Lower profile congressional candidates undaunted

They're not state Senators or gubernatorial offspring. They don't come from political dynasties and don't have powerful county organizations backing them.

But in the third and seventh congressional districts, there are eight lower-profile Republican candidates, considered second-tier to the likes of state Sen. Leonard Lance, Kate Whitman, Medford Mayor Chris Myers and Ocean County Freeholder Director Jack Kelly. And those candidates want to stress that even without a famous name or a powerful county organization behind them, they can have an impact on these races.

One of the longest shot candidates on the ballot in either district is Suzanne Penna, a 37-year-old nursing student from Bayville who's only been involved in politics for the last year and a half. It won't be her first time facing Kelly in a primary.

Penna, who used to run a daycare business, began her political awakening with the sudden death of her husband three years ago from a heart condition. She decided that the best way to provide for her four children would be as a nurse, so she enrolled full-time as a nursing student at Ocean Community College.

Suffering from rising tuition costs, she went to county freeholder meetings to complain. But they didn't respond, she said, leading Penna to run an unsuccessful off-the-line primary challenge with running mate Peter McCarthy against two incumbents: Kelly and James Lacey.

Now, the stakes are higher, and Penna thinks she actually has a shot to go up against two of the most powerful Republican organizations in the state. Kelly, she said, is too close to Ocean County GOP boss George Gilmore. Myers, on the other hand, is an executive of a company whose biggest client is the United State government.

"The main issue of why I'm running for Congress is because if we allow the political machine to get their hands on a congressional seat, imagine the damage it can do there," she said.

Penna, who's running under the banner of the Traditional Republican Organization of Ocean County – a splinter group – hasn't released any fundraising figures. Raising money, she admitted, will be tough.

Burlington County also has its own off-the-line challenger: former Tabernacle Township committeeman Justin Murphy, 42. Murphy doesn't feel the same kind of distaste for machine politics as Penna, but he wants voters to understand that their choices don't have to be determined by party bosses.

"I've been involved in politics for 16, 17 years now and have always looked for an opportunity like this – they don't come up very often," he said.

Murphy, a naval veteran, stepped up to serve a single three year term on the Tabernacle Township council after the local Republican Party was struggling to find a candidate. The idea of serving on the council for decades with the hopes of maybe someday getting a seat on the freeholder board just wasn't his style.

"I just said, look, the machine type of apparatus and hierarchy is not for me. It never agreed with me," he said. "There's nothing wrong with it, it's just not the way I would pursue my political goals."

Murphy, who runs an energy consulting business and practices some law, touts the endorsement of former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler and the local police union, but won't say how much money he's raised so far. He's watched the infighting in the Burlington County Republican Party from a detached perspective, and believes that voters might just want someone from outside of that apparatus.

"If there's ever a time when a machine endorsement doesn't mean as much as it used to, this is probably it," he said. "People in this area are just so beyond fed up and sick of hand picks and handoffs in a back room, corruption, bossism, political machines telling everyone who to vote for, how to vote, who gets to run and who doesn't."

There are more than twice as many Republican congressional candidates in the seventh district as there are in the third, hailing from three of the four counties that make up the district. Most of them plan to attend each county's convention over the next month and a half, even if the county committee's endorsement is a foregone conclusion, like Hunterdon, where native Leonard Lance is presumed to win.

Somerset County alone has five candidates, the most high profile of which is Kate Whitman, the daughter of former Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Those competing for attention with Whitman are Warren Township Mayor Victor Sordillo; former Hillsborough Deputy Mayor Chris Venis; Bridgewater Councilman Michael Hsing and former Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Tom Roughneen. All three of the county's resident legislators have endorsed Lance, an outsider, for Congress, and Republican County Chairman Dale Florio plans to remain neutral.

"I'm in the rear view mirror right now, but I'm coming on strong," said Roughneen, 38, an active reservist who served in Iraq.

Roughneen, a political neophyte, doesn't expect to get any county endorsements. He's been told that he has to pay his dues before running, but considers his nearly 20 years of military service just that. And he has governmental experience in Iraq, where he helped install Abdul Rahman Mustafa as governor of the northern, oil rich province of Kirkuk, and worked as his chief-of-staff for a time.

Roughneen said that he should have raised about $100,000 by the end of the month, and hopes to have earned $200,000 by March 1st. Just today he was shooting an internet campaign video.

"This isn't Jon Corzine or Kate Whitman's campaign," he said. "This is Youtube city — to see if we can't get a little fire going in that respect."

Roughneen is solidly pro-life, except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger. The son of blue collar Irish immigrants, Roughneen said that he's pro-business but also pro-union. He's worked as a defense lawyer for Guantanamo detainees, and doesn't believe that the Bush Administration has treated them fairly.

"I don't think I fall into traditional categories very easily," he said.

None of the other Somerset County candidates could be reached for comment.

Union County offers two candidates: P. Kelly Hatfield, who served on the Summit Borough Council until 2006; and Scotch Plains Mayor Marty Marks, who's running as a conservative.

Union County makes up the single largest portion of voters in the district for the general election, and has a roughly equal proportion of primary voters as Somerset and Hunterdon. If the county unites behind just one of its lower-profile candidates, then it could make this a three-way race.

Both candidates say that they'd fare better against Union County native Linda Stender than any of the outside candidates, as they'll be able to compete with her in towns that make up her base.

Hatfield, for her part, said that she will drop out of the race if she fails to secure the party's nomination at its March 1st convention. But she's positioning herself as the county's clear choice, running with the endorsement of Assembly Minority Whip Jon Bramnick and his running mate, Eric Munoz.

"Last go round, if you look at 2006, there were Republican towns that went for Linda Stender. I think I will change that," said Hatfield, who said her 15 years experience in local government makes her especially well-suited to go to Washington. "I know how to reduce the size of government. I've created jobs, strengthened the local economy, preserved historic buildings and open space."

Hatfield has not yet revealed how much money she's earned.

Unlike Hatfield, Marks will continue to run, even if he fails to get Union County's endorsement. While a candidate's geographical background may count at county conventions, he said, it means virtually nothing in a primary.

"I think the convention process is an important one, but it is not the be all and end all, and I feel that the Republican voters of the entire 7th district deserve to hear from a candidate like myself who without a doubt is an across-the-board conservative on all the issues," he said.

As of the last filing period, Marks had raised about $100,000 — $75,000 of which came from a personal loan.

And while Marks recognizes that he doesn't have a lot of name recognition, he doesn't think Whitman or Lance will benefit from theirs once the race heats up. But right now, he admitted, they do have an easier time getting publicity.

"If you ask the average Republican in Union County who Leonard Lance is, they wouldn't know," he said. "So yes, there's a difficulty getting the publicity in the press because obviously the more attractive candidates to the media and the inner circle are those with the names. But ultimately that's not going to mean a lot when all is said and done on primary day in June."

Lower profile congressional candidates undaunted