Monmouth County Republicans face an important decision at their convention on Wednesday night. In danger of losing control of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, GOP committee people have to decide whether Holmdel Mayor Serena DiMaso or Red Bank Councilman John Curley is the candidate who can win in November.
The Republicans have watched their rivals chip into their turf over the last two election cycles. Democrats edged one seat closer to seizing a majority in 2007 with John D'Amico's win.
There are two open seats this year, but Freeholder Lillian G. Burry, also a Republican, has the advantage of incumbency, meaning either DiMaso or Curley also needs to win to keep the GOP majority.
In DiMaso the GOP has a loyalist from the core pf the party's base towns, who toiled in the unappreciated minority on the Holmdel Township Committee for several years before helping to return the town to its Republican roots. Curley on the other hand is a rebel who ran as a Democrat in Red Bank's 2004 election.
That's not to say that DiMaso hasn't had detractors in her own party.
Terence Wall, a former committeeman, fought her hard when the two were the only Republicans on the committee and in a particularly contentious primary last year before losing to her and finally ceding party control to DiMaso.
"I would say it's easy to be a naysayer when you're in the minority," said the mayor. "The difference between myself and Mr. Wall was he preferred to allow the bad things to occur, in hopes that the Democrats would self-destruct come election time and we would be able to take over. But I fought them rather than let his political
strategy play out. That's me. I never rested on my laurels."
All the while, DiMaso served as chair of the party's Lincoln Day Dinner and built key relationships within the party.
"John and I are both working hard, both getting around, but I would say I have the advantage because people know me better, I'm ahead of the curve in that regard," said DiMaso.
Curley is used to campaigning from behind, and he engineered a credible if losing mayoral bid last year.
"He's probably the single most hardworking person in politics today," Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth) said of Curley.
During his time as a Red Bank Councilman, Curley earned a reputation as an unflinching opponent of 16-year Mayor Ed McKenna, a party leader who in Red Bank was so formidable that he forged "McKennacrats" out of Democrats.
Curley, a Democratic candidate with McKenna in 2004, changed his party affiliation, becoming the mayor's biggest critic and Red Bank's most vocal Republican.
"This guy was a Democrat who became a Republican, who became a Democrat who became a Republican," said McKenna, who retired from politics last year, leaving a council still controlled by the party organization he helped build.
Curley called it a matter of principle.
"I'm an underdog, no question," said the 55-year-old Shrewsbury native. "I've never been involved with the county party. I'm not tied in with the county group. I'm a maverick."
DiMaso has the county's Republican dean – Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) – behind her candidacy, but Curley can claim the support of the party's up-and-comer: Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), his onetime only ally on the Red Bank Town Council.
"Beck is solidly behind me," said Curley, who remembers when Beck came on board as a second Republican on the council.
"We were colleagues for three years, and we admired each other because of our work ethic," Curley said of Beck, who beat Ellen Karcher last year to become the 12th district senator.
"Jen Beck taught me a great deal about politics and continues to do so," said Curley. "She's tenacious."
The book on Curley is he works hard and campaigns hard in his own right. Although he doesn't possess the spit-shined Republican credentials of DiMaso, supporters argue that his unconventional background gives him ammo to fight the charge that Monmouth County is run by an old boys' network of Republicans.
"The Asbury Park Press will buy into this concept of the Freeholders awarding contracts to high instead of low bidders, and that could come back to haunt Republicans in the fall," explained Fair Haven Mayor Michael Halfacre. "If you're explaining, you're losing, and John won't have to do that."
"If I had to vote, I would vote for Curley," Halfacre added. "John can run as an outsider, and that's where we have to position ourselves."
McKenna also hopes the Republicans pick his longtime rival as a freeholder candidate, if only to keep him out of town.
"The guys a complete phoney," McKenna said of Curley. "He stabbed everyone in the back who's ever supported him. He's a nutcase. This is the type of guy who railed on and on about the budget, and never offered a credible suggestion. When he was in
charge of the budget department, he overspent by $400,000.
"I'm very happy to see John run for freeholder," McKenna added.
Insiders say the race is about more than just DiMaso against Curley. It also involves a struggle over party control, and a divide between Monmouth County Republican Chairman Adam Puharic and Jim Gianell of Red Bank, former leader of the Two Rivers Republicans.
A challenger to Puharic in the last party chair election, Gianell backs Curley for freeholder.
While Puharic won't say whom he supports, Monmouth County Republicans say a Curley victory on Wednesday would weaken the chairman in the face of a possible Gianell challenge for the chairmanship come June. A DiMaso win strengthens the chairman.
Whatever happens between now and Election Day, Republicans are confident that they will produce a solid turnout.
"In a presidential year, it's usually pretty lopsided in favor of the Republicans," said Sen. Sean Kean (R-Monmouth), who has not declared his support for either DiMaso or Curley.
"The county comes in strong for Republicans, and that's maybe why the Democrats' field was somewhat limited this year," Kean added. "I think whether it's Serena or Curley, we'll have a winner in November."