Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali’s congressional campaign launch was attended by some of Bergen County’s top Republicans, but many of those stopped short of endorsing Ghassali in what is now a three-way primary.
“I haven’t made an official endorsement,” Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) said. “But he would do our district very proud, and I have no doubt he will win.”
Ghassali faces former self-funder Frank Pallotta and former Cresskill Councilman John McCann, who mounted an unsuccessful congressional bid last year, in his fight to win the Republican nod against Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff).
Two county chairmen, Jerry Scanlan of Sussex and Jack Zisa of Bergen, attended Ghassali’s launch, though neither was ready to endorse a candidate in the fifth district’s primary.
“Most of Sussex County is in the fifth. I’m the chairman of Sussex County, and I think it’s important to see all the candidates who are up and running. Mike’s a great guy. Look forward to meeting and seeing the rest of them as well,” Scanlan said, adding that he would likely not make any endorsements in the race.
“I can’t imagine doing it this time,” the Sussex GOP chairman said on endorsing a candidate in the fifth’s primary. “You never know. Personally, I doubt it.”
Zisa, who last year took the helm of a Republican organization that has increasingly ceded Bergen County seats to Democrats over the preceding years, echoed Scanlan and did stopped short of endorsing Ghassali, saying he would also attend events hosted by the other candidates.
At the moment, the Bergen County chairman is more focused on winning — or holding — seats up for election this year.
A number of candidates, including Bergen County freeholder candidate Corrado Belgiovine and Paramus Councilman Chris DiPiazza, who is running for Assembly in the 38th legislative district alongside Rochelle Park Mayor Michael Kazimir, attended Ghassali’s campaign launch.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest), Bergen County’s elder Republican statesman, likewise stopped short of endorsing Ghassali.
“We have a number of candidates for the fifth district. This is the beginning of a process, but it’s a process that cannot begin too early, and it’s a process that is very important to all of the people who reside in the United States,” Cardinale said. “So, I want to echo what the chairman had just said. It is very important on every level that we are enthusiastically supporting a candidate.”
Ghassali, a Syrian immigrant, comes into the race with a powerful story.
At the age of 15, he and his family fled Aleppo.
“On Sept. 14, 1980, I knocked on the front door of this country, and it opened its doors and gave me and my family all of its greatness,” Ghassali said. “President Reagan allowed us in and gave us our citizenship seven years later, and for that, I and my family are forever grateful.”
Since then, Ghassali opened a supply-chain management company that employs more than 7,000.
He served two terms on Montvale’s city council before ousting incumbent Republican Mayor Roger Fyfe in an independent bid that won 60% of the vote.
Ghassali, who launched his campaign at St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Cathedral St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Paramus, now works as senior director of national accounts for Feed the Children, where he’s raised over $400 million for a program to mitigate child hunger in the United States.
“I love Mike. What he’s got in his town is exemplary,” Assemblyman Bob Auth (R-Old Tappan) said. “Out of everybody in the race right now, he ranks right up there in the top. I also know Frank Pallotta, another guy who can certainly be a contender in a general election. You have to look at him seriously.”
Like others, Auth stopped short of issuing an endorsement, saying he would support whichever candidate next year won the nod to challenge Gottheimer, who has made himself a reputation as a bipartisan during his first term in Congress.
Like Zisa and Cardinale, Ghassali was concerned about winning Republican seats during this year’s races.
“You have been a tremendous source of support for me, and I appreciate each and every one of you. This journey starts today, and I’m committed to campaigning fulltime next year,” Ghassali said to the crowd of roughly 150. “But today, I also want to ask your support for my friends who are running for office this year, because I need them on my side, and we need them on our side. I need them to carry on so I can accomplish my agenda.”