SCOTCH PLAINS – There sits Mayor Martin Marks at his desk in Town Hall and he doesn’t look as ruffled as he might.
It’s not that he isn’t in a fight, or unwilling to start a scrap in the lulls that are fewer and fewer now with 14 days to go in this 7th Congressional District Republican Primary. Indeed, the self-described "across the board conservative Republican" seizes every opportunity to bash the record of presumptive frontrunner state Sen. Leonard Lance.
"Nice guy, a gentleman," admits Marks. "But people like Leonard Lance play fast and loose with the term conservative. A moderate? All right. But not conservative. He’s pro choice. And he’s going around bragging that he’s gotten the endorsement of the Sierra Club. That’s not conservative."
He says it, and says it often.
But with an aggressive and financially well-heeled Kate Whitman in the race and churning out a barrage of ads against Lance, Marks claims he won’t need a lot of cash to blast his critique on radio and TV.
The nine-year mayor of this Union County town has $70,000 cash on hand, which he says should be sufficient to effectively play out the contest. He even returned $25,000 of the $75,000 he personally loaned his campaign.
"I don’t need the money to attack, they’re doing it for us," he says of Whitman on one side and Lance and mostly Lance’s cadre of elected official supporters on the other.
He’s also banking on former Summit Council Vice President Kelly Hatfield draining votes from fellow pro choice candidates Lance and Whitman, so that by the time everyone finishes one another off, Marks can sneak through and win.
It’s a little like Thomas Roughneen’s strategy.
Marks waves him off.
"Nice guy, never caught fire," he says of the Iraq War veteran and former Essex County prosecutor who’s trying to gnaw into Marks’s hard-right support. Prodded about Roughneen, the mayor adds, "He voted as a Republican for the first time three months ago. I’ve been a Republican for over 20 years."
Certainly Marks won’t be able to create a blizzard of radio, TV and mail messages around his own message, but with the money he has and the time he has left in this contest, he means to stay on his major theme about how GOP credibility ultimately come downs to ideological integrity.
Marks’s bigger money competitors write him off as a single issue candidate, a primary era animal who might generate some buzz and some special interest bucks with his pro-life position now, but will get pummeled – particularly by women voters roused by a Linda Stender Democratic candidacy – in a general election.
The mayor fronts his socially conservative views, as he did before GOP crowds in the pre-primary with jacket off and sleeves rolled up: against embryonic stem cell research, pro traditional marriage, pro life (which he claims that 12-14% of likely primary voters polled by his campaign called the party’s most critical stand).
He’s mustered support from New Jersey Right to Life, Republican Pro Life and the Catholic Voices Coalition.
But he also stresses other principles and issues usually stoked by conservatives: pro 2nd Amendment, pro crackdown on illegal immigrants, pro permanent Bush tax cuts, pro balanced budget amendment, pro military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Striving for ideological purity, Marks lashes Lance’s Sierra Club credentials to the notion that environmental groups have hindered drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and blocked off-shore oil drilling – in fact increasing America’s dependence on foreign oil.
"We’ve got people out there trying to go to work and facing $4-a gallon for gas," says Marks. "And then we have Leonard Lance co-sponsoring the Highlands Act, which all but confiscates private land."
His ideology is all of a piece, he says again and again. Applied, it works.
"That’s what this race is about," he insists. "It’s not about who’s an insider and who’s not. Kate Whitman never held elected office. Does that make her a political outsider? I suppose. But all of that is not going to be as important as the issues that are important to the people who are going to vote."
A dentist with a daughter in college and son in high school, Marks prides himself on being the lunch bucket guy of the crowded field.
"I work for a living," he dead-pans. "Look, I’m not a career politician. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today. For years, my life has been about juggling four jobs: husband, father, dentist and mayor. Now I’ve added fifth as a candidate for Congress, and it’s come into the mix like a lead shot-put. It’s been taxing physically and emotionally."
He pauses. He doesn’t say the names of Whitman and Lance.
"Are there are days when I wish I could coast based on a family fortune or political pedigree?"
He pauses again.
"No," he says firmly. "Going at it this way just makes me a better person."
There’s a picture on his desk of himself on horseback wearing an 18th Century wig and red coat, and the mayor smiles at the observation that it’s an odd pose for the blue collar guy in the field.
"My first time on a horse, in a movie role," he explains. "They told me they had a role in a local documentary as General Cornwallis and I said, ‘fine,’ because I always wanted to play the bad guy."
For now, he’s going to let Whitman do that in her ads and mail pieces, but Marks hopes to still be in the saddle when the firing stops and everyone else is on the ground.