Republicans appear to have settled on perennial candidate Todd Caliguire as their pick for Bergen County Executive, but a controversial, race baiting, anti-Asian mailer from a campaign fifteen years ago might doom his candidacy.
Buoyed by Jack Ciattarelli’s 47% showing in Bergen County in last year’s gubernatorial race and polling that shows the popularity of President Joe Biden and Gov. Phil Murphy dropping – and a special election win in usually-Democratic Maywood last month — the GOP had hopes of denying Democrat James Tedesco a third term.
Caliguire won a vote of the Bergen County GOP Policy Committee – their version of a screening committee – on Tuesday with 81% of the vote in a four-candidate race. That almost assures him a win at the March 23 Republican convention.
Once viewed as a rising star in Bergen GOP politics, the 66-year-old Midland Park resident first sought party support for congressman in 1984 and for county executive in 1986. He’s lost two races for State Senate, one for county executive, and one for the Republican nomination for governor. He was a two-term freeholder but hasn’t won an election since 1995.
Democrats seem thrilled by the prospect of a Caliguire candidacy.
“He doesn’t worry me,” one Bergen County Democratic leader told the New Jersey Globe.
It was his last campaign – a 2007 GOP primary for State Senate against Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove), whose mother was born in Korea — that will probably come back to haunt him.
His responsibility for the mailer essentially attacking him for being Asian American in a county that has seen its Asian American population grow by 31% over the last decade and is now 18.4% of the Bergen County’s population will likely become an issue in his political comeback bid. There are enough Korean American voters in Bergen County that all ballots are also required to be printed in Korean.
Caliguire sent out a mailer that ran side-by-side photos of O’Toole, who was the state’s first Asian American legislator, and Rev. Al Sharpton, alleging that O’Toole was “the Republican Al Sharpton.”
“Democrats like Al Sharpton have divided America with their fixation on race and affirmative action,” the mailer stated. “Now Kevin O’Toole is guilty of the same thing.”
O’Toole referenced the mailer in a column on Asian hate he wrote for the New Jersey Globe in March 2021.
“The not-so silent hand of racism would rear its ugliness when my opponent, in a blatant effort to stir racial waves, sent a mailer of me and Reverend Al Sharpton, referring to us as Affirmative Action babies” he said.
Caliguire’s campaign manager, Kevin Collins, defended their messaging in an interview with The (Bergen) Record.
“We could have altered the photo. We did not,” Collins told The Record. “We could have made a more jaundiced look to his skin. We did not.”
The Republican State Chairman at the time, Tom Wilson, smacked Caliguire for race baiting.
“This mail piece and tactics like it have no place in a Republican primary,” he said to The Record. “This kind of mail is frankly despicable and seeks to create division where none should exist.”
A robocall also paid for by the Caliguire campaign informed GOP primary voters that O’Toole was Korean, not Irish. O’Toole’s parents met when his father was a U.S. Army soldier serving in the Korean War.
O’Toole, then a six-term assemblyman, beat Caliguire by 13 points, even carrying the Bergen County portion of the 40th legislative district while running off-the-line in a race for an open State Senate seat. It remains one of the few times where the Bergen GOP organization line didn’t hold.
In the aftermath of the primary and mailer, Bergen County GOP Chairman Guy Talarico, who paid for part of the mailing, resigned. The Republican State Committee passed a resolution outlawing Collins from working on GOP campaigns.
Caliguire later told The Record that he regretted the mailer, but never apologized for it.
O’Toole spent fourteen years in the State Senate and remains popular and influential in the western Bergen County municipalities he represented. A former Cedar Grove mayor and assemblyman, he’s now in his fifth year as chairman of the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
But Caliguire, who achieved some early success as an aide to Gov. Thomas Kean and Attorney General Cary Edwards in the 1980s, washed out early.
He ran for State Senate in 1991 but lost to longtime incumbent Matthew Feldman (D-Teaneck), a former Senate President, by a 54%-46% margin in a Republican wave election that saw less competitive districts fall amid voter outrage over Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase.
In 1992, Caliguire ran for Bergen County Freeholder and unseated Democratic incumbent Mary Donohue by about 7,500 votes. He was re-elected in 1995 – his last win — and three years later followed through on a pledge to serve just two terms and didn’t seek re-election.
As Rep. Marge Roukema (R-Ridgewood) mulled retirement in 2002 after Republicans passed over her and gave the House Finance Services Committee chair to a less senior lawmaker, Caliguire sought support for a congressional run. But he backed off after two other Bergen Republicans – State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest) and Assemblyman David Russo (R-Ridgewood) – decided to run.
In 2005, Caliguire launched a baffling and calamitous bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
He didn’t seek organization lines and at the Bergen County Republican convention he finished last with just 9 votes, 1% of the 835 ballots cast.
In the June primary, Caliguire placed seventh out of seven candidates with just 7,463 votes statewide, a little less than 2.5%.
Caliguire’s showing became a target for O’Toole in the 2007 Senate primary, saying that he “recklessly spent $517,000 in public (matching) funds to run for governor. He criticized Caliguire’s “blind ambition,” pointing to a New York Times story that suggested he used the public financing as “an audition for a future run.”
The following year, Caliguire did just that by mounting a campaign for county executive.
Kathleen Donovan, the county clerk and a former assemblywoman and GOP state chair, entered the race in late February. Citing the passing of the deadline to submit a letter of intent, Talarico refused to allow Donovan to compete for the organization line at the Republican convention.
Running off the line, Donovan came within 577 votes of defeating Caliguire in the Republican primary out of nearly 24,000 cast.
In the 2006 general election, incumbent Dennis McNerney defeated Caliguire by 52,524 votes, 60.7% to 39.3%. That came despite The Record’s endorsement of Caliguire.
When he ran for Senate the following year, O’Toole criticized his plan to raise state spending by $2.9 billion, calling it “misleading” and “unworkable.”
Caliguire is among the last remaining acolytes of former Gov. Chris Christie. The two became allies through a mutual friend, Republican National Committeeman Bill Palatucci.
But with O’Toole holding senatorial courtesy over Caliguire, Christie was limited to where he could place him.
Christie named Caliguire to serve as a commissioner of the State Commission of Investigation in 2011. That was a direct appointment that did not require Senate confirmation. He took the seat left vacant by the death of his mentor, Edwards.
In 2012, Caliguire left the SCI when Christie appointed him to serve as the $174,000-a-year executive director of the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission. Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said that Caliguire was “not qualified” to hold the post.
Earlier that year, the family stationary and craft supply business Caliguire ran, ANW Crestwood, Inc, had filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. Proceedings continued until 2016.
After Gov. Phil Murphy took office in 2018, he appointed Assemblyman Timothy Eustace (D-Maywood) to replace Caliguire as executive director.
But Caliguire was permitted to remain as deputy executive director at the same salary and was able to stay on until June 2020.
His exit appeared to have been timed with his qualification for a full state pension, and his survival in a high-paying most for more than two years evinces a belief among many political insiders that some sort of agreement was forged to let him stay.
But Eustace, in an email to the New Jersey Globe in January, denied that Caliguire remained in his job to boost his pension and insisted that claims that he was were “a total fabrication.”
“Todd stayed on at the Commission after I was made executive director because I wanted him to stay,” Eustace said. “His staying on had absolutely nothing to do with a pension for Todd.”
According to Eustace, Caliguire “spearheaded several infrastructure improvements here during his tenure, modernizing a facility nearly one hundred years old.”
“We were in the middle of a $25 million dollar upgrade. We worked extremely well together as a team which benefited the Commission and our customers,” Eustace said. “ In fact, during Todd’s tenure at the commission, water rates were never raised.”
Now, with Caliguire challenging Tedesco for county executive, it looks like Eustace, an ex-Democratic lawmaker, could be his validator.
Caliguire had more than a decade in the state pension system during his time in the Kean administration and as a Bergen County freeholder — but records show that he cashed out at some point. His appointment to the SCI allowed him to rejoin the state employee retirement system. Records show that he retired with 232 months of service.
He began drawing a monthly pension of $2,823 in 2020.