TOMS RIVER – If you came to the Ocean County Republican convention hoping for a floor fight tonight for the party nod for U.S. Senate, you were disappointed.
In typical Ocean County Republican fashion, the party awarded its line with efficiency and brevity – easily selecting Goya Foods heir Andy Unanue as its choice for a U.S. Senate candidate. Unanue already had the backing of powerful Republican Chairman George Gilmore, and had won the hearts and minds of the screening committee from his vacation spot in Vail, Colo. via telephone conference.
The committee voted by voice, overwhelmingly ratifying the decision of the screening committee to endorse the man who’s come to be the establishment’s candidate over his two Republican rivals: state Sen. Joe Pennacchio and Ramapo Finance Professor Murray Sabrin.
Pennacchio and Sabrin did not attend.
As is custom at Republican conventions here, only the winner spoke. But since Unanue wasn’t here, he was represented by Bergen County Chairman Rob Ortiz – a close friend who recruited him into this race.
No mention was made of the recent negative stories surrounding Unanue’s brand new candidacy. Instead, Ortiz recounted his having to take time off his MBA program to donate bone marrow to his brother, who had come down with cancer. His brother’s eventual death led Unanue to take a new outlook on life, Ortiz said.
“After that point he knew that he needed to do more not only in business but for people in general,” he said. “So he’s very excited. Thank you for having me this evening and I look forward to talking to you about what we can bring to the table.”
On his way out of the convention, Ortiz said that, although Unanue doesn’t have a residence in New Jersey, he splits time between New York City and Alpine, and has offices for his financial firm in Fort Lee. The spate of attacks and negative stories he’s received this week, Ortiz said, are evidence that Democrats are worried.
“As I recall there wasn’t much talk about Prof. Sabrin and Sen. Pennacchio, and that’s no disrespect to them. I think it shows that they are very concerned and I think the fear they have is a real one –that Andy is going to be able to retire Fran Lautenberg,” he said.
The county committee also re-endorsed all the members of the all-Republican slate of countywide office holders who are up for reelection: Surrogate Jeffrey Moran, Freeholder Joe Vicari and County Clerk Carl Block.
None of those officials expressed any reservations about Unanue’s candidacy.
“If that’s all that’s going to come out for the Democrats to throw against him in the general election in November, we’re in great shape,” said Gilmore.
Vicari, however, stayed out of Senate endorsements altogether, saying that he was only focused on local issues.
Freeholder Jack Kelly, who’s running for Congress in the third district, blew off the question of Unanue’s residency.
“How long did Hillary Clinton live in New York before she ran for Senate there?” he said.
Meanwhile, Pennacchio Deputy Campaign Manager George Dredden stood in the corner and watched the tidal wave of Unanue support. Dredden said he would have liked to say something on behalf of Pennacchio, who was attending the concurrent Atlantic County Republican convention, but wouldn’t argue with the rules.
“Every chairman has every right to run their organizations the way they choose. Of course we would always like to speak,” he said.
But although the county committee’s mind was already clearly made up, the seeds of one more candidacy were apparent.
John Blakeslee, an 18-year-old Holmdel High School Senior, was trying to gather signatures on a petition for potential candidate John Crowley. Explaining to a group of committeemen and women that there was a book about Crowley starting a company and raising $100 million to find a cure for his childrens' Pompe disease, he was not met with an impassioned response.
“Is that the guy we just voted on?” asked one county committeewoman.