They say he’s too good for this business, a throw-back to the disinterested days of the Founding Fathers when gentlemen sat among gentlemen and civilly decided which gentleman would be gentleman-in-chief until some gentleman’s hurt feelings led to the inevitable duel, and the inevitable dead gentleman.
Now Leonard Lance, the State Senate Minority Leader, finds himself not in a ten paces, turn and shoot contest, but an all-out fight, and his team is not only outnumbered but on a field of battle that favors the opposition. If Jersey is Gettysburg, Lance is Robert E. Lee stuck with the low ground.
Democrats love to tell a story about the GOP power elite hitting a little white ball into a hole in 2001, while crafty old Dick Codey was priming a javelin to throw straight into the heart of the Republican Party. The Republicans now look at the calendar with a certain bitterness as they confront the reality that it’s still over three years until the GOP can try to work its will on redistricting — where Fair Lawn and Fort Lee were added to the 38th and Norman Robertson's solid GOP Senate seat went to Nia Gill when Wayne was replaced by East Orange — and recoup those vital pieces that Sen. President Codey jovially carries around on his back like St. Nick.
In the meantime, the GOP’s gentleman-general from Hunterdon, son of 1940's Senate President Wesley Lance, has to lower his saber and lead his forces into the teeth of a formidable enemy come November. And the trouble is the troops are suffering from battle fatigue. Sen. James "Sonny" McCullough last month complained that the party wasn’t spending money in his District 2 race the way it should — given the stakes.
Lance this week answered the not reporting for duty charge.
"I’m obviously not missing," said the 55-year old leader at a fund-raiser for state Senate Republican candidates today at the Trenton Marriot. "We’re here in the dog days of summer, and I look forward to working with and helping our candidates in all of the important targeted races."
That includes the 38th district, where Democratic state Sen. Joseph Coniglio, the target of a federal corruption investigation, appears to be in a last-ditch life raft with the air escaping day by day.
"We believe Mr. Colletti was an excellent choice," said Lance of Coniglio’s GOP opponent.
He wouldn’t say whether or not he would personally write a check for Colletti or any of the other candidates, and refused to divulge strategy. But Lance offers what comes across as an unblinking, unapologetic suggestion of how his party will win. "I think the voters of New Jersey decide elections based on issues," he said.
To the criticism that he’s not a street scrapper in this scrappiest of states, he says he fights in other ways.
"I was the principal plaintiff in Lance v. McGreevey, and the state Supreme Court agreed with me that we could not borrow money to balance the budget," said the state minority leader, a lawyer by profession.
His tools to win in the coming election are not menace and brick bats but rather what he describes as leading by example.
"What we are saying is that we will put no more money into next year’s budget than what we take in with recurring revenue," he said. "Right now we’re looking at a billion and a half more in spending than we’re taking in.
"What we are saying," said Lance, "is we will never borrow without voter approval. We are committed to ending pay-to-play at all levels of government. We have 18 votes now in the Senate. When we have 21 votes, we’ll have that reform. We will ban dual-office holding across the board. There will be no grandfathering. By February 8, dual-office holders will be required to choose which office they’re going to continue to hold."
As for the actual X’s and O’s strategy about how to get there –Lance wouldn’t go there.
If the minority leader’s most visible weakness is his 19th Century elder statesman’s presence in the Tony Soprano-land of cigar-in-the-mouth Jersey politics, it is also arguably his greatest asset.
"The voters of New Jersey are used to mudslinging, but they don’t like it," said Dr. David Rebovich,managing director of Rider University’s Institute of New Jersey Politics.
But New Jersey politics is as bruising as it is in any other state, Rebovich added, noting that if Lance can’t get around the perception that he’s 100 or 200 years behind the times, his own party will impatiently insist on moving beyond the Lance era.
"Lance is civil and intellectual when a lot of people in his party want a flamethrower," said the professor.
As he faces his Little Roundtop with the Democrats in the general election, creeping over Lance’s horizon is an intra-party showdown for control of GOP leadership with what most insiders say will be forces led by 39-year-old Sen. Tom Kean, Jr., son of former Gov. Thomas Kean.
If Kean is another Mayflower descendent with blue blood coursing through his veins, he was at least kicked in the teeth and thrown out of the moving car of the Menendez Campaign last year. Dragged around the walls of Hudson County, he bears the wounds of a statewide beat-down that give him an edge now he didn’t have a year ago.
Some of Kean’s colleagues and other observers see a drained husk of a young man, scion of a family of winners, shell-shocked by his loss, who grew a beard – a la Al Gore 2000, to get through the post-Menendez blues.
"He’s done, isn’t he, the kid?" Steve Adubato, Jr., son of power broker Steve Adubato, asked a roomful of politicians last week in Spring Lake Heights, which didn’t include Kean., Jr., and there was sheepish laughter in response.
Lance was in the crowd, elbow-to-elbow with the opposition and other members of his own party, characteristically taking no joy at someone else’s expense, however light-hearted — while smiling Democrats crammed the table elevated at the head of the room.