Bergen County Republicans, looking to avoid the kind of fiasco that knocked a controversial candidate out of the race without time to replace him, seem to have settled on two political newcomers to challenge Democratic Assemblymen Timothy Eustace and Joseph Lagana in the supposedly-swing 38th district in Bergen County.
The two challengers are expected to be Rev. Christopher Wolf, the pastor at the First Reformed Church in Saddle Brook, and Matthew Seymour, an attorney from New Milford who received considerable media attention in the 1990’s, when as a high school student he got into a very public grudge match with his local congressman, Bob Torricelli.
Republicans had targeted the 38th in 2015, but their two candidates found themselves on the wrong end of a Democratic op-research buzz saw. Waiting until after the legal deadline for candidates not named Bob Torricelli to drop out and get replaced on the ticket, a series of disclosures proved devastating to the GOP campaign.
First, River Edge Councilman Anthony Cappola dropped out of the race after a 2003 book he wrote in 2003 surfaced. It contained passages that included anti-Semitic, racist and anti-gay language. His running mate, Mark DiPisa, and most top state and local GOP officials, withdrew their support. Election officials refused to allow Bergen Republicans to replace him on the ticket, and the GOP didn’t have the money or stomach for a court fight.
This time around, Republicans appear to be searching for more electable candidates.
Wolf grew up in Fair Lawn, where his father was a popular coach and head of the volunteer ambulance squad for many years. Last year, he worked with Saddle Brook Mayor Robert White to found the Saddle Brook Community Partnership, which connects vulnerable residents with assistance and resource opportunities. Before his ordination, Wolf worked as a reporter and editor for the North Jersey Newspaper Group, which published The Record, The Herald News, and several community newspapers before the Borg family sold their business to Gannett last year. He hosts a weekly radio show.
According to a blog post he wrote in 2015, Wolf has already distanced himself from his party’s leader, Gov. Chris Christie:
“The latest news of influence and corruption must sound alarms and awaken us citizens. It has become so clear that we need wholesale leadership change in Washington and Trenton. Leadership that puts the American people first. Leadership that is founded on faith, honor, character, sacrifice, and conviction. Leadership that is committed to solutions, innovation and vision.”
Seymour, a Seton Hall law grad who clerked for Superior Court Judge Alan Pogarsky, ran for the New Milford Council two years ago. He entered the race over the summer after the two GOP candidates withdrew, and lost to Democrat Thea Sirocchi-Hurley by just fourteen votes, 1,205 to 1,191.
In 1994, Seymour was a high school senior at St. Joseph’s Regional High School who had applied for admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Members of Congress nominate students for academy appointments, and Seymour was one of nine nominations made by Torricelli.
But according to a New York Times story, Seymour was told that his application was invalidated because the Torch had already filled the five cadet slots in his allotment. Seymour went to a local newspaper “blaming Mr. Torricelli for ruining his dream.”
Torricelli responded by attacking Seymour, saying the young man acted “dishonorably” for going public with the issue. “He lacks the character to be a cadet,” the Torch said about him.
Eventually, Torricelli said the flawed nomination was the result of an administrative mistake and “issued a form-letter apology to all the students.”
But Seymour refused to back down, and spent two years chasing Torricelli, who by 1996 was in a competitive U.S. Senate race.
“He attacked my character,” Seymour told a New York Times reporter, still upset about “slanderous comments that were made about me personally. I want my name cleared.”
The Torch was nervous enough about the Seymour issue to dispatch his top aide, Jamie Fox, to meet with the now college student. The result: Seymour went public with an allegation that Torricelli had offered him several jobs in an attempt to make the issue go away.
The 38th rotated between Democrats and Republicans for the first twenty years of its history, electing a Democratic Senator in 1973 and 1977, a Republican in 1981, a Democrat in 1983 and 1987, and a Republican in 1991, 1993 and 1997. At the urging of Bergen Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero, then a rising power in state politics, Democratic mapmakers were able to drop some Republican towns in 2001 and add Fort Lee to the district. That allowed Joseph Coniglio to unseat Louis Kosco in the Senate race, and Matt Ahearn to narrowly defeat longtime Assemblyman Nicholas Felice. The other GOP incumbent, Rose Heck, was the only Republican winner. It’s been sixteen years since Republicans were able to win the 38th.
There have been close races, as recently as 2013, when Rochelle Park Councilman Joseph Scarpa came within 56 votes of ousting Eustace. Lagana also won narrowly, with a 443-vote win.
District 38 Republicans have scheduled a campaign kickoff for March 1, with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on the invitation as one of the hosts. The fundraiser will honor former Bergen County Freeholder John Felice, son of the last Republican Assemblyman from the district.