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Yesterday, Tom Kean, Jr. confirmed that he will run for Congress in 2020 and pass up the 2021 Republican gubernatorial race. His withdrawal makes former Somerset County State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli the undisputed frontrunner for the 2021 New Jersey Republican gubernatorial nomination.
In a nutshell, it can be said that Ciattarelli is the most impressive New Jersey Republican gubernatorial aspirant since Christie Whitman and Tom Kean. His landmark accomplishments in both the worlds of business and politics, together with his flawless communication skills and supreme policy insight make him a most compelling candidate.
Ciattarelli is a successful self-made Main Street businessman, while incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has been a prosperous Wall Street executive. In this era, Main Street triumphs are more a harbinger of success in the political arena than Wall Street accomplishments.
Ciattarelli’s policy incisiveness was most graphically illustrated during his 2017 GOP primary campaign for governor, in which he proposed a comprehensive property tax reform plan. Unlike other property tax relief plans of candidates down through the years, which merely involved sleight of hand increases in state taxes to finance cash rebates, Ciattarelli went to the heart of the matter by proposing extensive revision of the state education funding formula, the root cause of our escalating property taxes.
Yet most relevantly, Ciattarelli is the only Republican New Jersey statewide candidate in recent years who explicitly refused to support the 2016 general election presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump is of extreme repulsiveness to the great majority of New Jersey voters. and Ciattarelli’s unequivocal rejection of Trumpism makes him the only electable Republican New Jersey statewide candidate.
New Jersey Trump acolytes hoped the that the summary of Attorney General William Barr on the Mueller Report would boost the President’s popularity and stature with the electorate. Pro-Trump columnists nationally wrote journalistically slovenly pieces focusing only on the finding of no collusion and ignoring Mueller’s explicit refusal to exonerate Trump on the obstruction charge.
The polls since the Barr summary, summarized by Nate Silver showed absolutely no boost in the president’s approval rating. In fact, Barr’s apparently gratuitous and improper characterization of Mueller’s findings on the obstruction issue only appears to have fueled public demand for the release of the actual Mueller Report itself. If there is major disparity between Mueller’s findings and Barr’s characterization of them, we will witness a Barr-gate scandal.
And Trump toxicity reached a new level of virulence with his recent speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Trump proved himself to be the flip side of the Ilhan Omar coin by his insinuating that American Jews have dual loyalties, specifically when he referred to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu as “your prime minister.” Yet even more offensive was Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric on immigration, uttered before an audience of Jews, an ethnic group that was victimized by immigration xenophobia during the Holocaust.
Specifically, in referring to refugees seeking asylum in America from political persecution in their native lands, Trump stated, “You can’t come in. Our country is full. What can we do? We can’t handle any more. Our country’s full. You can’t come in, I’m sorry.”.
These were literally the exact words antisemitic public officials used to justify America denying entry to European Jews fleeing Nazi extermination during the Holocaust. And I found it appalling that no official of the Republican Jewish Coalition has stepped forward to rebuke and repudiate Trump for the despicable character of his speech.
Jack Ciattarelli’s refusal to embrace Trumpism has greatly enhanced his electability. Yet his political courage on Trumpism has guaranteed that he will have a Trumpist primary challenge. It will come from either New Jersey GOP chair Doug Steinhardt or Bob Hugin, the defeated Republican opponent of Bob Menendez in the 2018 US Senate race.
If Steinhardt challenges Ciattarelli, he will have to resign from his position as Chair of the New Jersey Republican State Committee. Otherwise, he will have the appearance of impropriety in which he will be accused of using his party chair position to promote his primary gubernatorial candidacy. And Steinhardt’s failures as party chair in the 2018 election, in which the GOP lost all but one of its seats in the US House of Representatives, would severely negatively impact his gubernatorial candidacy.
The other possible Trumpist primary opponent of Ciattarelli would be Bob Hugin, the landslide Republican loser to Bob Menendez in last November’s US Senate race. A Hugin candidacy would doubtless have the support of Chris Christie and Bill Palatucci, seeking to regain their position of primacy in the New Jersey Republican Party.
Yet while Hugin could self-fund a challenge to Ciattarelli, he proved himself to be politically hapless and clueless in his 2018 race against Bob Menendez.
In baseball terms, Bob Hugin as a political figure could be compared with Marv Throneberry, the first baseman on the 1962 hapless lovable losers, the New York Mets. Throneberry was such a poor fielder that on his birthday, the other Met players came to him and said, “Marv, we were going to give you a birthday cake, but we were afraid you would drop it!”
I doubt that Jack Ciattarelli would lose any sleep from the possibility of a Bob Hugin primary challenge.
As a historian, I like to make comparisons between New Jersey political figures and significant figures in American history. And there is a remarkable similarity between Jack Ciattarelli and Wendell Lewis Willkie, one of my true heroes of American history. Among all the losing presidential candidates in American political history, Wendell Willkie, the loser of the 1940 third term presidential election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would have been the greatest president.
There are five historical biographies published during the past year that I heartily recommend to my readers. One is the David Levering Lewis biography of Wendell Willkie, the other four being the Andrew Roberts biography of Winston Churchill, the Julian Jackson biography of Charles DeGaulle, the William Hitchcock biography of Dwight David Eisenhower, and the David Blight biography of Frederick Douglass.
Like Willkie, Ciattarelli brings a unique businessman’s perspective to the analysis of public issues. Like Willkie with regard to energy companies, Ciattarelli has opposed excessive regulation of business.
Yet there is an even more profound similarity between Willkie and Ciattarelli regarding their political opponents.
Willkie was opposed by the bigoted and xenophobic America First members and isolationists of his day. And Ciattarelli is opposed by the Stephen Miller – types of bigots and xenophobes who are the core of the Trump base.
Indeed, it can be said that Jack Ciattarelli is a Wendell Willkie in waiting. In the interest of historical accuracy, however, there is a prominent discrepancy personally between Wendell Willkie and Jack Ciattarelli. And this is a discrepancy that brings a great deal of happiness to Jack Ciattarelli’s wife, Melinda.
Wendell Willkie was a noted Lothario, having extra-marital affairs with New York City litterateur Irita Van Doren and Soong Mei-ling, the wife of the former ruler of China, Chiang Kai-shek. Jack Ciattarelli is a monogamous husband. That makes him a good subject for political columnists, but a boring subject for gossip columnists.
There is one more person that Ciattarelli strongly resembles: Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan.
Like Hogan, Jack Ciattarelli is decidedly anti-Trump. And like Hogan, Ciattarelli overcame cancer.
Larry Hogan is one of America’s great political success stories, a Republican who achieved election and reelection in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. It is still a long way to Election 2021. But Jack Ciattarelli is the one and only electable prospective New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate. And in 2021, Jack Ciattarelli may prove to be the Larry Hogan of New Jersey.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.