Passaic GOP prepares to fight for control of Freeholder board

Two nights ago, Passaic County Republicans held a fundraiser at a catering hall in Hawthorne.

Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Wayne), the county GOP chairman, wouldn't say exactly how much was raised. But it was a lot more than what the party was able to scrape together around this time last year, he said.

"It's a much rosier picture than it ever has been in the three years we've been trying to put this party back together. Much rosier than in the last five or six years," said Rumana.

Passaic County Republicans came out of obscurity last month with a stunning sweep of county offices, winning three freeholder seats and the county clerk office. In November, Republicans only need to unseat one of the two Democratic incumbents – Terry Duffy and Pat Lepore – to win control of the freeholder board.

Now that they're in striking distance, the cash is flowing and prospective candidates are lining up, according to Rumana.

"I'm seeing so much interest at this point. It is going to be a great opportunity to sift through and decide what's going to be the best direction for the party to take, as opposed to before when you had to twist someone's arm to run," he said.

But Rumana is keeping quiet about who has expressed interest in running, saying only that he hopes to reach out to the large Hispanic communities in Passaic County's principle cities: Paterson and Passaic.

In addition to the two freeholders,Sheriff Jerry Speziale, a Democrat who has $584,000 in his campaign account, is up for reelection. The name of just one Republican potential candidate to run against him has surfaced: Little Falls Mayor Michael DeFrancisci, a former agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration

DeFrancisci could not be reached for comment.

Although Rumana is elated about his party's triumph, things aren't hunky dory in the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization. Leaders of the splinter group GOP Strong – including former freeholder Michael Mecca and former GOP boss Peter Murphy – have not made peace with Rumana and have not altogether ruled out a primary.

"I wish I had a crystal ball. In a perfect world I'd say we would not, but I honestly don't know," said Mecca. "It always seems like at the last minute there's a monkey wrench thrown into the works."

Rumana gave a peace offering after winning over GOP Strong backed challenges to his chairmanship and assembly seat, saying he would set up four co-chairmanships. But he has since backed off that idea.

"I can't reach out to somebody who decides that they don't want to be a part of the party," he said. "I'm not even focusing on that anymore because we're so far beyond that. Once we won those seats, that's history, and we are going to move far beyond that and keep marching down the road on to victory."

GOP Strong spokesman Thom Ammirato said that Rumana had "no intention of keeping his word," and credited the Republicans' sweep to high turnout in the four towns where his group has a lot of influence and County Clerk-elect Kristin Corrado – a GOP Strong candidate who beat Rumana's candidate in the primary.

Even if Republicans are able to avoid another intra-party fight, 2010 is shaping up to be a tough year. United States Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) is on the ballot, which could help drive turnout in the urban areas better than Gov. Jon Corzine's election effort did. One Republican privately said the party "caught lightning in a bottle" in 2009, and that it might prove a fluke.

"There is luck that goes into any election. Nothing is ever a sure thing," said Rumana. But now perception becomes reality, because the message is resonating out there that we can win. The Democrats are not invincible in Passaic County." Passaic GOP prepares to fight for control of Freeholder board