The average age of the county committeemen and women who cast votes at the election for Bergen County Republican Organization Chairman was probably somewhere north of 60. But in the end, youth triumphed.
Thirty-five-year-old Robert Ortiz, an attorney, prominent Republican fundraiser and relative newcomer to the local political scene, won with 263 votes. Long time party activist Ben Focarino, 64 garnered 171 votes, while former New Jersey Christian Coalition Director Bill Thomson, 57, got 24.
Among the rank and file, the decision mainly fell between a fresh face to take the party in a new – any new– direction, or someone they knew and trusted.
Perhaps the rank and file chose the unfamiliar because the memories were too painful. First the party lost the 38th District along with another Assembly seat, followed by not only the loss of the county’s freeholder board but the failure to hold on even to a single one of its seats. Now the Democrats even control the majority of municipalities.
“I think it’s time to get some young blood in the hierarchy,” said County Committeeman Arthur Loveridge, 75, of Wood-ridge – Paul Sarlo territory. “They haven’t gotten enough youth into it. The Democrats are getting young people active.”
Throughout the campaign, Thomson and Focarino sought to exploit that youth to their advantage, talking about how so few of the rank and file were familiar with Ortiz. Their supporters were often people that they had known for a long time – people who supported them out of loyalty and trust.
“I just have a comfort level with (Focarino). I’ve known him,” said Committeeman Jack Romano, 62. Romano said he thought Focarino had the ability to bring the county party together. Of Ortiz, he said, “Nobody knows him.”
But those who don’t know Ortiz soon will have to get to know him if the Chairman is to elevate the outspent county party that has been plagued by gossip, infighting, and just an all-around failure to win elections. He has, by all accounts, a tough job ahead of him.
Bogota Mayor and conservative activist Steve Lonegan, who supported Ben Focarino, was miffed that Ortiz never reached out to him. But he said that he would support him anyway.
“I’ve got to give this guy Ortiz a chance. He’s got a lot of work to do and he’s gotta be able to raise money and galvanize the troops,” said Lonegan.
“We do a terrific job of shooting our own,” said political consultant Thom Ammirato, who supported Ortiz’s candidacy. “Rob’s job is going to be to take all that energy, divert it and point it towards Democrats. If he can do that he’ll be a successful chairman. If he doesn’t he’ll be another in a long line chairmen who failed to get the job done.”
Not all of those who showed up even had a stake in the Bergen County party. Assemblyman and possible US Senate candidate Joe Pennacchio was there, shaking hands and noting how important winning Bergen County is to winning a statewide race. Republican blogger and former Congressional candidate George Ajjan, 31, who designed Ortiz’s Web site, was there was well, although he lives in Passaic County.
“Bergen is like a big brother to neighboring counties,” said Ajjan. “For Passaic to have a chance at rebuilding a strong Republican organization, we need a strong organization in Bergen.”
Even election-night saw some discord when BCRO Parliamentarian Mike Ryan protested a suspension of the organization’s election-night bylaws. Bergen County Elections Commissioner Patricia DiCostanzo allowed a vote, but her frustration with the unexpected challenge showed.
“Let’s elect a Chairman, get a party together and get to work,” said DiCostanzo to rousing applause from the audience.
But among the candidates themselves, there was no fighting, and absolutely no mention of Guy Talarico, the former Chairman who resigned last month. Throughout the campaign, all three had promised to work together no matter who won, and they pledged to keep that promise. Focarino and Ortiz spent much of the time across from each other, greeting guests in front of the two – yes, two –hot dog carts that they brought along to woo the rank and file. And when the results were read, all of the candidates sounded gracious notes.
“People keep saying that the Bergen County Republicans are dead and gone, but if you look out here tonight it’s absolutely not true,” said Ortiz, who called his opponents “consummate gentlemen.”