CD11 Flashpoint: Webber Runs into Ghee-Endorsing Sette at Tony Bucco’s Fundraiser

For awhile this week, Assemblyman Jay Webber was the only announced Republican candidate for the party’s congressional nomination in the 11th District. But his front-runner status didn’t last very long – it was over in less than 24 hours. 

Webber became the only official candidate in the race Tuesday night when fellow legislator Anthony M. Bucco decided not to run for the seat being vacated by the retiring Rodney P. Frelinghuysen.  But by Wednesday afternoon, another candidate had surfaced and on Wednesday night,  Republicans at a previously scheduled Bucco for Assembly fundraiser were talking about yet another potential candidate. 

The obvious bottom line here, as more than one GOP source posited, is fear that the very ideologically-conservative Webber can’t win in November even if he survives the primary. This is a scary prospect for Republicans. A loss in what has been a very solid GOP redoubt for years could be a sign Republicans will lose control of the House. 

The candidate stepping forward Wednesday afternoon was a political neophyte. That would be Tony Ghee, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve and current employee at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York City. Ghee apparently just registered as a Republican. That may seem like a bad thing, but to those looking for a “fresh face,” it can be perceived as a positive.

More importantly, Ghee lives in Totowa and already has lined up endorsements with the powers-that-be in both Passaic and Essex counties, which represent about 40 percent of the district. Most of the district, of course, is in Morris, but that bloc of Passaic and Essex voters can’t be overlooked. And remember that those counties endorse primary candidates with an “official line,” something that doesn’t happen in Morris. 

With Ghee’s entry into the race a few hours old, Bucco’s fundraiser took place in the Rathskeller of the Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown.  

The rathskeller is in the basement (of course) of the restored Vail Mansion, which was built by Theodore Vail, one of the original founders with Alexander Graham Bell of AT&T. It then became Morristown Town Hall and most recently, an upscale eatery and bar. There is something about the cellar of an old mansion that lends itself to gossip and the setting didn’t disappoint. 

The name of Jerry Langer, a trucking executive from Montville, was being circulated along with craft beers and plates of pasta and Italian cold cuts as another possible congressional candidate. Three years ago, Langer was on then-Governor Chris Christie’s presidential campaign finance committee. He also was one of the underwriters of last Saturday’s Morris GOP fundraiser at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. According to Republicans who like Langer, his presumed advantage is that he can self-fund his campaign. Langer, whose trucking business is in Jersey City, didn’t immediately return a phone call for comment.

Intriguingly, a prominent Morris County pol endorsing one of the new candidates, Ghee, over an elected official from his own county, Webber, is John Sette, the former chair of the Morris County Republican Committee.  

“I think he can win,” Sette said about Ghee. “You put his resume alongside Mikie Sherrill and I think he comes out ahead.”

Sherrill, the presumed Democratic congressional nominee in the district, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former Navy helicopter pilot. Certainly, a contest  between two candidates with military backgrounds who have never held elected office before would be fun to watch.  

Asked about the latest occurrences in the race, Webber, who was at the fundraiser, smiled and said, “We live in interesting times. God bless America.”

He then ran into Sette and greeted him politely. 

Sette, who is never shy, bluntly asked Webber, “Do you know why I’m not endorsing you?”

Webber shook his head. 

The men then retreated to what resembled a small walk-in closet to talk about it. This was a closet in a basement – call it the back room of a back room. The men emerged in seeming good humor, but without disclosing the nuts and bolts of the chat. 

Sette summed up things this way, “If we all agreed, we’d still be British.” 

A late, but notable attendee at the fundraiser, was Bob Hugin, the leading Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

Joking that since he became involved in politics, he’s never gone to so many events in bars, Hugin said that he and his supporters should ignore talk about how Democrats have such an advantage in New Jersey. 

He said he doesn’t care what observers say because, “We are going to win in November.” 

But who’s going to be the District 11 Republican congressional candidate on the ticket with Hugin?

It sure looks like it’s going to take a spirited primary to find out.

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