Our first list of New Jersey’s Best Political Operatives, from March 2000:
March 9, 2000
NEW JERSEY’S BEST
New Jersey is one of just five states that hold major elections every year, and as a result of the constant level of political activity, there is no shortage of political personnel to assist with every aspect of campaign management. Narrowing the list requires a definition of a political operative, since many people in a variety of different fields could be labeled as operatives. For the purpose of this list, we have chosen to include only those individuals who, over the past few years, have concentrated their efforts on one particular candidate or for a political party organization. No County Chairmen, State Chairmen or elected officials were considered for this list. We have not included pure consultants or former operatives who have since found more lucrative pastures, who are likely to be the subject of a future essay. We looked for people who operate within the political structure with skill and success. People who get the joke. Here’s our list, ten Democrats and ten Republicans, in alphabetical order:
As the Deputy Communications Director for Governor Christine Todd Whitman, some believe Rich Ambrosino to be the top political operative on the Governor’s staff. Ambrosino was the Deputy Campaign Manager for Whitman’s 1997 re-election campaign and is a former Political Director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee. He has developed a reputation as someone who knows how to cut to the chase, put the interests of his candidate ahead of his own, and has a reputation for being detail oriented and one of the best shmoozers in the political business.
Steve Ayscue is the Political Director of Jim Florio’s campaign for U.S. Senate, and was formerly the Executive Director of the Camden County Democratic Organization, where he played a major role in wrestling control from the Republicans and restoring Camden to a one-party Democratic majority. People take their politics seriously in Camden County, never hesitating to play hardball, and Ayscue emerged with the respect of his party as a top tactician and never-say-die player. He has a strong understanding of the concept that in politics you’re either a winner or a loser. Ayscue plays to win.
An inside player in Essex County politics and a top advisor to Essex County Democratic Chairman Thomas Giblin, Tom Barrett has made his mark as a master of spin. One of the few old school operatives who had made the transition to modern politics, Tom Barrett may be the oldest person in a business dominated by Generation X’ers, but his ability to craft a message and work the smoke filled rooms of Essex County politics to ensure the best possible result for his candidate.
While some may dispute the presence of a former State Treasurer, attorney and business executive on a list of political operatives, Berman’s service over the last eighteen months as campaign manager for Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign earns him a place on the best operatives list. Berman was Deputy Campaign Manager for Bradley’s first Senate race in 1978, Campaign Manager for his 1984 re-election campaign, and Campaign Manager for Jim Florio’s successful 1989 gubernatorial campaign. He spent 22 years as one of Bill Bradley’s most trusted political operatives, and for a short period not too long ago, some political pundits thought Berman might just have been guiding Bradley right into the White House.
Now making the transition to the world of political consultancy, Tom Blakely makes our list because of the number of campaigns he has directed over the last few years. He managed Dick Zimmer’s Senate race (which wasn’t his fault), and Jim Treffinger’s campaign for County Executive (which was), and along the way served in a top Whitman Administration post. Blakely is considered a master strategist who runs a campaign with a complete handle on each and every detail and understands how to see a campaign’s big picture without losing site of the needs of local personalities.
After ten years as the chief political advisor to the Senate President, Kevin Davis is about to embark on the pursuit of the greatest prize in New Jersey politics as Don DiFrancesco prepares to run for Governor. Davis is strong at developing long-term relationships and leveraging them to benefit his candidate. Unlike most operatives who move from candidate to candidate, Davis has chosen to stay with one person and help manage their career on a long-term basis. He excels at grass roots politics and some say there is no better operative at a political convention than Davis.
As Bob Torricelli’s longtime top aide and strategist, Jamie Fox has long been a behind the scenes power in New Jersey politics, and served on the staffs of Frank Lautenberg and Jim Florio. He is now the Executive Director of the Democratic Senatorial Committee in Washington, where he is working to win a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, but he keeps a firm grip in New Jersey. Fox is a tough and spirited competitor and a top-flight administrator who often has impressed others with his ability to find workable solutions to very real campaign problems.
A former top staffer to Senator Frank Lautenberg, Steve Goldstein is now the Co-Campaign Manager for Jon Corzine’s Senate campaign. He has a reputation for acting in a highly professional manner and while he is not known for his subtly, he is well liked by staff members who have worked with and for him in the past. Goldstein is driven by a desire to win, and has strong organizational and communication talents that have made him a strong political tactician. He has good instincts and judgment and can keep his cool under pressure.
MARY ANNIE HARPER
Mary Annie Harper has been the architect of Frank LoBiondo’s campaigns since his days as a Cumberland County Freeholder and is Chief of Staff in his congressional office. Harper is a tough manager who works people hard and gets results, and has the best handle on local politics of any South Jersey Republican operative. She is known in political circles as a workaholic who is fiercely loyal to LoBiondo and extraordinarily focused on his political career. She often speaks frankly and bluntly, but is well respected for her personal integrity and partisanship.
Starting out with Cary Edwards in 1993, Rocco Iossa impressed the Whitman team enough for them to bring him on after the primary. After several years dolling out state appointments on the Governor’s staff, he became Executive Direct
or of the Republican State Committee during the 1997 campaign, and is now the day-to-day manager of George W. Bush’s New Jersey campaign. Iossa knows how to play the inside game and has a definite talent as an organizational tactician. He can play tough when he has too, and his intelligence takes him a long way in the political business.
Rita Kirk is the Vice Chairwoman of the Bergen County Republican Organization, and a top local operative who ran the campaign that defended the Republican majority on the Bergen County Freeholder Board despite a $1 million Democratic campaign. She keeps on message, keeps the party faithful in line, and demands that the stakeholders in Bergen County produce results. She makes our list for being a solid, in-the-trenches leader who maximizes the production of the party organization.
As a top staffer for Senator Bob Torricelli and a former top aide to Jim McGreevey, Frank Lautenberg and state Treasurer Douglas Berman, Rich McGrath is one of the best spinners in New Jersey politics, demonstrating considerable discipline and extensive knowledge. McGrath understands how to think before he speaks, often a rare quality in political campaigns, and enjoys a good working relationship with New Jersey reporters. He has built an outstanding reputation as an articulate spokesman who can succeed at making his candidate look good.
The Deputy Camden County Clerk, Camden Democratic Party treasurer and a Berlin Councilman, Chris Morris served as Executive Director of the Camden Democratic Party and is a consummate political insider with a reputation for being results oriented and accepting no nonsense in the management of a political operation. Morris is one of the people whose insistence of total party loyalty allows the powerful Camden Democratic organization to operate as efficiently and successfully as it does.
As one of the state’s senior political operatives, Bill Palatucci managed campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George Bush in New Jersey and is a top advisor to Bergen County Executive Pat Schuber, former Governor Tom Kean and GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush. Palatucci organized the pilgrimages made by New Jersey political leaders to Austin over the last two years that enabled “doubleya” to claim an early organizational edge in New Jersey. Palatucci isn’t the type of guy who is loved by all, but he consistently remains on top of the game with an almost uncanny knack for sensing opportunities before others can.
WILLIAM PASCRELL III
Bill Pascrell grew up in politics, the son of a Congressman, State Assemblyman, Mayor of Paterson, and Democratic County Chairman. He served as an Assistant Counsel to Governor Jim Florio, as Chief of Staff to Congressman Herb Klein, and now as a Trenton lobbyist. Some of his peers consider him a bit ruthless, but he is intelligent and committed to winning. Pascrell’s chief function is as the head of his father’s political organization, which seems ready to embark upon a campaign for Governor next year.
Julie Roginsky ran Frank Pallone’s 1998 re-election campaign, directed the 1999 Democratic Assembly campaign that picked up three legislative seats, and was recently tabbed as the Democratic State Committee’s top strategist on redistricting. As a political operative, Roginsky has developed a strong reputation for hard work, dedication, and a commitment to her own ideology, and is fiercely partisan. She is also known as a tough and to-the-point leader with an outstanding ability to complete projects thoroughly and thoughtfully.
Charlie Smith has been Campaign Manager of two U.S. Senate races this cycle: first for Christie Whitman, and since her exit from the race, for Bob Franks. He was the Political Director of the Republican State Committee and a top aide to Governor Whitman. Smith is one of the best operatives of either party when it comes to dealing with people at the grass roots level, but can be intense and driven when he needs to be. He is a process-oriented manager who puts a high value on developing and implementing a campaign plan.
As the Executive Director of the Democratic State Committee, Rick Thigpen was charged with rebuilding a state party nearly decimated by an unpopular Governor. Thigpen rose to the occasion and helped repair relationships with coalitions of great importance to the Democratic Party. Thigpen proved to be an articulate spokesman for Democratic causes, and a cautious decision-maker that carefully protected the interests of Democratic candidates. He has the ear of many key insiders in the Democratic Party who respects his leadership and integrity.
As Assembly Speaker Jack Collins’ top political advisor, Patrick Torpey directed recent campaigns to maintain Republican control of the Assembly, and is now tasked with organizing the Speaker’s bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2001. Torpey is considered competent and personable, with the ability to find an effective middle ground between caution and risk. He is adept at understanding the big picture of political campaigns and their long-term impact on state politics. Torpey has a genuine talent for implementing tactics in an expedient and thorough manner.
Tom Wilson served as Executive Director of the Republican State Committee before becoming Campaign Manager of Christie Whitman’s 1997 re-election campaign. He took a political risk in heading up John McCain’s presidential campaign and built a respectable organization. Wilson has an easygoing temperament, an unusual trait for a battle-scared political veteran, and has a particular talent for campaign communications and media relations. In political circles, Wilson is respected for the accuracy of his opinions and his willingness to take a chance, is well liked by operatives from both parties.