DENVER – When people ask him if he’s a mountain man – one of those hard right warriors from Northwestern Jersey, Assemblyman Rick Merkt (R-Randolph) responds that he’s "more of a foothill guy."
Whatever the colloquialism, Merkt said today that he is very serious about trying to climb over the obstacles to challenge Gov. Jon Corzine. Tomorrow he will officially establish an exploratory committee toward that end.
How serious is he?
"I will not seek re-election to the Assembly," said the 11-year legislative veteran, a corporate attorney with TDI Power in Hackettstown.
"This is no trial balloon," Merkt said. "I’ve been considering this for a number of months, and I am convinced that New Jersey needs a governor who respects the people."
A supporter of Roe v. Wade, intends the focus of his campaign to be restoring fiscal discipline in Trenton.
"Fixing the state’s troubled finances has to be our first priority," said the assemblyman. "We can’t continue to spend more than we take in. Fair schools funding is essential to stabilizing property taxes, we need equal access to state aid for all communities, and we need an absolute ban at the state level on borrowing without voter approval."
Other Republican names frequently mentioned as gubernatorial candidates include former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and Princeton businessman John Crowley.
Then there’s the presumptive establishment favorite, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, whom Merkt called personally to tell of his own plans regarding going for governor.
"I gave him a courtesy call," said Merkt. "Obviously he was limited in what he could say in terms of politics, but he was very gracious. I just want to make sure people have a choice.
"I know Chris Christie quite well. I know Steve Lonegan. I don’t know John Crowley, but I look forward to meeting him," Merkt added. "They are all good people, and they are all bringing strengths to the party. I come at this from the vantage point of someone who has been inside the beast."
The assemblyman also left a phone message for Lonegan as of late Wednesday but has not yet talked to him.
Merkt identifies three significant challenges if he runs: the fact that his name identification is not great outside of his legislative district, the money factor, and organization.
"This is going to be a huge undertaking, with many hurdles," he said.
His proudest accomplishment, which he identifies as a goal achieved collectively by the legislature last year, was blocking Corzine’s proposals to sell or lease the toll roads.