The center of the political universe in New Jersey right now is the alliance between Al Barlas and Peter Murphy, two North Jersey Republicans who will likely determine who runs for the open 11th district of retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.
Barlas is the Essex County Republican Chairman; Murph used be county chairman in Passaic but controls the GOP executive from his perch as Totowa municipal chairman. Barlas and Murphy have formed a block – as one goes, so goes the other – in the congressional race. If Morris County has their usual undisciplined free-for-all, the Barlas/Murphy candidate wins.
Morris County has 60% of the Republican primary voters in the district, but their timid system of open primaries with no organization line could send the House seat somewhere else. Essex and Passaic have 16% each (32% total, in case you don’t want to do the math). The remaining 8% come from Sussex County, which also has no organization line. Lines matter less than they used to, but Essex and Passaic still have the capacity to overperform when they must.
The Republican race – less than a day old – centers around some veteran legislators: State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville), a 62-year-old dentist who has lost Republican primaries for U.S. Senate and Congress; Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains), 45, a Harvard Law School graduate and former congressional aide who served as Republican State Chairman from 2009 to 2011; and Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton), 55, the son of State Sen. Anthony R. Bucco (R-Boonton).
Pennacchio and Webber represent four towns in Essex County that are in NJ-11, and one in Passaic that is not. Webber grew up in Passaic County, and worked for a local congressman, Bill Martini.
Some Republicans have floated the name of Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce (R-Parsippany), the 65-year-old widow of Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce. Few expect her to run; instead, most anticipate a withdrawal announcement that touts the considerable number of Republicans who urged her to run.
Republican National Committeeman Bill Palatucci was working the phones on Monday to gauge support for Morris County Freeholder Christina Myers (R-Mendham), who went to work for the Trump administration last month as a top appointee with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Looming on the sidelines of this race is former Gov. Chris Christie, who began his political career as a Freeholder in 1994. There was a point not too long ago where Christie might have anointed a new congressman; the question is whether Christie is an asset or liability in a Republican primary in his home county. An October Monmouth University poll had Christie’s approvals upside-down among Republicans statewide, 38%-58%.
One name getting some attention is a Christie nemesis, former Freeholder John Murphy. Murphy has been out of office for more than a decade, but when he ran for governor in 2005, he easily carried Morris County.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris Township) is hugely popular among GOP primary voters, but he is not expected to run. He seems to have his sights on running for Morris County Surrogate in 2019.
The wildcard in the race for Congress in State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa), a close ally of Barlas and Murphy. A 52-year-old lawyer who served two terms as Passaic County Clerk, Corrado replaced Kevin O’Toole in the State Senate last year after annihilating former Assembly Majority Leader Paul DiGaetano in the Republican primary. Corrado already represents part of Morris in the Legislature and is the only woman receiving serious consideration for he nomination.
Pennacchio is expected to run – he’s wanted this seat since 1994, when he self-funded a challenge to incumbent Dean Gallo in the Republican primary. Gallo was dying of cancer at the time – Frelinghuysen eventually replaced him on the ballot – but in Pennacchio’s defense, he didn’t know that when he was attacking Gallo.
Eventually, Pennacchio worked his way into the good graces of Morris County Republicans. He won a Freeholder seat in 1999, an Assembly seat in 2001, and was elected to the State Senate in 2007. He easily carried Morris County when he ran for U.S. Senator in the 2008 primary.
His biggest problem is a manifesto he self-published in 1991, The Nationalist Agenda, a Blueprint for the 21st Century. The National Republican Congressional Committee will read it and tell New Jersey Republicans no way. The manifesto was the top reason Republicans were unwilling to settle on Pennacchio for the uphill shot at challenging Sen. Frank Lautenberg ten years ago, even as the struggled desperately to find a candidate.
It should not be assumed that Pennacchio will self-fund a race for Congress. He didn’t in the U.S. Senate race. Financial disclosures for new Jersey legislators don’t offer much information.
Still, it’s hard to imagine Jersey Joe – he actually ran radio ads with the slogan “Hey Ho, Hey Ho, It’s Jersey Joe Pennacchio – not running for Congress. I would have bet on an announcement within an hour of Frelinghuysen’s retirement.
Bucco probably won’t run. The #Me Too movement that has focused attention on sexual harassment and assault might make his timing unfortunate.
While the five-term Assemblyman has never been accused of wrongdoing, insiders from both parties agree that his candidacy would cause a rehashing of an old and very public sexual harassment scandal involving his father. Five weeks after Senator Bucco won a second term in 2001, his former legislative aide alleged that her job on Bucco’s Senate staff required that she engage in a sexual relationship with him. The aide claimed that Bucco’s wife learned of the affair and demanded that she be fired from his staff, and from a job at the Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board – a post she said Bucco helped her get. A harassment suit was filed in federal court against Bucco and the New Jersey Senate; Bucco countersued his ex-staffer.
The lawsuit against Bucco and the state were settled in 2004, on the condition that the terms remain confidential. The lack of transparency in taxpayer-funded settlements was not as potent an issue then as it is today.
Webber, the father of seven, is completely clean. He has strong ties to national conservative groups that could help him finance primary and general elections. He ran way ahead of three other challengers in the 2017 Republican Assembly primary. Webber would energize the Republican base in Morris County.
Some more names can still come forward. There was some chatter about Tim Smith, a wealthy businessman who serves as a Roxbury Councilman, or Rosemary Becchi, an attorney from Short Hills, but both live in Rep. Leonard Lance’s district. Investment banker Justin Bozonelis, the son of a prominent ex-Judge, mulled a bid but decided he didn’t want to move back from Manhattan to run for Congress.
Barlas and Murphy are in no rush to pick a horse, and nothing important will happen until they do.