In 2007, political novices Don Diorio and Carmen Pio Costa were largely overlooked in District 36 until after Election Day, when they surprised by coming relatively close to beating the Democratic incumbents, Fred Scalera (D-Nutley) and Gary Schaer (D-Passaic).
Now, with East Rutherford Councilman Joel Brizzi making an unexpected exit from the Assembly race, Diorio appears ready once again to join forces with Pio Costa for a rematch against Scalera and Schaer. Only this time, state Republicans say they are going to play in the district in a major way, making it one of their most targeted races.
At the moment, Diorio appears to be the favorite to win the backing of the Republican chairs from the three counties that comprise the district: Bergen, Essex and Passaic.
In District 36, county chairmen alone appoint candidates to their county lines, without holding special conventions.
Sources also raise the names of East Rutherford Councilman Tom Banca and Rutherford Councilwoman Rose Inguanti, although it’s not clear if they are interested.
Reached for comment today, Diorio said that he has not yet formally agreed to run, but added “I’m interested, and that’s the way I’m leaning.”
Diorio pointed out that two years ago, he was a virtual unknown, having never run for elected office and only filling in that August for Aileen Vitale, who won the GOP primary as a write-in candidate and then dropped out.
Last year, however, Diorio won a seat on the Carlstadt Board of Education. And while Diorio is once again a replacement candidate, he has more time to pound the pavement.
“That’s the key, right there — more time,” said Diorio. “Personally I’m thinking that we should spend more time connecting with folks in the district. There are many more opportunities to be out there in the public eye, knocking on doors talking to people.”
Diorio came within 2,424 votes of unseating Schaer in 2007. After seeing those results, some Republicans chastised the state party for ignoring the district until the very end of the campaign, when they paid for a couple mailers.
“Hindsight is 20/20, and we need to look forward,” said consultant Mark Duffy, who’s heading up the Assembly Republicans’ political arm this year. “We think that’s a top tier offensive district, and we expect to pour a credible amount of resources because we believe we can win.”
Monmouth University pollster and political science professor Patrick Murray wasn’t so certain about that. He said that last year’s results may have been close because of the impact of the scandals surrounding the EnCap development – issues which may not turn out to have as much relevance this time around.
“I think that the Republicans can keep it somewhat competitive, but I don’t really see it going over to the Republican side as it stands right now. These races are always local,. Not about what’s going on in the state, not about some trend predictor,” he said. “And I don’t see anything going on in the 36th that would put the Democrats in particular jeopardy right now.”
Republican consultant Thom Ammirato, however, said that EnCap remains a major issue in the district, and said the controversial Xanadu development, whose troubles have made headlines lately, will also resonate with voters.
“EnCap is in bankruptcy. It’s taking North Arlington to court. You’ve got the Xanadu mess, and whether or not that will ever open. The promised jobs are never going to materialize. I think you’ve got two assembly candidates who are not addressing those issues,” said Ammirato, who helped run the 2007 Republican campaign. “And I think there’s a lot of unhappiness with Corzine. Pull all that together and it will take a lot of effort and a lot of money.”
But Ammirato doubted that Republicans would really spend the money in the district.
“I don’t know if the party is going to pull it all together and make honest commitments,” he said.