CLIFTON – Phil Rizzo’s gubernatorial campaign has gotten some negative attention – his opponents say he’s dodging property taxes by living in a house his church bought for him.
Anxious to change that narrative less than three weeks before the June 8 Republican primary, Rizzo is in the midst of a quintessential Jersey adventure – visiting a diner in all 21 New Jersey counties over 21 days to meet voters.
So, early this morning found him addressing a small crowd at the Tick Tock Diner, a Route 3 landmark.
“I’m a populist,” said Rizzo, who is both a pastor and a real estate investor. And in this case, he’s a populist running in “the right lane.”
He proved that point by ticking off some of his core views. He is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, anti-big government and pro-medical freedom, which is surely an important issue in the midst of a pandemic.
“Phil Murphy froze the whole state,” Rizzo said. “Who wants that?”
Speaking to an 8-year-old boy who appeared with his mother, Rizzo said that getting the COVID vaccine, or for that matter, any vaccine, should be up to his parents and his doctor, not the government. Rizzo said he thinks support for this type of medical freedom crosses party lines.
Notwithstanding the political fault lines of the day, the COVID vaccine is not mandated; those who don’t want to get it do not have to.
Rizzo, along with Hirsh Singh, are in a battle for the right wing of the state’s Republican party.
Their joint obstacle is former assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the choice of the party establishment.
Rizzo sees hope for his campaign, because, “the people are tired of the establishment on both sides of the aisle.”
Ciattarelli took notice of Rizzo last week with a campaign mailer that essentially called him a tax cheat.
The house in question is in the New Vernon section of upscale Harding Township in Morris County.
“The church didn’t buy me a house,” said Rizzo, who is married with four children. “Like any job, there’s compensation.”
He said he bought the house originally and improved it. Then the church, the City Baptist Church of North Bergen and Hoboken, took it over. He said it’s standard practice for a church to own the pastor’s home.
He said that’s because pastoring a church is a 24-hour a day vocation and that congregants often need assistance at all hours.
“Jack and Hirsh hitting me on that is just political mudslinging,” he said.
Rizzo couldn’t refrain from taking a few shots himself. He said Ciattarelli, who is an accountant, should understand such financial arrangements. And he said Singh is not qualified to comment on the matter because he lives in his parents’ house.
Speaking about a more traditional campaign subject, Rizzo told one diner patron that state spending is out of control. He said he’s reviewing the state’s $45 billion budget, which he’d like to cut by about $7 billion.
Penetrating questions are uncommon at such events, so it was a bit surprising that the patron asked what Rizzo would do about a state with more than 500 municipalities, many of which are small. Consolidating towns and/or merging services is often discussed in New Jersey but substantive action has proven elusive.
Rizzo responded that he thought spending was the real problem and that he would not be comfortable with the state telling towns what to do.
“That’s for the municipalities to decide,” he said.
The locale for today’s event – the Tick Tock – gained some attention two years ago when stories surfaced that Mick Jagger had visited and ordered a Taylor ham sandwich. That tale may have been apocryphal, but if Rizzo bucks the odds and becomes governor, the world should know that his visit to the Tick Tock was quite real.