RARITAN – The river of the same name runs through here on its way to emptying east in the bay. On its way it passes the statue of a man with a machine gun belt over his shoulder, and tomorrow Jack Ciattarelli hopes to show some of that fighting pride, which is why he held his last rally here in the blue collar town where he grew up, also home to Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Basilone.
The world Ciattarelli came up in, of conservative families who insisted on Sunday dinners, who did whatever the hell it took to keep their children fed and clothed, weathered the hardships, worked the double shifts at the bar, as his parents did, literally manned a ditch, as his union pipefitter father did, or fiercely, proudly became the first person to get a high school equivalency, as his mother did, faces forces that appear too daunting to contend with now. But Ciattarelli, the Republican nominee for Governor of the State of New Jersey, standing on a stage across the street from the statue of Basilone, a Marine hero killed in the Pacific, near the home where Ciattarelli lived as a child, beside the river he swam in and the canal he skated on, insisted his New Jersey dream does not only reside in the past.
“Are you ready to beat Phil Murphy?” he asked the crowd, where he stood above them alongside his wife Melinda.
A roar ensued.
“I’ve been ready for four years,” Ciattarelli said. “You know, my experience in life, business, sports and politics taught me that when the other side calls you names, that says something.
“But in 24 hours I got another name he can call me,” the Republican gubernatorial candidate added. “How about ‘governor-elect?'”
Another roar enveloped the Ciattarellis.
The former assemblyman who served as a local elected official here and then as an assemblyman based in the town just south of here, Hillsborough, has contrasted himself as the Jersey guy with Jersey values alongside the incumbent Democratic governor, a Boston born and reared transplant who made his money on Wall Street and lacks not only roots here but authentic groundedness. That’s why he needed the likes of Joe and Jill Biden, Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders to helicopter in at the 11th hour to give his reelection campaign the veneer of power, Ciattarelli said. What the governor lacks in the way of a story he hopes to supplant with the radiance of national Democrats’ personalities.
“He can bring in the ghost of FDR, we’re winning tomorrow,” crowed Ciattarelli, as he uncorked another familiar line from the 2021 trail. “When the reporters ask me ‘who are you bringing in?’ I tell them, ‘I’m bringing in Jack Ciattarelli.'”
Organic, sincere, buttressed acoustically by the reverb of at least one American Graffiti hotrod over-draped with Ciattarelli paraphernalia and a pre-rally stream of American rock consciousness sprinkled with Springsteen, Eagles and Steve Miller standards and cowboy hatted by a few country western chestnuts, the roars also lacked a certain guttural, full-fledged barbarian horde hysteria.
State Senator Kip Bateman (R-16) could be seen in the vicinity of the stage, bearhugging other Somerset-Hunterdon GOP brand names. Former Somerset Commissioner Pat Walsh was there with a thumbs-up sign, along with County GOP Chairman Tim Howes and former Chairman al Gaburo.
But Ciattarelli had his eyes fixed on the people wronged by Murphy’s liberal government, he said.
“We’re delivering a win for New Jersey tomorrow night,” said the Republican. “This guy has failed seniors and veterans in nursing homes, mom and pop shops on Main Street, our kids who missed a year of school, every New Jerseyan waiting five hours at the division of motor vehicles, the black community, women, and every New Jerseyan in the path of Tropical Storm Ida. Thirty fewer New Jerseyans are with us today. If ever we needed one of those ‘get the hell off the beach moments [it was in the lead-up to the storm].'” It was an attempt to catch the ocean spray of Chris Christie, the last Republican to occupy Drumthwacket, who also tried to channel a fetching blue collar mystique to derail and humiliate another Goldman Sachs alumnus, in that case Jon Corzine.
Christie managed to squeak out a win over Corzine, and crushed his opponent to win reelection. But his own failures in a second term train-wrecked by the Bridgegate scandal and his own dogged insistence on running for president anyway, coupled with President Donald Trump’s catastrophic theatrics, abolition of the SALT Tax write-off, refusal to fund a desperately needed Gateway Tunnel, and natural statewide demographics, have Ciattarelli in part playing the role of hard-nosed throwback to a time when the Republican Party still mattered in New Jersey.
He played it to the hilt tonight.
“You know how you know we’re in his head?” he teased the crowd. “Five hours after a drizzle [in a storm after Tropical Storm Ida] he declared a state of emergency.”
He ticked off his own plans for his home state: lower property taxes, creating more jobs by making this a better place to do business, getting his arms around the monster of state government corrupted by special interests, and making it smaller and more responsive to state needs. He would back cops, unlike Murphy, he said, who he derided as “the most anti-cop governor we’ve ever had. Crime is up all across the state.”
He also promised “we’re going to get back to basics in our public schools system.”
But when it came to getting very detailed on those subjects, Ciattarelli, on this night in a state where his party shrunk disastrously over the last generation, retreated into those colorations of yesterday as a way of trying to put an exclamation point on his commitment to something real, something tangible, something lasting and local, and something of value. “This guy’s problem is he’s not Raritan; he’s not New Jersey – and in 24 hours, he’s not our governor, I’m telling you right now,” he said.
Democrats used Trump backer Doug Steinhardt’s brief appearance in the Republican Primary to delight in watching Ciattarelli – an early public teeth-gritter whenever someone mentioned Trump’s name – lunge awkwardly rightward, only to find Steinhardt suddenly not a candidate anymore on the other side of the Jan. 6th desecration at the capitol. But the damage done, Ciattarelli found himself branded early in the general as that guy on a stage at a stop the steal rally, even after he clarified in a mud-pie radio debate with movement conservative Hirsh Singh that Joe Biden – not Trump – had won the presidency in the 2020 election.
Tonight he lingered on that world so foundational for him, he stands on it still, and knows others out there in the night of New Jersey stand on something similar, despite the best jackhammering efforts of Democrats like Murphy and his cavalcade of non-New Jersey interlopers.
“My father was born next to the firehouse; my grandparents immigrated here 100 years ago. This was always home. Melinda fell in love with Raritan before she fell in love with me.”
He was off on a Norman Rockwell horseback ride in the mind of a boy from a town on the river.
He swam it in, of course.
“Today, they would arrest you for that,” he said.
He stayed on the subject of his parents.
“Every dime they made went to their four kids’ nothing my parents wouldn’t do for their family, neighbor, state and country and they expected nothing in return. When they saw a successful person they were never resentful. They said that is someone you should be like. My parents celebrated hard work and other people’s success. Under Governor Ciattarelli, we will celebrate hard work and everybody’s success right here in New Jersey.” It was his speech, spoken, half shouted, and bellowed proudly and indefatigably as the climax of a campaign for governor he seemed to have started as a 2017 Republican Primary casualty, heavy on the bar chords of a rock song pieced together out of the factory town skid marks, scraps and scrapes of hard luck made good, character undeterred, work weathered, sacrifices shouldered and never at so grave a cost as what another kid from the same river town named Basilone bought on a battlefield in WWII.