Bergen Republicans Alonso and Zisa Fight Amid a ‘Party in Shambles’

Mostly suburban Bergen County, New Jersey’s most populous county, once dominated state Republican politics. Statewide candidates needed support there if they were going to go anywhere.

These days, they still may want support, but it’s debatable how far it will take them.

The stats tell the story.

Democrats control every freeholder seat and all other county elected offices. Up until a few years ago, Republicans could boast of having the county sheriff,  but he has since embarrassed the GOP by switching parties and becoming a Democrat.  The Dems’ surge was capped off 16 months ago when Democrat Josh Gottheimer ousted incumbent Republican Scott Garrett in the 5th Congressional District covering parts of the county. GOP representation in the county is now limited to state Legislative Districts 39 and 40 in the county’s northern region.

Turning things around will be the challenge of one of the two men seeking the party chairmanship this June, Fernando Alonso of Oradell and Jack Zisa of Hackensack. Paul DiGaetano, the current chair and a former state legislator, is not expected to run again.

There is no disagreement between Alonso and Zisa over the current state of affairs.

“We are a party that’s in shambles,” Alonso said.

Zisa says mostly the same thing in a different way.

“There is great frustration in the Republican organization. Frustration at losing seats; frustration that the Democrats control everything.”

Both Alonso and Zisa are aging Baby Boomers. Alonso is 60; Zisa is 66.

Zisa has more political experience.  He was mayor of Hackensack from 1989 to 2005. Hackensack has more Democrats than Republicans, but municipal elections are non-partisan.

In fact, Zisa says it was his experience as mayor that makes him qualified for the task of revitalizing the Bergen GOP.

He recalls that when he first ran for mayor in 1989, there were about 25 people in the race running for either mayor or council seats. Eight years later, Zisa said he and his running mates ran unopposed. He said that story exemplifies his talent for bringing people together.

“My best accomplishment as mayor was being able to unite a town that was not together,” he said.

And that is precisely what he wants to do with Bergen Republicans.

Zisa says the party’s recent struggles emanate from various factions and internal squabbling.

That point has some substance. Just a few years ago, the then-Republican sheriff Michael Saudino was feuding with the then-Republican County Executive Kathleen Donovan. Now, as mentioned, Saudino is a Democrat and Donovan has been voted out of office.

It is that type of bickering Zisa says he can stop.

He also sees a problem in the county chair getting overly involved in state and national issues, or seeking office himself. That’s a reference to DiGaetano who unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate in last year’s Republican primary in District 40.

Zisa, who is in the insurance business, sees the job as county chairman as a pretty basic undertaking – to raise money and to get Republicans elected in Bergen County.

He so far is avoiding talk of how that can be accomplished, other than saying, “The Republicans have to be smarter than they have been in the past.”

But he quickly added, “First things first. We have to be on the same team, the same Republican team.”

Alonso is a lawyer and an assistant professor of finance at FDU.

Not shy about seeking office, Alonso ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 2011 and 2013, and before that, he took on a far greater challenge. That was in 1994 when he ran against then-Congressman Bob Menendez while living in Union City. Running as a Republican in Hudson County is no easy hurdle.

In words that somewhat echo Zisa’s point, Alonso says, “We need new leadership. We have to put ourselves in a position to win.”

Alonso is mindful of demographic changes both nationally and locally that can hurt Republicans. But he said change in party leadership can spark interest.

“A lot of young people want to get involved, but not with the people who are running things now:” he said.

Alonso condemned a party that he said is run by a small group of people with limited vision.  He says Bergen Republicans exhibit no transparency and that the organization is without resources to handle routine public outreach.

His overall goal is not all that much different than his opponent’s.

It’s “not let the Democrats win.” And he says the best way to do that is with an active Republican party that puts GOP interests first and that is always prepared to attack the opposition.

County chair races tend to be family fights, even if the family is large and dysfunctional. In a county with 127,000 registered Republicans, this decision will be made by the estimated 1,200 to 1,400 county committee members who will convene in mid-June.

With not much distinction among issues so far, this race may very well come down to personality and organization.

Clearly, both Alonso and Zisa will be working the backrooms of this sprawling county over the next two months or so to get county committee members loyal to them elected in the June primary.

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One response to “Bergen Republicans Alonso and Zisa Fight Amid a ‘Party in Shambles’”

  1. Alonso complaining about the problems with the BCRO that existed for years – and he did nothing to help or change anything – just looking for opportunity for himself. He is anti-Trump and has bashed him many times on social media. how does he explain that?

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