CEDAR GROVE, N.J. – The guest list at the annual Essex County Republican Committee Holiday Party was notable because it included the five most likely contenders for the New Jersey Republican gubernatorial primary to be held in June 2017. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Businessman Joe Rullo, Comedian Joe Piscopo and Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers all attended the event and took turns addressing the crowd.
According to Essex County Republican Chairman Al Barlas, the five Republican gubernatorial hopefuls chose to come together in Essex because it was the first time all were invited to speak directly to those who will build support bases in the June primary.
“This is the first opportunity, I believe, that any of them have been asked to come and speak to the rank and file. If you want to be the nominee and you want the party’s support, you have to meet and touch everybody,” Barlas said. “This is the first opportunity everybody has had to meet all the candidates and I appreciate them coming.”
While Piscopo has yet to declare his candidacy, he was the first of the five to take the microphone and address the crowd. His comments, which centered more on his Essex County background and well-wishing partygoers, were short and did not focus significantly on which policies the Saturday Night Live alum would enact if elected. However, Piscopo stuck around afterwards to mingle, shake hands and snap photos.
Rullo was the second to speak to the crowd, mostly made up of Essex County committee members. Unlike Piscopo, Rullo focused on his vision for New Jersey’s future and discussed how, more so than any other candidate, his candidacy is “resonating” with New Jersey Republicans who have grown weary with the status quo in Trenton. Rullo was the first GOP candidate who declared he would be running in 2017.
When it was Rogers turn to come to the microphone, the Nutley commissioner touted his connection to now President-Elect Donald Trump as a New Jersey advisor during Trump’s campaign. He said that his decision to throw his name into the ring comes from a desire to keep New Jersey moving forward.
Like Rogers, announced candidate Ciarrarelli said that the new governor needs to be able to progress the state. According to Ciattarelli, his track record as a successful business owner means that he is the right person to right the ship in New Jersey. He called himself a “turnaround specialist.”
“I am determined in the post-Christie era to take us in an entirely different and new direction,” Ciattarelli said.
While Lieutenant Governor Guadagno has yet to announce whether or not she will be seeking the Republican nomination for governor, Christie’s second in command is widely viewed as a favorite in the Republican primary. During her remarks, Guadagno restated her commitment to “taking the holidays off” before making her decision known. However, Guadagno did refer to the next Republican candidate as “she,” a nod to the fact that she is the only woman weighing getting into the race.
While the candidates all spoke on their own behalf, there was one common thread to their words. They all discussed the importance of beating Democrats in the November 2017 general election and maintaining balance in New Jersey by offsetting the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Essex County generally leans Democratic due to voter numbers in urban centers like Newark which turn out overwhelmingly for the left. According to Barlas, however, the fact that the first point of convergence for all the gubernatorial candidates was in Essex means that people are starting to pay attention to the county.
“If you want to be the Republican nominee, tonight showed that you have to come here. In years past they have just taken us for granted,” said Barlas, also noting that this year’s annual holiday party had the highest-ever turnout and included guests from neighboring counties.
Other notable attendees included Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, Assemblyman Kevin Rooney and his running mates in the upcoming district 40 race, Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado and former Wyckoff Mayor Chris DePhillips.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.