State Assembly candidate Joseph Caruso said that he and his running mate, Anthony Rottino, have raised about $100,000 for their primary bid in District 40.
While it may not be a lot compared to the amount spent in other campaigns across the state, it could be enough to run a competitive race in what will likely be a low turnout primary.
Caruso and Rottino are taking on Assemblymen Scott Rumana (R-Wayne) and Dave Russo (R-Ridgewood), who have also raised about $100,000 so far, in a campaign that parallels a fight for control of the Republican Party in Passaic County.
One week after his Assembly primary, Rumana will compete for reelection to his post as Chairman of the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization (PCRRO) against a yet-to-be-determined challenger fielded by the splinter group GOP Strong. Potential candidates include GOP Strong co-chair Mike Ramaglia and former West Milford Councilman Carmen Scangarello.
Despite running on the anti-Rumana line (With the slogan "Passaic County Republican Organization" as opposed to the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization) and saying he would like to see Rumana replaced as chairman, Caruso insists that he is his own man, and that his primary challenge is not playing second fiddle to the battle for control of the PCRRO – even if Rumana sees it that way.
"It seems to me… that to the detriment of his own running mate, Scott is more concerned with his chairman's race than being an official in the Assembly," said Caruso.
But some of Rumana's allies think that is the right strategy. They call Caruso's challenge a kamikaze mission to unbalance Rumana and make it easier for the rebels to take over the party the following week. Rumana's supporters point to what they say will be a supermajority coming out towns like Wayne and Oakland, which will make his margins almost impossible to overcome.
Republican consultant Thom Ammirato, who works on Caruso's campaign, countered that Rumana's supporters have created a false aura of invincibility around him because he has had to face few competitive elections.
"There's this myth that they want to create around Scott Rumana being unbeatable, but that myth has never been tested. It will be tested this year… The one campaign where he ran for freeholder reelection in 2000, he lost." he said. "The fact of the matter is that people are discounting that Joe Caruso also lives in Wayne and is active in the community."
Although Rumana was in a competitive legislative race in District 40 two years ago, Ammirato argued that Rumana and Russo were overshadowed by the state Senate contest between then-Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole (R-Cedar Grove) and Todd Caliguire. And while he faced a tough race for reelection to the freeholder board in 2007, one year after being appointed, Rumana's critics charge that he managed to win while his running mates lost because of bullet voting (Rumana said that the claim was the "oldest lie in the book.").
Moreover, Caruso supporters say he'll cut into Rumana's base in the Packanack Lake section of Wayne, where both live. Rottino, who currently lives in Franklin Lakes, was raised in Wayne.
Rumana did run in a competitive primary for mayor of Wayne in 2001, when he ousted incumbent Republican Judy Orson. It was during that race that former Passaic County Republican Chairman Peter Murphy was indicted, forcing Rumana – who had Murphy's support to take out Orson – to distance himself from Murphy. That helped trigger the schism playing out today.
Murphy, who was convicted of corruption in 2001, co-founded the splinter group that's vying for control of the party today.
Caruso, however, denied that his campaign has anything to do with the Passaic County strife.
"He's attempted to make ties between me and Peter Murphy, which is the most asinine comment from somebody who has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands by Peter Murphy, whose political career was started by Peter Murphy at the time that he was committing the crimes that he did," said Caruso.
Caruso denies any collusion whatsoever with GOP Strong, instead contending that he was motivated to run by a perceived lack of Republican leadership in Trenton.
"We need sweeping change in Trenton, and people are waiting for fiscal conservatives tot take the helm. They're tired of lawyers and politicians. They're looking for business people," he said.
Rottino, for his part, said that "if Peter Murphy and Scott Rumana have their differences, it has nothing to do with me."
A former friend of Rumana's who helped some of his former campaigns, Rottino, who owns two Harley dealerships and a Golds Gym, said he watched Rumana change as he worked his way up the political ladder
"He wasn't approachable," said Rottino. He likes to portray himself as everybody’s candidate. I lived in Wayne for 32 years….I watched some of the things that happened, got frustrated and said, 'You know what? I think I can do better.'"
Rumana said Caruso's claim to have nothing to do with GOP Strong is false.
"If you believe that, you believe the world is flat," he said.
Rumana said that he has never taken campaigns for granted, though he expressed confidence about running on the same line with Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Chris Christie, who he expects to get about 70% of the vote in the primary. Caruso is running with Christie rival Steve Lonegan and GOP Strong's candidates in Passaic County.
"They claim to be conservative. You can't be conservative and side with a convicted felon," said Rumana.
Rumana is also challenging GOP Strong's use of the Passaic County Republican Organization slogan in court, arguing that it is intended to confuse voters.
Russo, who's from Bergen County, finds himself a potential victim to Republican infighting in his neighboring county's party. But he does not fault Rumana for it, since two years ago a schism in Bergen County dragged Rumana into a primary.
"It's unfortunate, but those things happen, and I would hope that some point the two sides come together," he said. "It's the only way we'll be successful in Passaic County."