Every two years, congressional candidates come forward with promises of mammoth fundraising power. Sometimes, parties get someone like Josh Gottheimer, the Human Fundraising machine. But more typically, it’s just a pretender candidate overstating their ability to raise gobs of money.
In 1984, Republicans thought they could beat freshman Rep. Bob Torricelli (D-Englewood), who was a gargantuan fundraiser in the earliest days of his political career.
Torricelli had won the seat two years earlier, ousting three-term Republican Harold Hollenbeck (R-East Rutherford) by seven points in Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election. The district had become more Democratic after redistricting, and the 31-year-old Torricelli was able to leverage national contacts – he worked for Vice President Walter Mondale and managed Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign in Illinois – to outspend the Republican incumbent.
Heading into his re-election, Torricelli faced two potential obstacles: Reagan was now a popular incumbent heading the GOP ticket, and a new map ordered by federal judges after tossing the old one, was more favorable for the Republicans.
Bergen Republicans had a deep bench of talent, but they decided to go with a relatively unknown, 30-year-old Neil Romano, who had served as executive director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee in the late 1970’s.
Romano showed up at the party screening committee and promised that he would self-finance a run against Torricelli. He said he had personal money, that his family, owners of a printing business in Brooklyn, had considerable wealth, and that he had rich friends who had already pledged their support. He pledged to assemble the kind of warchest needed to beat Torricelli without the Bergen GOP.
Republicans considered a few candidates to take on Torricelli, including Todd Caliguire, an assistant counsel to Gov. Tom Kean, and Douglas Landau, who headed the Bergen County Community Action Program. The GOP really wanted to run former State Sen. John Paolella (R-Hackensack), or Hollenbeck, but both demurred.
It was a scam. Romano lacked any fundraising prowess, and the self-funding stuff never happened. He raised just $89,166; Torricelli raised $518,869 — $1.4 million in today’s dollars.
Reagan carried the district by nearly 47,000 votes, but Romano ran more than 60,000 votes behind Reagan; Torricelli beat him 63%-37%.
Torricelli spent fourteen years in the U.S. House of Representatives and six years in the United States Senate.
After losing his House race, Romano moved to Washington to join the Reagan administration as the communications director for the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. He spent the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency as the Assistant Secretary of Labor, running the Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Romano now lives in Maryland.