Does the New Jersey Republican Party have a county committee problem? John Supino, campaign manager for Patriot Party gubernatorial candidate David Winkler, thinks so.
The campaign said that Winkler is the first candidate of the “Patriot Party” to run in New Jersey, and were it not for what Supino described as a broken and corrupted Republican County Committee system, the Patriot Party might not have been.
Herein lies the beginning of the new chapter of the NJGOP in the post-Trump era. The Republican Party has existed for 166 years. But the establishment of the “Patriot Party” as a consequence of Republican frustration may be the first crack in the Grand Old Party’s foundations. It comes to grips with itself now that the Trump flags–intermixed with smoke and tear gas–have passed from the US Capitol and Joe Biden occupies the Oval Office.
As far as New Jersey is concerned, however, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 1,000,000, splinters such as those represented by candidates who want to continue a more Trumpian form of Republican Party will present at the least, an irritant but also a consequence. At the most, it could represent a reckoning and serious handicap to Republicans winning the governor’s office in the foreseeable future. Supino made it clear that the views expressed were his own and not necessarily those of Winkler, but that Republican woes were the blame of the Republicans themselves.
Last year, Winkler sought to run for Congress in the CD 8 Republican primary. “The party came to [Winkler] and they asked him to drop out so they could install somebody else in his place, and the person who was put in his place was put there with the intention of losing,” Supino said. “David started getting a lot of attention and started doing well—I have no evidence that the other guy was there to throw the towel, but he didn’t campaign, all he did was put his name on the ballot. To me, that’s not a candidate who wants to win.” CD 8, in the general election, consequently went to Democrat Albio Sires who beat Republican Jason Mushnick by a landslide 74% to 24.6%. Libertarian candidate Dan Delaney shaved off 3,329 votes but bears no blame for splitting the meager right-of-center vote and contributing to Sires’ victory.
To be fair to Mushnick, the Republican challenger’s performance at the polls may not be entirely surprising, however, given the institutional strength of Sires. His resume boasts a 12 year stint as mayor of West New York, then service in the New Jersey Assembly–as Speaker for 4 years, and then 13 years in the House of Representatives for CD13 and later CD8. Mushnick had previously run for Assembly District 31 with Mary Kay Palange against Democrats Angela McKnight and Nicholas Chiaravalotti, with the latter defeating the Republicans who never broke the double digits in terms of percentage taken.
Supino, who ran the campaign for Tricia Flanagan in the US Senate primary that ultimately went to Rik Mehta, took aim at the Republican county committee system for putting party interests ahead of the interests of the people. “From my previous experience, the Republican Primary process is corrupt and broken. The county commission system needs to be abolished and done away with. We’re probably the only one or maybe two states in the country that has this system. It’s a system that perpetuates 21 kingmakers in this state. If you look at the race I did with Tricia, one person picked the candidate, that person was [Republican National Committeeman] Bill Palatucci, this is all public record. If you look at the newspaper articles, Palatucci put his arm around Mehta, took him to all the county committees with a wink and a nod and told the committees what to do, and they followed suit. So, in the worst light, Palatucci picked the candidate. In the best light, 300 or so people picked the candidate, but hundreds of thousands voted.”
Palatucci had endorsed Hirsh Singh until a social media exchange over Governor Christie and Senator Cory Booker made the former switch his endorsement to Mehta, a candidate slammed by Joseph “Rudy” Rullo and Singh as a “Democratic opiate peddler.”
As for Murphy’s opposition headed to the election, Supino was sanguine about their timing. “Jack [Ciattarelli] started last year, there are other people coming into the race on the Republican ticket, the Libertarian ticket. Voters don’t care what you did the last year, they look at the last sixty days. We are going to do a hard push all the way. Events are easier to hold. We’re going to draw more people than Biden, not that that is a huge accomplishment, but we are going to draw sizeable crowds. We see it already, and when the weather warms up, we’re going to be able to do more things outdoors.”
Every campaign requires money, and good amounts of it, to keep in the game. The pandemic has curtailed most political campaigns of the usual nature, with candidates doing more and more virtual sessions to reach voters, which is a cost-saving route compared to the traditional methods. This could be advantageous to smaller campaigns, provided they can effectively use the media and internet to get the word out. “I don’t see overhead as being an issue. [Bob] Hugin spent millions of his own money and we don’t call him ‘senator’, do we? Money is important, I’m not going to lie, but we will have more than what we need. There’s a lot going on in the background, but there are things happening. This is going to be a national movement.”
What the national movement referred to might manifest as, if it does, will only be seen with time. But Supino’s predictions represent a serious problem for the post-Trump Republican Party as far as finding its way forward. In the state of New Jersey particularly, Supino’s dissatisfaction which led to his break with the party is due to the very nature and habits of those who run the GOP. “The Republicans have been in bed with Norcross for years. They had a meeting from what I understand, that 21 chairs got together and the discussion was ‘how to run away from Trump’. If that’s the direction they want to take, that’s up to them whether they exist or not.”
What to do, then? “The first thing they need to do is get rid of the county committee system that picks the candidates, because if they did, we’d be running in a Republican primary. But because the system is so rigged, we had no choice but to go into a third party.”
While Supino made it clear that he did not speak specifically on matters of policy, being the campaign manager, he said that the new party was coming “from a position of common sense.” To build support, they would be looking at a ground-level approach for what they believe are things average voters agree on. “We’ll go to parents and ask ‘do you want your high school girls to use the same restroom as high school boys?’ Nobody in their right mind could possibly agree with that. Eighty percent of the people who live their lives in such a way that these topics will touch home—those are things we are going after.”
The platform was described as “Common-sense populist. Very conservative, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-1st Amendment, constitutionalist. You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand what the first ten amendments mean.”
When asked if Supino thought that the Patriot Party represented a pathway going forward, a product of disenfranchisement with the GOP, he felt that the timing was right and that the Republican Party’s own origins were proof that new parties had a viable chance, given the circumstances. “With the reaction we are currently getting, not just from New Jersey but from around the country, I don’t see why it wouldn’t. The stage is set right now. Unlike the Tea Party, which in its time we have to give them credit, they did take the House. But we didn’t have a stolen election, we didn’t have people frustrated with the government the way they are today. I think the conditions are such that this may be the time. We’ve had the Democratic Party since the beginning of the republic, there is no reason why if we started a new party in 1860 that we can’t start a new one in 2020.” The Republican Party was established in 1854 and ran its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, against James Buchanan in the 1856 election. Abraham Lincoln succeeded Buchanan in the election of 1860, the first Republican in the White House a mere 6 years after the party’s creation.
“When I went through the process of the county committee system and when I saw the corruption firsthand, I was appalled,” Supino said. “The alternative would be open primaries. Let the voters decide who is going to run. The county committees do not understand their role as they should be. They want to be the power brokers. They shouldn’t be the power brokers, they should be the facilitators to get each candidates’ message to the people. They should host debates, ‘meet the candidate’ nights, they should go out and promote every single candidate. That’s not the way it works. Right now they’ve got twenty people in a room and the first thing they say is ‘How much money do you have?’ Then they vote, as they are told to vote by their chairmen. Some counties are OK, they try to be fair. Morris county is trying to do a line and I hope they fail.”
Supino said that of the counties, the best or fairest was “probably” his home county of Bergen. “They have a Meet the Candidate Night where they invite every candidate and people who are interested in hearing the candidates can go. I think they should give every candidate their own night so they have more time with the people, however, I do think that that single event will probably put them out there.”
In addition to the committee system being unfair, Supino accused the New Jersey Republicans of being out of touch. Presumably, the Patriot Party represents a new, alternative voice for those dissatisfied with the status quo. “When you have votes in the New Jersey legislature, such as the BLM vote they took last year where every single Republican abstained, and a handful voted, for BLM Day. Is that what we stand for? A terrorist organization? I sent Representative Bergen Ted Cruz’s analysis of who BLM is: they’re terrorists. And, unfortunately, the Republicans in New Jersey are afraid to call terrorists ‘terrorists’ and people are fed up with it. They see the burning buildings and people dragged from their cars and kicked until they’re unconscious and we’re going to honor that terrorist organization with a day? The average person doesn’t buy it.”
The New Jersey legislature adopted June 19, or Juneteenth, as a holiday and signed by Governor Phil Murphy. Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-Essex) introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 171 to designate June 13 as “Black Lives Matter Day” which passed the Assembly and presently sits in committee in the Senate. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick was among the Republicans to abstain, and according to North Jersey, said, “Black lives matter. Let me say it again. Black lives matter… But this resolution doesn’t deal with a concept, it refers to a specific organization.”
The American political system was quite literally rocked following the January 6 Capitol Hill riots, an event which left 1 Capitol Hill Police Officer dead and 15 hospitalized. When asked about the impacts on the Republican Party following the January 6 Capitol Hill riots, Supino said, “We know what happened there. Let’s not kid ourselves, ANTIFA and BLM sent people in to do that. We know that, they’ve been on camera, they’ve been identified. Where was the outrage when they were burning cities? This is the problem, the only people in DC like Matt Gaetz are the only ones who stand up and call it what it is. People respect politicians who have a backbone.”
The claim that the hundreds of rioters were undercover ANTIFA and BLM personnel is dismissed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations Assistant Director Steven D’Antuono who said there was “no indication” that they were involved. President Trump, in his call for peace and calm following the violence, told his followers “we love you” and that they should go home. Later, he released a message saying that those who participated in the violence would be held accountable. According to the New York Times, there has been dissention circulating among organizations such as the Proud Boys through channels like Telegram, calling Trump “a total failure” and “weak”—a result of their sense of betrayal.
So, back to New Jersey—does Jack Ciattarelli have a backbone? “I like Jack, I know Jack, but from things I have seen lately, I am disappointed.”
Supino felt that new ground was to be had with support from voters on both sides of the aisle looking for a more representative party. “There are Democrats who aren’t AOC-style extremists and they want their kids to have a good education. They want their daughters not to have to use co-ed bathrooms, they want the best for their families. They see things going so far to the left, it isn’t the way to go.”
Nobody can have a political discussion without bringing up the contagious, microscopic elephant in the room. All aspects of life, including political life, have been impacted by the coronavirus and it has become a key issue for political leaders across the globe to handle. In many cases the legitimacy of the political establishment itself is tested by its coronavirus response, with electorates expecting results. “We think [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis is taking the right course. The cure cannot be worse than the disease, when you’re putting people out of business. Especially in a state like New Jersey, where property taxes are typically into the tens of thousands, people are losing their homes and businesses, for what? The government employees who are enforcing this have never missed a paycheck. You’re not allowed to open your restaurant but you better pay your taxes.” Supino said that the fault “absolutely” lies at the feet of the political establishment.
With Jack Ciattarelli as the clear Republican choice going into the gubernatorial election, politicos have wondered out loud whether or not Bob Hugin might enter the race, seeking another run following his unsuccessful attempt to dislodge US Senator Bob Menendez. But still, all politics is local, and the county committee system is where Supino has a problem. “That’s where the corruption happens.” Additionally, he had little enthusiasm for the prospect of a potential or theoretical Hugin candidacy, which he did not dismiss as a possibility. “He was a horrible candidate. You don’t out-liberal a liberal. He didn’t lose because he spent money and he wasn’t going to win because he spent money, he lost based on his ideas. I worked on his campaign for a bit, but nobody was excited about getting out of bed and going to vote for Bob Hugin. They’re not going to drag their neighbor to the voting booth.”
The most appropriate role for the county committees, Supino argued, was “to hold events and promote every candidate. The NRC holds their convention after the popular vote. Why don’t the committees?”
Supino asserted that the Flanagan campaign was ignored by the Party during the senate primary race. “When Gary Rich dropped out, we were at the convention in Hunterdon County. Gary Rich’s team and our team called [Camden County Republican Chairman] Rich Ambrosino repeatedly to reschedule Tricia’s time to talk. She said we can’t be there because we have an obligation to Hunterdon county, she was scheduled for a certain date and time. We tried for three or four days, sending emails–not just us, our team and Gary Rich–our two teams tried and tried to get a hold of somebody to reschedule the date. Natalie Rivera was running and when Ambrosino finally called Tricia back, he said ‘we gave the slot to Natalie, she called us this morning and asked for it.’ Then they put out a statement that Tricia never showed up for her appointed time. While true she didn’t show up, that was because we had the obligation in Hunterdon. We tried for days to reschedule it but they refused to pick up the phone or answer our emails. So, you see how these things work.”
Supino railed against a Mafia-style committee system. “When [a candidate] announced he was going to run for governor, he was going to the county committees, basically to ask for permission to run. Politicians shouldn’t be asking politicians for permission to run, they should go to the people. Why do we have to check with these 21 people to get permission to represent us?” He continued. “These people will deny it until the ends of the Earth, but Tricia’s first question from Monmouth County was ‘How come this is the first time you’ve come to see us?’ In other words, why didn’t you come kiss our ring for a year? Her answer was appropriate, she said she was out talking to the people who actually vote.”
In his assessment of the Republican Party as it stands now, Supino was not optimistic. “Given exactly what’s happening here, it’s hard to support them. They don’t care if they lose so long as they maintain power within their power structure.”
Whether or not the Republican Party sees a serious threat from a third party has yet to be seen. Nevertheless, this represents a symptom that the GOP of 2021 would do well to address. If it sweeps the matter under the rug, it does so at its peril, risking minority-party status not only due to superior Democratic voter registration, but an exodus of its own.