MILLBURN – The Lonegan campaign thought they finally had their opponent where they wanted this afternoon: within striking distance in the polls and by turns sufficiently defensive, pugnacious and softened up for a take down in the plush surroundings of the Short Hills Hilton at a forum sponsored by the New Jersey Federation of Republican Women.
But presumptive GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Chris Christie never showed, opting out of the forum to attend one of his children’s First Holy Communion, and leaving Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham) with the unhappy task of trying to beat up Christie’s surrogate, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Middletown), who wore a friendly smile and came out of his chairwith an even friendlier handshake.
Lonegan was the picture of mortification on one side of Kyrillos, as Merkt on the other side tried to keep his own irritation in check in front of the most sedate of sedate audiences anchored by Federation President Gailanne Barth.
“I want to apologize for being overly aggressive,” Lonegan told seven circular tables filled with mostly older women. “But I have debated Joe Kyrillos more than Chris Christie. At the very least, I hope you all watch our May 12televised debate, where I will prove to you I am the candidate to beat Jon Corzine. And after June 2, all of you out there wearing nice Chris Christie stickers will be tearing them off and replacing them with Steve Lonegan stickers.”
Laboring into the stretch of the campaign’s last four weeks under a self-imposed injunction not to go negative against Christie, Merkt nevertheless couldn’t stem the concern he has with Christie’s latest radio advertisement.
He’s limping badly in third place, but speaks as a faithful – if furrowed brow – Republican in anticipation of Christie versus Gov. Jon Corzine in the event Lonegan fails to upset Christie in the primary.
“He can’t do four fifths of the things he’s promising in that ad,” Merkt said of Christie. “It’s a bit extravagant for him to be predicating his campaign on being a taxcutter, considering how he says he intends to do that. He focuses on the legislative side, and honestly it reflects a lack of understanding of Trenton. He promises the line item veto. All right. I have no problem with that. “But then Chris says he wants to lower the state income tax, and you can only do that with the cooperation of the Senate and Assembly, both of which are controlled by the Democrats. Let’s stop fooling people.
“Then Chris talks about lowering business taxes and lowering taxes and small businesses – again, requiring the cooperation of the Assembly and the Senate,” Merkt added. “Finally, he says he will secure a two thirds legislative majority in order to raises taxes. I’ve been proposing that for years. It’s not going through the legislature. So essentially, four fifths of his campaign is fluff. It may be well-intentioned fluff, but it’s fluff nonetheless.”
At one of his earliest press conferences, Christie, the former U.S. Attorney, announced that he would be able to ramrod a legislative agenda because he’s ‘different.’”
“He’s different in that he hasn’t held elected office in a long time,” Merkt said of his rival, who served a single term on the Morris County Freeholder Board in the 1990s. “My point all along during this campaign is governors don’t do things by themselves except that part of their work that falls within the scope of their office. That’s why when I talk about eliminating COAH (the Council on Affordable Housing) by telling the state treasurer to defund COAH and the same with Abbott, I’m using powers constitutionally vested in the governor’s office to get to the root of the problem. Chris’s entire run for governor is conversely predicated on legislative accomplishments. It simply doesn’t make any sense. This campaign should not be about somebody’s legislative agenda. I would say that I’m different, as I’m the only one who’s distinguishing between what I can do as governor and what I might like to do as a legislator. It’s false advertising to do tell people you’re going to do things you can’t do.”
Although Merkt and Lonegan grudgingly gave Christie the excuse of his son’s First Communion, they couldn’t escape projecting their disappointment that their rival failed to honor the invitation of the federation.
“He (Christie) supports Barack Obama’s income redistribution plan,” Lonegan told PolitickerNJ.com. “The point is he can say I’m not a conservative and I can say he’s not a conservative, but as long as he hides from debates, we won’t have a frank discussion about the issues.”
Kyrillos noted his audience’s sacrifice on a Saturday moments before they pushed back their chairs and headed for the exits.
“Thanks for allowing me to pitch hit for Chris,” the senator told the crowd. “Most citizens are on a soccer field today, or a little league field. You’re here today. This is an extremely important election. New Jersey is so downcast right now. We’ve been on a downward spiral for nearly ten years. This is not the New Jersey that we grew up in, that I was born to. …Chris believes the best social program is a job. …Please get out there and roll up your sleeves.”