CLARK -No one knows exactly what will happen in the Republican Primary for governor two weeks from now, but Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli – convinced of momentum on his side built on his campaign’s relentless new message-new messenger narration – sees opportunity in the general election. “I’m telling you,” he said this evening at his town hall event, one of multiple such events planned for the duration. “There’s a pathway to victory – a school funding path.” North and south are in a statewide slug-fest right now on the issue of a fair and equitable school funding formula: Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) versus Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32).
Ciattarelli says his plan of reducing aid to Abbott-funded districts dovetails with where Sweeney stands on the issue, and that the rancor between Sweeney and Prieto is so intense, he sees himself being able to steer Democratic voters – mostly of the suburban variety – in his direction. Certainly, he sees his message appealing to unaffiliated swing voters. he recites the numbers: 1.2 Republicans; 2 million Democrats; 2.5 million unaffiliated voters.
He lingers longest on the unaffiliateds.
“I intend to galvanize them,” said Ciattarelli, a CPA by training who made his money as the CEO of the medical publishing company he started.
The Town Hall took place in a Knights of Columbus hollow on a downtown commercial street crammed with pizza shacks, gas stations, Chinese noodle houses, nail salons and pet grooming parlors. We can’t actually account for each one of these shops, but all of New Jersey might as well be a painting of that spare, squashed-together predictable outline, that doesn’t quite bench press the basics of the Rockwell it strives to be, and even undermines it, dotted with haggard-looking property tax-saddled types on the sidewalks – faces crunched in over-worked horror – and the occasional person behind coke bottle glasses who vaguely looks like a nut who just hitchhiked into town.
Anyway, the Knights of Columbus hall. You know the type. A pastel portrait of Pope John Paul II hangs on the wall. There’s no immediate evidence of the current pope. Flood stained ceiling and carpet. Parade banners on brass stands caked with dust. A flag of the state of New Jersey that looks like it doubles as a door jamb to the floor-length saloon swings to the bar in the adjoining chamber – and the bar itself: dark and dank with stools miraculously stacked on the bar top at 6 in the evening that the barkeep likely crow-barred off the duffs that last occupied them.
Fifty people sat at the round tables and at the front of the room, Garwood Councilman Joe Sarno – from the beginning a Ciattarelli believer amid mostly snoozing and depleted GOP ranks – stood with a microphone in hand and introduced his choice for governor: Ciattarelli. Impeccable in shirt sleeves and yellow tie, no trace of a gut or evidence of indiscipline, tanned, amiable, approachable, enamored of numbers and detail, articulate to a fault, the candidate went through the basics of his five-point plant. His wife Melinda sat in the front row.
A tracker from the campaign of his rival, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, watched his every move and Ciattarelli snapped off a wink at him at one point and called him a gentleman for hanging in there.
Then he threw some leather at Guadagno.
“When she tries to explain her circuit breaker, she talks about bringing in a billion dollars in new revenue growth to pay for it, but we don’t have revenue growth,” said the candidate. “She promises to create immediate tax relief with revenue growth. I tell you: it’s irresponsible. It’s a lie. It’s a falsehood. It’s another rebate program.”
As the cornerstone for his agenda, Ciattarelli cited the disparity in school aid distribution and noted the property tax burden on a $500,000 home in an Abbott district city like Hoboken compared to Clark: $6,000 annually compared to $12,000. What he wants to do is work with those Democrats like Sweeney who are already on his side to take $10 billion in state school aid and redistribute it equitably.
This coming week, Ciattarelli plans a series of town halls like the one in Clark, including appearances in the western part of the state and in Gloucester – Sweeney’s home county.
“No soft balls,” the former little league coach told the crowd when it was Q and A time. “Only high and tight fast balls.”