For a second there, it almost looked as if peace — or some form of it — had befallen Republicans in a historically-fractured 40th legislative district.
The operative word there, of course, is: almost.
With election season now begun in earnest, incumbent Assemblymen Scott Rumana (R-40) and David Russo (R-40) are not only going to face a primary challenge in June after all initial signs showed a smooth, unencumbered path to reelection earlier this year, but are also fighting to retain their ability to run on the party line, after the county organization’s normal nomination process was disputed in court by a Passaic County Republican committeeman from Paterson.
Yesterday, two opponents — John Capo, a former Passaic County freeholder, and Joseph Bubba Jr., the son of former state Senator Joe Bubba — filed to run for the nomination against Rumana and Russo in LD40, while the first ruling by a Superior Court judge in the suit against the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization has temporarily barred any LD40 candidates from running under the organization’s banner.
Right now, it’s unclear how much of a threat the two developments pose for Rumana and Russo, given their relative strength in the district over the last several years. The third ranking Republican in the legislature’s lower chamber and a twelve-term North Jersey representative, respectively, Rumana and Russo have fended off primary challenges before, and although those contest have often turned bloody, the incumbents continue to earn the support of critical party players in North Jersey. The two released a list of endorsements earlier this year, one that included the likes of Governor Chris Christie, Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) and state Senator Kevin O’Toole (R-40).
All four Republican leaders of the counties within the 40th Legislative District – Bergen County Chairman Bob Yudin, Essex County Chairman Al Barlas, Morris County Chairman John Sette, and Passaic County Chairman John Traier – also endorsed Rumana and Russo.
The lawsuit is likely giving the incumbents — and the county organization — more of a headache, but even that might ultimately be more water under the bridge for the party. Last month, William Connolly, a longtime Passaic County Republican committeeman from Paterson, filed a suit with a Superior Court Judge over a last-minute rule change adopted by members of the PCRRO that had required members of the executive committee to vote for two candidates, rather than just one, for the LD40 slate. Connolly voted only for one — Capo — and his ballot was subsequently thrown out.
The first ruling in the suit favored Connolly, with the judge issuing a temporary restraining order that bars any of the three assembly candidates in the 40th District from running under the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization line until a trial is held on April 9, this according to a recent article in the Bergen Record.
But, aside from some forcing the PCRRO to take on some hefty legal fees, it’s unclear whether the suit keeps Rumana and Russo from running under its banner: even if the judge orders the party’s executive committee to conduct a re-vote of its endorsement, as he’s suggested, Connolly is still one of three committeeman from Paterson. All three would have to vote for Capo to get him one executive committee vote, and the last time around, two of Paterson’s committeemen voted for Rumana and Russo. A re-vote, therefore, might not change anything at all.
Instead, what is clear, defenders of the incumbents and the PCRRO’s nominations say, is that both developments have the undeniable fingerprints of Rumana’s old arch-nemesis, former chairman of the PCRRO and Republican power broker Peter Murphy, on them.
“It’s the only logical explanation,” Traier told PolitickerNJ, referring specifically to the lawsuit.
Rumana, Russo, or Murphy could not be contacted for comment, but it’s enough to listen to the critics — as well as look at history in the district. Rumana and Murphy have feuded before, first clashing back in 2009 when Murphy organized a slate of candidates under the slogan “GOP Strong” to run in the primary against the regular Republican candidates for clerk and freeholder. Later, Rumana fended off Murphy in 2012 when he positioned Traier for victory over the Murphy-backed Scott Heck.
That feuding had continued into as late as last year, when sources told PolitickerNJ that Murphy was positioning a candidate for a GOP primary against Rumana, having helped re-elect Kristin Corrado the clerk of Passaic County in a November general.
Corrado never stepped up to bat, but Rumana and Russo allies say Capo, as well as Connolly, are operating on behalf of Murphy this election season. Capo is a union leader from Totowa, apparently one of Murphy’s power bases, while Connolly is said to be waging his suit against the PRCCO with the financial backing of Murphy. They argue Connolly, a Republican county committeeman for 48 years who now collects a fixed pension, couldn’t possibly afford the legal fees such a suit will incur.
“Connolly, from Paterson, is merely the tool of Totowa Republican Party leader and former PCRRO Chairman Peter Murphy in his never-ending battle against Assemblyman Scott Rumana,” said Dan Poeschel, chairman of the Passaic County Young Republican Organization and former executive director PCRRO, in a recent statement on the matter. “It is Murphy not Connolly – a man living on a fixed pension –who is financing the costly lawsuit against the PCRRO.”
“It was Murphy not Connolly who contacted and hired the Democratic uber-lawyer Angelo Genova to handle the case. Connolly wouldn’t know Genova if he stepped on him,” Poeschel added.
Observers allege Murphy wants to oust either Rumana or Assemblyman Dave Russo this year and come back for the other in two years when the state Senate and General Assembly are up for election. And LD40 isn’t the only place where Murphy is waging war against the establishment — sources say the Republican is also backing a slate of insurgents against the team chosen by the township GOP committee in West Milford, in the northern reaches of Passaic County.
Of course, what makes the whole situation more unfortunate is that it replaces what many expected — including, primarily, Rumana himself — to be a largely peaceful reelection season for the two LD40 incumbents. Earlier this year, Rumana said he was “confident” there would be no primary this year, pointing to his list of endorsements as evidence.
“I haven’t needed to speak to Mr. Murphy, because we’ve got the line,” Rumana told PolitickerNJ back in February. “Based on the endorsements that we’ve received, I’m very comfortable that there will not be a primary. If there were a primary, it wouldn’t be one that I would be overly concerned about. The circumstances do not lend themselves to an off-the-line challenge. By the end of the month, we should finalize the line.”