Now that Assemblyman Mike Doherty has announced that he will not run for U.S. Senate, two potential challengers to Frank Lautenberg remain on the horizon.
One, Anne Estabrook, is a 63-year-old millionaire businesswoman from Spring Lake who has never run for elected office. The other, Joe Pennacchio, is a 52-year-old Brooklyn born dentist and former Democrat. He has served in the Assembly since 2001 and, after winning his party’s nomination, is heavily favored to win the 26th district’s state Senate seat in November.
While neither potential candidate is considered as conservative as Doherty, barring anyone else entering the race, Pennacchio will carry the flag for the party’s conservative wing.
“Joe and I come from the same wing of the party and share many of the same supporters,” said Doherty, who backed Pennacchio when he announced that he would not run. “Joe is a strong candidate who will confidently project Republican principles.”
Pennacchio is pro-life, while Estabrook is pro-choice – with exceptions in both cases. Estabrook is pro-civil union, while Pennacchio is against the concept. Pennacchio considers Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy his political idols (Kennedy for his anti-commnuism). For Estabrook, the first name that comes to mind is the less glamorous but well-respected Tom Kean, Sr.
But although Pennacchio stands to the right of Estabrook, he bristles at being labeled.
“It’s not about conservative, it’s not about moderate. It’s about purpose and direction…. it’s about the plans that we have that we put forth, and then we let the people decide,” said Pennacchio.
Pennacchio said that his main motivation for running is what he sees as a need to depoliticize homeland security. He was particularly upset by what he said was Lautenberg’s silence when former Gov. Jim McGreevey appointed Golan Cipel, allegedly his lover, as his homeland security advisor. Or when the City of Newark used a federal homeland security grant to purchase almost $12 million worth of air conditioned garbage trucks. Or that 94 percent of federal homeland security grants were dolled out to Democratic districts.
“As far as I’m concerned, Democrats in New Jersey have zero credibility when it comes to homeland security,” said Pennacchio. “This is an issue quite frankly that should be bringing us together not dragging us apart. There were no politics in 9/11. There were no Republicans and Democrats in 9/11
That’s not to say Pennacchio is a fan of the way the Bush Administration is handling the war in Iraq. But he has a lot more criticism for that country’s fledgling government, especially the idea of their parliament taking a month’s vacation while the United States gets pulled deeper into a sectarian conflict.
Should the Iraqi government continue to function so poorly, Pennacchio said, the United States ought to consider pulling out – though he said he a timetable would be “disastrous for our troops.”
Estabrook doesn’t have the legislative experience Pennacchio has, but she wants New Jersey voters to know that she’s ready for prime time.
“I certainly have the brainpower to deal with all of these issues and I think that I have I know,” said Estabrook. “When I have the opportunity and I know what my charge is I study it, I come to judgment, and I participate in a debate and I make a decision and I vote.”
At 63, Estabrook runs Elberon Development Co, an industrial real-estate company.
Estabrook believes that her business acumen and many years of non-elected public service are just as good, if not better, than serving in the Assembly. She has served on various commissions under five different governors.
Estabrook said she was inspired to run by the fact that New Jersey ranks dead last in the amount of money it pays in taxes to the federal government versus what it gets back – about 55 cents for every dollar its puts in. She criticized Lautenberg for not doing enough to bring federal funds to the Garden State.
“When Senator Lautenberg went to Washington 25 years ago, at that time NJ was 34th in what it brought back. I wouldn’t have been happy about that 25 years ago if I had been focused on that issue, but I’m certainly not happy that we’re now 50th,” said Estabrook.
Still, she’ll have to overcome her inexperience in the sound bite heavy political theater.
“I think being a Washington outsider right now is a positive thing and I want to be that agent of change,” said Estabrook.
Her inexperience in politics showed in April, when she was unable to provide a position on the Iraq war to PoliticsNJ.com. Now she has one: wait for General Petraeus assessment of the surge in September before making any decisions. But she also wants to open up more lines of communication to Iraq’s neighbors, and while she wouldn’t directly advocate more engagement of Iran and Syria, she indicated that the US ought to reach out more to Iraq’s neighbors.
“I’m not prepared to second guess those making our policy in Washington right now,” said Estabrook. “But I can tell you this: in my business life I have learned that I can’t make a difference, nor can anyone else, if they’re not sitting at the table.”
Of course, neither candidate is officially running yet. Pennacchio, who just announced his interest in the seat last month, has yet to even form an exploratory committee. Instead, he says he has to focus on his state Senate race. Estabrook, on the other hand, has a committee with some powerful backers, including Rep. Mike Ferguson and prolific fundraiser Lew Eisenberg.
Estabrook’s support gives her an advantage, said Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project. And while Doherty had Rep. Scott Garrett as his co-chair, it’s not yet known whether the Congressman will endorse Pennacchio.
“She’s probably known to a wider set of influential republicans than Pennacchio and Doherty are,” said Reed. “So in the early stages of the campaign, that’s really important.”
But there could be more candidates. There have been off-the-record rumblings that Assembly Minority whip Jon Bramnick might be game. When asked, Bramnick said he may be interested as long as Tom Kean, Jr., the state Senator from his district, doesn’t try again.
“I haven’t ruled it out, that’s for sure. At this point I haven’t made any affirmative steps to run,” said Bramnick. “I have to do a little more homework, focus more people, but I have some interest.”