MOUNT HOLLY – The county Republican headquarters here sits on a Diane Allen-country street that looks like it could have been constructed by a Hollywood film crew to recreate – in exacting detail – a sense of the quintessential American town. The human forms you see moving around look less like people than scale models accompanying those readily distinguishable architectural landmarks you absolutely need in order to cast the look, feel and atmosphere of The American Town.
You see it in the figures frozen on the steps of the Elks Lodge, who might have looked that way 60 years ago.
You picture a bronze statue of Jimmy Stewart downtown.
You picture a candidate for governor, in this case one Joseph Rudy Rullo – walking along the brick sidewalk and up the thick-set stairs into the right-out-of-Marjorie Morningstar grand old building for a screening in front of the county party’s screening committee. Republicans here have owned this place longer than the lifespans to date of the young men who now run one of the most successful political outfits in the state of New Jersey, helmed by Chairman Bill Layton, the veteran leader of a party organization envisioned long ago by his mentor, Glenn Paulsen.
Tonight, most of the GOP candidates running for governor made their way into the parlor and waited for Josh Foote, the organization’s executive director, to call them in to appear before the full committee.
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) screened first, followed by Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, followed by businessman Rullo. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno will appear before the screening committee here on Monday evening.
“It reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting,” Ciattarelli said of the environs.
Of course, the mistake that people make is to draw a conclusion that somehow the idyllic setting means idyllic politics, or politics devoid of the usual New Jersey-style shoving matches; because the reality is there is a war going on here, and it’s with that maw of a county next door otherwise known as Ocean.
When Ocean goes one way, Burlington – with a bit of a chip on its shoulder because its leaders feel they have had to build an organization from the ground up to get hard-fought, always-under-siege victories – while Ocean has big built-in GOP voters – usually steps in the opposite direction.
Ocean’s a beast. Burlington’s a well oiled machine, or so goes the BurlCo CW.
In the 2009 gubernatorial election, Republican Governor Chris Christie edged incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine in Burlington: 66,723 to 63,144. In Ocean, Christie buried Corzine: 124,328 to 53,761.
In that year’s GOP Primary for Governor, Christie got 22,503 votes in Ocean and 11,210 in Burlington. In the 2014 GOP Primary for the 3rd congressional seat, Tom MacArthur got 7,556 votes in Ocean and 8,352 in a positively gloating Burlington.
And so on.
In the 2008 GOP Primary, when Burlco’s Chris Myers felled Ocean’s Jack Kelly, an infuriated Ocean sliced Cherry Hill out of the 3rd district and bulked up with Brick, to give the 3rd more primary and general election heft.
Ocean and Burlington.
BurlCo’s low-hanging-fruit freeholders (with the exception of last year) get bounced out of office in prez election years. Ocean freeholders stick around for 36 years (just ask Joe Vicari).
It’s the kind of dichotomy that can play hell – if he’s not careful – on the equilibrium of the congressman who represents the 3rd District 9in this case T-Mac.
Yin and Yang focus is probably the way MacArthur would say he likes to resolve the issue.
Anyway, with exceptions, as with Christie and T-Mac, if Ocean leans Guadagno, one might draw the conclusion that Burlington leans Ciattarelli.
Don’t tell that to the assemblyman.
“I don’t take anything for granted, and I don’t count my chickens before they’ve hatched,” he told InsiderNJ.
Or Rullo, who showed up in a tie appropriately decked with pictures of elephants.
The populist candidate said he thought he did well after emerging from the screening process.
I am “a non-career politician [and] Trump supporter who is resonating,” Rullo told InsiderNJ.
He had a good night in his home county of Ocean at that organization’s screening earlier this week. In a from-the-heart speech, Rullo jabbed at Guadagno and Ciattarelli for refusing to back Trump for president last year.
The crowd was mostly receptive.
But Burlington, naturally, was different – the format is more intimate, more like the setting of the town itself.
And it was a different crowd.
“Ocean’s was before a much larger committee, while Burlington’s was before only the executive committee, which means the presentation tends to be more conversational,” Ciattarelli said. “My sense was that it went well. I emphasized my unique background as a business owner, and I and my five point plan were very well received.”
A retired cop and naval officer (good credentials here in the shadow of the joint base), Rogers, too, liked the process.
“It was very fair, and there was a good amount of interaction,” he said. “I was pleased with the questions.”
If Guadagno and Ciattarelli present as GOP establishment rivals who ran from Donald Trump in last year’s trenches, Rullo and Rogers have engaged in some mild head-butting early on who loves Trump more.
Rullo was an avid 2016 backer.
But Rogers worked for him.
“People know I was the first elected official who supported Donald Trump, even when Chris Christie was running,” Rogers told InsiderNJ. “That was something no one else did, with the exception of [Senator] Mike Doherty [and Senator Joe Pennacchio]. They know I was an adviser and on Fox news.”
But let’s not get crazy, Rogers noted.
“This is a New Jersey gubernatorial race,” he said. “We should not be focused on who we supported for president last
year, but the future of this state. I’m proud I supported our president, but this is about what i am going to do for the people of New Jersey.
“First and foremost, we need to bring our economy back,” the candidate added. “You need money in our treasury. I’m going to bring jobs back and cut spending. I want to bring back New Jersey’s motion picture and film industry. Plumbers, carpenters, skilled workers – they’ll all have jobs. I want to compete with and outdo Hollywood.”
If they were filming a movie about the perfect looking town, at least, without diving into the backdrop of that ferocious rivalry that seesaws between here and Toms River, they could start here, in lovely Mount Holly.
For his part, Rullo thought things went fine in Ocean and Burlington, but distrusts some events upcoming.
Ocean’s convention – projected to go to Guadagno – is on March 8th.
Burlington will follow…