ATLANTIC CITY -The waves lapped lackadaisically at the gray beach.
Another ugly, more-March-than-May dreadful May day in New Jersey.
In politics, the clock ticked down toward the June 6th Republican Primary for governor, an event made competitive by the presence in the race of Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16). Of all the candidates in both parties, it was Ciattarelli who began talking pointedly about the school funding issue in the context of this campaign season before anyone else, standing last fall in the unadorned frontispiece of Manville High School. At the cornerstone of Ciattarelli’s candidacy is his plan to reduce excess aid in Abbott school districts like Jersey City by 20% per year over five years, with the savings re-directed to the most severely underfunded school districts like Manville.
Now, closing the gap with Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno in the primary according to the latest’s Quinnipiac University Poll, the candidate made the rounds of events statewide with urgency, landing in the Caesar’s Palace Palladium Ballroom on Thursday afternoon for the 67th annual conference of the New Jersey Association of Counties with all the exhilaration of one who knows he has to make every minute count. He used to be a freeholder, and so when he walked across the carpet to mount the stage in the Caesar’s Palace Palladium Ballroom on Executive director John Donnadio’s invitation, friendly applause greeted him.
Passaic County Freeholders Bruce James and T.J. Best were in the room. Hudson County Freeholder Junior Maldonado was in the room, and so was Hunterdon County Freeholder John King, who bagged an association plaque as freeholder of the year. Morris County Freeholder Deborah Schmidt was in the room. Down front, Somerset County freeholders Peter Palmer and Brian Levine sat attentively.
At the microphone above them, Ciattarelli told Nick Acocella of PolitiFax he intentionally mispronounced his own Italian surname so the Camden County table didn’t take him home with them. “They introduced me to 12 people from Camden and 13 of them were Italian,” Ciattarelli cracked. “Even [Freeholder] Jonathan Young is Italian. when they introduced me to the 13th person they aid, ‘Welcome to the family.”
Ciattrelli warmed up the crowd.
“In Somerset and Hunterdon counties, the number one issue is property taxes,” he said, recounting his excursions around the state as a gubernatorial candidate. “When I go to Sussex County, the number one issue is gun rights, the number two issue is gun rights, and the number three issue is gun rights.”
The joke got a big laugh.
Then he told the one about his mother.
“Endorsements are a good thing, and I’ve spent six months courting my mother,” he said. “Now, I don’t want you thinking there are any skeletons in the closet. There are none. But between my parents there was one high school diploma. And I told people that at my kickoff last October. My mother saw that and said, ‘Must you tell people there was only one high school diploma between us? People will think we’re uneducated.’ I told her, ‘Mom, that’s a great American story. And it was because of your unbelievable work ethic that we had a great middle class life.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘dammit, if you’re going to tell that story, tell people I was the one with the high school diploma.'”
So Ciattarelli did, his mother read it in the Courier News newspaper, and she endorsed him.
The gubernatorial candidate spoke for a half an hour, and when he was finished, he received sustained applause.
“He was much better than that other guy who was here this morning,” a self-identified Republican said amid the crowd’s positive reaction to Ciattarelli. Pressed to identify the other gubernatorial candidate who had spoken to the group, the Republican shrugged and said he didn’t know and didn’t care. “A Democrat,” he said.