalls with similar subject matter, implying that O’toole’s background is Korean and not Irish. Just today, O’Toole allied freeholder candidates Paul Duggan and Charles Kahwaty have both called for Talarico’s resignation over what they deemed “racist mailings and robo telephone calls.”
“They know they’re losing the money race and haven’t really got any endorsements, and now they’re looking for something outrageous to do, and I think it’s backfiring,” said Ammirato. “This is not the way you resurrect a career – this is the way you kill a career.”
But Caliguire campaign manager Kevin Collins, who did not want to say who exactly produced the ad, defended it, as well as Talarico, who could not be reached for comment
“At the end of the day, the O’Toole family story, how his mother and father met in Korea and came back here to start a family, is a great American story,” said Collins. “Our point is that nobody should benefit from racial preferences or set-asides.” Collins added that “All Guy Talarico is doing is defending a Bergen County seat. More votes come out of Bergen county than the others, especially before it was sliced and diced, this was a Bergen County Republican district. The position of Guy is that the Senator should be from Bergen County.”
Some Bergen County Republicans are already sharpening their knives. Though nobody has formally announced an intention to run for Bergen County Republican Chairman, Ed Trawinski, a Fair Lawn Councilman, is circulating a petition to recall Talarico, and says he may be interested in the job. Former Bergen County Freeholder Lisa Randall has been approached about running for the position, and may consider doing so.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he will face a challenge,” said Trawinski, who said it was premature to decide whether he will run for the position. “I certainly would consider it, but there a lot of people far more qualified than I am to be the chairman.”