Robert Ortiz’s reign as Bergen County Republican Chairman came to an end tonight, just 11 months after he took the helm of this beleaguered party.
The victory for Bob Yudin, 69, was the conclusion of a particularly nasty and hard fought battle, but Yudin sought to start the process of unifying the party immediately.
“No recriminations. None,” said Yudin in his victory speech. “This is about all of us getting together, and uniting as one Bergen County Republican Organization.”
Yudin won with 412 votes to Ortiz’s 317.
Yudin acknowledged that the party has seen better days, and said that local Republicans need to face the facts that elections won’t be won by huge margins. Instead, he talked up building the party from a local level on up – the same philosophy that helped bring Ortiz to victory last year.
“I’m very confident in my ability to captain the Titanic around the iceberg, and I’m going to work very hard to bring the S.S. Bergen County Republican Ship into port,” he said. “We have an enormous amount of work to do. A house is not built from the top down. A house is built from the foundation up.”
In calling for unity, Yudin said that he would talk with Ortiz to come up with a significant position for him I the party. He even made some remarks that some county committee members saw as an acknowledgement that he may support Ortiz for the chairmanship sometime in the future.
“I really am 69 years old and I’m not going to stay forever,” said Yudin, who plans to devote himself full-time to the job. “So I want to say to Rob that I want you to stay and be active.”
Yudin, in his first order of business, made the surprise move of appointing Republican activist Joe Caruso as the party’s new finance chairman. Caruso, who lives in Passaic County, was instrumental in getting Ortiz elected last summer, but frustrated with a perceived lack of input, switched over to support Yudin.
Tonight’s results were the culmination of a fall from grace for Ortiz, 36, a former fundraiser for George W. Bush who was considered a rising star in the party when he was first elected last July. His loss tonight can be traced to several political missteps that galvanized opposition by some of his former supporters and at least one prominent politician who remained neutral last year: state Sen. Gerald Cardinale.
In his concession speech, Ortiz congratulated Yudin and asked his supporters to rally around him.
Ortiz acknowledged that one of the main reasons he lost was his recruitment of Andy Unanue, a friend and client, to run for U.S. Senate after the BCRO had given state Sen. Joe Pennacchio the county line. That candidacy lasted three weeks before revelations about Unanue’s work history and residency derailed it.
“I’m pretty sure I expended a lot of political capital on that, and hindsight is 20/20.” said Ortiz. “But at the end of the day, he was a friend and he wanted to get into the races.”
Cardinale cited several other missteps, like the failure to get last year’s District 37 legislative candidates enough $10 donations to qualify for public funding under the Clean Elections program, and a slow start getting to work after Ortiz was initially elected. Other critics pointed to unwanted robo-calls in the non-partisan Ridgewood council races last month, and Ortiz’s devotion of party resources to Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign.
“It was obvious that he didn’t have a concept of what the job entails,” said Cardinale.
Before the results were in, Ortiz supporters cast the race as between the old guard and the new guard. Anthony Attanasio, a 27-year-old Union County resident who managed Kate Whimtan’s congressional campaign, said that Yudin supporters expected too much, too soon from Ortiz.
“Some guy just walked up to me before and said ‘Ortiz has done nothing for the party. Raising $200,000 in 10 months and having a net gain of 19 council seats is nothing?,” he said.
Former Bergen County Utilities Authority Chairman Ben Focarino, who was knocked out in last week’s election and then endorsed Yudin, said that the party’s internal divisions will heal shortly. Before the results were in, Focarino said that Yudin would bring activists from “different paths” to the party, and that Ortiz could learn from the experience.
“He’s probably learned more in the last 10 days than he has in the last 10 months.”