BOONTON – District 25 Assembly candidate Doug Cabana says the holidays shouldn’t be about politics so much as spending time with family.
But when Cabana last month sat down to Thanksgiving dinner across a table of family fellowship, the Morris County freeholder couldn’t avoid looking into the eyes of his chief political rival in District 25: Tony Bucco, Jr., husband to his only sister, Amy.
“I spent Thanksgiving at their house,” Cabana said.
"Doug and his parents have come to our house every year for Thanksgiving," said Bucco. "The way I see it, family is family and politics is politics. So when this Thanksgiving rolled around, it was no different. We had family and football."
There will likely be a few more weeks of these encounters, of tearing into gifts and food.
Then the campaigns of Bucco and Cabana will tear into each other, as most political insiders see the two men as chief combatants in the fight to succeed retiring Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham).
Maybe more Republican candidates will attempt to seize the vacant seat to represent the 17 towns in this north country of the 25th, including GOP strongholds Morris TownshIp , Rockaway , Roxbury , Denville, and Randolph.
But whatever happens, this one’s likely to be all about Cabana – former Boonton Township mayor, municipal prosecutor and long-serving freeholder – against Bucco, another Boonton Township resident, son of the state senator with the same name and municipal attorney – against Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morristown).
"We pride ourselves on an open primary in Morris County," said Bucco.
Cabana's already been there.
So no one doubted his next move when Morris County Republicans received the late summer announcement by Merkt that he would not be running again for the Assembly so he could pursue a shot at governor.
Having failed in a 2003 bid against Carroll and Merkt, Cabana still nursed an interest in Trenton.
With a seat opening up, now was his time.
He said what he didn’t anticipate, however, was his brother-in-law’s mutual interest in the seat.
Merkt made newsaround the time ofthe Democratic National Convention when he said he was starting a statewide exploratory committee. As Cabanaprepared to go after what Merkt was leaving behind, the young Bucco reached out to him.
“He called me and told me he was running,” said Cabana, who professed surprise.
Bucco and Cabana then released separate statements announcing their respective candidacies.
For his part, Bucco said hismove should havecaused no big shock factor.
"I toyed with running going back to 1999," said the senator's son. "Everybody knew at some point in the future that I would run."
Tomorrow, on the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 3, Bucco intends to officially kick off his candidacy at the Boonton Elk Club by collecting nonperishable foods, which will be distributed to local food banks.
He wants to join the likes of Tom Kean, Alison McHose, Bernie Kenny, Kip Bateman, Leonard Lance, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Christopher J. Connors, and others who followed their powerful fathers into Statehouse politics.
At his point at least, the six-term veteran Merkt won't make an endorsement.
"I think you have a bonafide three-man race here," he said. "I will say this. I'm pretty good friends with Doug, and I have been Michael Patrick Carroll's running mate going back years. I have made no decision… Putting it simply, I'm focusing on my own race."
But some key Republicans are eager to reward good soldier Cabana for what they see as a job well done since he first won election to the freeholder board 11 years ago.
“I’m fully supporting Doug,” Freeholder Jack Schrier said of Cabana, who on Monday received a service award in Trenton from the New Jersey Association of Counties (NJAC). “He’s smart and I like him. He has a lot of ability.”
Schrier’s especially happy this time to back his colleague for the Assembly, since he fel
t bad in 2003 when Cabana asked him for his support and Schrier couldn’t back him for what he says was a very specific reason.
Schrier’s from Mendham, and he didn’t want to pick against Merkt, who’s also from Mendham.
Cabana told Schrier he didn’t expect to beat Merkt but the harder-right Carroll.
Still, Schrier worried that Cabana could pick off the wrong guy – and so he stayed out of the contest.
One interestingelement hereinvolves yet another Mendham politician: former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, whom sources say is legitimately plunged inthemiddle of six-weeksof soul-searchingconcerning whether or not he will seek the Republican nomination for governor.
Fellow law and order man, Morris County Sheriff Ed Rochford, happens to serve on Bucco, Jr.'s Assembly campaign, and could have a significant inwith Christie if Christie runs – and if sides start forming later in the primary contest.
A former Morris Countyfreeholder, GOP establishment darling Christie's moreobvious political ambitionsgoing back years left some of his freeholder colleagues cold -even if theygrudgingly have come to stand in awe of his accomplishments as U.S. Attorney.
If Bucco and a Rochford-coaxed Christie team up, their pairing could help Bucco.But such a tandemcouldalsofurther chillChristie amongother members of the county politicalcircuit besides Bucco supporters Rochford and County Clerk Joan Bramhall.
Now whoever wins the June 2nd primary in District 25 – and doubtfully but conceivably Bucco and Cabana could both defeat the fiercely independent-minded Carroll as the primary race among three men is for two Assembly seats – Team GOP is likely to stomp on whomever the Democrats decide to run in the general election.
Just look at the history.
“In 207 years, the Democratic Party in Morris County has elected seven Democrats to the Legislature,” said former state Sen. Gordon MacInnes.
He ought to know. He was one of them.
Considering just this century and the last, “The Democrats won legislative races in 1911, 1971, 1973, 1977, and 1993, and in most every case, it was because there were problems with Republicans,” said MacInnes, who in 1993 beat incumbent Sen. John Dorsey.
In 1911, crusading gubernatorial candidate Woodrow Wilson pulled his party with him out of unlikely, far-flung pockets such as Morris County. The 1970s saw Watergate-bitten Republicans further hobbled by local scandals to spark a short-lived run for the Democrats.
After Dorsey abused senatorial courtesy, MacInnes tried to get something going by defeating him by a couple of hundred votes out of 70,000 cast.
The Democrat lost in his next election to the senior Bucco, dean of the Morris County’s senate delegation.
If the long-serving, 70-year old senator’s son fails to defeat Cabana, the question then is whether Morris County Republicans will conclude that the senior Bucco is vulnerable to a 2011 primary challenge and either frighten him out of office or watch him dig in for a fight.
Where Cabana will stand if that happens is another interesting question.
For now, he must confront Caroll again – and the younger Bucco.
Their mutual family holiday obligations over the course of the next three weeks will be behind them in the New Year when Cabana officially kicks off his own campaign to meet the already charging Bucco.
“There are going to be challenges in keeping the balance,” Cabana said. “I love my sister and I’m not going to let politics get in the middle. I believe I have the credentials to win. I won’t compromise that. But I’m also not going to compromise my relationship with my sister.”