The newest recipient of the Neil Romano Award for scamming a Bergen County political organization goes to Carmen Pio Costa, who convinced Republicans to nominate him for State Assembly in the potentially competitive 36th district by promising to raise money from his wealthy family. For the second consecutive cycle, Pio Costa, the son of a millionaire developer/philanthropist from Morris County, has not come through; his individual and joint accounts show about $7,500 raised.
The last winner of the Neil Romano Award was Democrat Paul Stuart Aronsohn in his 2006 campaign for Congress.
One of the legendary scams in Bergen County politics came in 1984, when Republicans were considering candidates to take on newly-elected Democratic Congressman Robert Torricelli. Torricelli had won the seat two years earlier, when he ousted three-term GOP incumbent Harold Hollenbeck by a 53%-46% margin. The political climate in 1982 (and congressional redistricting in the 9th) favored Democrats and Torricelli leveraged the national contacts he made working for Vice President Walter Mondale and running Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign in Illinois to help him raise $266,000 — about $70,000 more than Hollenbeck had.
Ronald Reagan’s popularity heading into the 1984 election, and a new congressional map (the ’82 redistricting plan was tossed by federal judges), gave Republicans reason to believe Torricelli could be beaten. The 9th district went strongly for Reagan, giving him a 59%-41% win over Mondale — a plurality of almost 47,000 votes.
Party leaders had several attractive candidates, including newly-elected Assemblyman William “Pat” Schuber and Bergen County Sheriff William McDowell, but decided to go with a unknown insider, Romano, who had served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee in the late 1970’s. Romano appeared before the Bergen GOP screening committee and sold them on his ability to raise money — saying that wealthy family members and politically connected friends would provide him with a hefty campaign war chest — the type of money a challenger would need to take on Torricelli.
The problem for the Bergen GOP is that they were scammed. Romano had practically no capacity to raise money and the personal wealth he pledged just wasn’t there. The lethargic Romano raised just $89,166 — giving Torricelli an almost 6-1 edge in fundraising. Torricelli won a second term with 63% of the vote, with Romano running more than 60,000 votes behind the top of the ticket.
Aronsohn pledged to spend $2 million to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Wantage). He had some high profile fundraisers headlined by Democrats like like former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, but never made it onto the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s target list. When then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanual came to New Jersey, it was to help Linda Stender, who was running in the seventh district against Michael Ferguson, not Aronsohn. In the end, Aronsohn raised $554,555 and got 40% of the vote.