Ortiz faces two challengers for chairmanship tomorrow

Immediately after Rob Ortiz was elected to preside over the beleaguered Bergen County Republican Organization ten months ago, he told the party rank and file not to expect any miracles.

While Bob Yudin and Ben Focarino did not expect divine intervention, the two believe that Ortiz has failed to deliver on last summer's campaign promises, and both are competing with him for the party's top post tomorrow night.

But, that spot might not be an enviable position to be in.

Since the 1990s, the local Republican Party has become a shadow of its former self. They have gone from controlling the county to holding only just one county-wide office: county clerk. Under the command of Chairman Joe Ferriero, Democrats have developed a near strangle-hold on Bergen politics, using demographics that are shifting in their favor and Ferriero's fundraising prowess to install a Democratic county executive, a Democratic sheriff and an entirely Democratic freehold board.

Now that Ferriero is under investigation by the feds for his stake in a grant writing business that was hired by some Bergen County towns, the Democratic Party is enmeshed its own civil war. Republicans, however, are in no position to capitalize on the Democrats' woes – something that Ortiz's opponents blame partially on him.

Ortiz campaigned last year on his ability to raise money and has pulled the Republican Party out of debt – even if the party coffers are far from flush. And Ortiz touts local pickups in several Bergen County municipalities last November, even after just three months in office. But that's not enough for Yudin and Focarino, who feel that Ortiz has turned inward to a small circle of advisors and hold that, while Republicans made progress in some local towns, it was in spite of – not because of – Ortiz.

The election will be held tomorrow evening at the BCRO's headquarters in Hackensack. If no candidate wins over 50% of the vote, a runoff between the two leading vote-getters will be held next week.

Stung by what he saw as neglect from the county organization for his freeholder race, Yudin began considering a bid for chairman almost as soon as the election was over.

"No one wanted Rob to succeed more than me," said Yudin, who ran his third and final unsuccessful freeholder bid last year. "When he was running, every place he spoke he talked about how he raised six figures for Giuliani, Kean, Jr., Forrester… When we had our freeholder race we got nothing for him until the last week from the campaign when he did a targeted mailing and a week of radio."

But it was the turn of events in the Republican U.S. Senate race ultimately convinced him. Just after Anne Estabrook had dropped out, the BCRO voted to endorse state Sen. Joe Pennacchio for the position. Ortiz, while leaving Pennacchio on the Bergen County line, played a key role in fielding a new Republican candidate by recruiting his friend and client Andy Unanue to run an ill-fated, three-week long campaign. Ortiz, who sat on Unanue's committee on vacancies, then helped pick former Rep. Dick Zimmer to replace him after he dropped out.

"I feel that was just grounds alone for (Ortiz) to not be re-elected," said Yudin.

According to Yudin, merely leaving Pennacchio on the county line did not fulfill Ortiz's obligation to the county's chosen candidate. He should have worked on Pennacchio's behalf, but instead filled in as a surrogate for Unanue at Republican county conventions across the state.

"He has a moral and ethical obligation not only to give (Pennacchio) the line, but to actively support that individual," he said.

Focarino also said he's disappointed that the party remains low on cash. But one of his primary reasons for running is that the promised "triumvirate" between last year's three chairman candidates – himself, Ortiz and Bill Thomson – never materialized. During the campaign, all three promised to work together no matter who won. But Focarino said that he hasn't been given the opportunity.

"Rob went on and apparently felt like he could do it on its own," said Focarino. "Even though he is espousing the fact that we may be out of debt… He has raised some money, but by the same token we haven't been able to run any good campaigns."

Ortiz has also seen his circle of friends grow smaller. Joe Caruso, a Passaic County native who runs the Republican activist group Red Faction and who played a role in Ortiz's rise to the position last year, has chosen to officially sit this one out – although some would say he tacitly supports Yudin.

"I thought he as chairman would be new blood, would reinvigorate the party. I thought he was younger and that we need to address openly the Hispanic community," said Caruso. "At the end of the day, where has been the outreach to the Hispanic community?"

Republican pundit/blogger George Ajjan, who set up Ortiz's campaign Web site last year, has begun working for Yudin (the old URL to Ortiz's 2007 campaign Web site now leads to Yudin's).

Another prominent Republican, state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, came out this year in support of Yudin, even though he remained neutral in last year's race.

Most recently, Ortiz was at the center of a mini-controversy when the BCRO's election committee voted not to extend tomorrow night's election to 10:30 p.m. to accommodate Orthodox Jewish members, who observe the holiday of Shavuot until sundown. Yudin criticized Ortiz both for not showing up and for having a surrogate, BCRO Executive Director Matt Mowers, cast a vote against the extension.

Ortiz said that he did not show up because his child was being baptized, and that keeping the polls open until 8:00 p.m. was following the state's statute.

Ortiz said that he has delivered on the fundraising front during his short time in office.

"I think we've raised close to $200,000, or right over $200,000. And that's in 10 months in an off-cycle year," he said. "This is the presidential year. Now we're really going to start ramping up our fundraising."

Ortiz said that Focarino has been a "gentleman" so far, but that he doesn't understand why he says that he hasn't reached out to him for help. The two have had multiple conversations about Focarino's role in the party, he said, while Bill Thomson has been too busy lobbying on behalf of veterans in Trenton to play an active role.

Ortiz reserves his strongest criticism for Yudin.

"At the end of the day, the majority of the Republican County Committee sees that we have made incredible progress over the last 10 months," he said. "But there are a certain few individuals who are trying to put themselves before the party, and it's all about ego, which I understand is going to be part of politics."

Ortiz faces two challengers for chairmanship tomorrow