With Primary Day close at hand, LD24 Republican challenger Daniel Cruz wanted to make sure that folks knew he was fighting for each vote and knocking on doors until his knuckles ached. He is running against incumbent State Senator Steven V. Oroho who has represented the district since 2008.
Senator Oroho is on the Budget and Appropriations, Economic Growth, and Judge Budget Oversight
committees. Cruz is an educator, born in raised in Paterson before relocating to Sussex county with his family, and wants to put Oroho out of a job. Then, after three terms, he says he would put himself out of a job after implementing term limits.
Cruz also wants voters to be aware, unequivocally, that he is an outsider—not part of the party establishment—and is hoping that his populist message will resonate with Republican voters who are suspicious of the party machine. Indeed, he frames himself as the people’s choice much in the same way Donald Trump capitalized on his “outsider” credibility and, on the state level, how Hirsh Singh is hoping to win the primary against former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a moderate Republican who has gained the endorsement of all 21 GOP county chairmen.
Among the key issues Cruz has been touting on the campaign has been the gas tax—by which he pointed a finger at Ciattarelli for supporting during his time in office. Cruz supports term limits for state level politicians, an exemption for seniors on paying school property taxes, quarterly county town halls, and branding the Republican Party which he believes is in terminal decline in his district—the blame for which he lays on Senator Oroho.
Many New Jerseyans have complained of rising gas prices over the last few weeks. Cruz said that the state tax could be cut to reduce the costs. “My plan is to overturn the gas tax when the time comes,” Cruz said. “There is no reason why we should be paying so much. Murphy said it’s because of the gas tax that he can increase it by as much as he wants. He is going to raise it again 9 cents.”
Cruz cited the price increase as an inverted example of where the state had been in the past. “We are the fourth highest in the country. In 2016 we were the fourth lowest, now we are the fourth highest in the country.” Despite the gas tax revenues, Cruz felt that taxpayers weren’t getting their money’s worth, at least in his district. “We were supposed to pave the roads and fix them, but I don’t see them on the roads. If you go up Route 23 in Franklin, right where my opponent lives, Route 23 is a disaster. That is his hometown. For him to put this gas tax into effect, sponsored and co-authored with Democrat Paul Sarlo, and your own roads aren’t fixed? That’s a problem, that’s a red flag. If you come up, you’ll see it, this is a fact.”
Cruz took issue with the ever-rising highway tolls as well, the bane of every north Jerseyan making the summer boardwalk pilgrimage down the shore. “It was supposed to be temporary but here we are, it is constantly rising and at what point is it going to stop? We have the worst financial stability in the country, New Jersey has an F financially.” According to Cruz, this is in part due to a failure on his incumbent opponent, who sits on the Budget Oversight Committee. “I believe if you are going to be in office for so many years, going into a fifth term–promising you’ll do this or that and haven’t done it, we are still in this financial crisis–why should you still be in charge? Why should you be overseeing this? You can say you’re an expert, but what would you do to get us out of this hole?”
When asked what he would do to steer that state into better fiscal waters, Cruz said, “We will have to start with the pension system and we need to look at the school property taxes.”
Cruz advanced an unorthodox idea which would likely prove as popular with his rural base as it would prove unpopular with urban voters, if enacted. “One of the issues that I see we should rectify is with our seniors. They should be rewarded. If they are 70 or over, they should not have to pay school property taxes. The life expectancy in New Jersey is 77 years old. Why should we have them pay the taxes when they can’t afford it? Some of them are living off their 401(k) or social security and they can barely pay their taxes. I knocked on a door and a 91-year-old woman answered. She was trying to stand up and have a conversation with me, and when you saw her property, it wasn’t kept. I asked her about it, she said ‘I’m trying to pay these high taxes’. I know we have the Senior Freeze Program, but I don’t think it was effective. If you are 65, OK, but if you’re 77 or 80 and you’re paying $12,000 at the time, you’re paying a thousand a month, there are many seniors who can’t afford to pay that.”
Cruz said that there was an imbalance as far as state funding for schools was concerned and that if he gained office, he would try to withdraw funding going into the cities and redirect it to rural areas in need. Additionally, he advocated increasing the tax levy for the urban areas which had seen less funding sent their way. An unusual proposal for a Republican.
Clearly, Cruz is not looking to gain office in deep blue counties, but he maintains his idea would still be beneficial in places like his hometown of Paterson as far as seniors were concerned. “We have to look at school funding from the cities who are getting massive school funding. Some are getting $700 million. We have to look at those districts and take some of that money back and increase their tax levy. So instead of 2% we might have to raise it to 4%.” He admitted the idea would not be popular in cities. “But at the same time, are we talking about equity or equality? Are we talking about fairness or not? We have rural areas which are struggling as well. The inner cities aren’t struggling alone, the rural areas are struggling as well.” His school tax exemption plan, however, might offset some of the pain for the seniors. “If you have seniors 70 or over in the cities, they aren’t paying school property taxes either, so this would benefit them as well.”
That would be a tough sell in Trenton but might find appeal in the rural north.
“That’s one way,” Cruz said, suggesting a less drastic alternative. “The other way can be that if you are paying $12k in taxes, if you are over 70 you might pay a quarter, or half. There are ways to start the program, but we need to start somewhere. Our seniors are leaving New Jersey in droves, they are going to Delaware, Florida, Pennsylvania, they’re being chased out.”
In the past, Cruz has said he wants to put a limit on the number of terms an official can serve. “I don’t think it is fair for someone in office to be in for more than three terms.” Assuming Cruz was successful, he would then have a much greater time constraint to see the fruition of one of his more ambitious goals. “I would also want to have a train put in to Andover. We’ve been talking about it but nothing has happened. A train would bring more people up. If people knew they could go to work by train, the housing market would also increase. That would be one of my main priorities.”
As far as the party’s own future? Cruz said that he felt an Oroho victory would see a further decrease in the district’s Republican majority. To counteract that, he proposes a local-level marketing campaign to rehabilitate the party image. “I want to brand the district because our Republicans are decreasing. We are 60/40. If my opponent wins, that is going to dwindle. For me, to brand and grow the Republican Party would be extremely important. I mean to market the GOP, bring more young people in, teach people about the Republican Party. There’s a perception that the Republican Party is the party of the racists, but I want to make sure that that is corrected, and people are educated. Just like someone markets a business, I want to market the Republican Party in the 24th legislative district.”
With accusations of his opponent being out of touch and a Republican Party apparatus that he charges does not resonate with the people he has spoken to on the campaign trail, Cruz proposed some down-home Athenian democracy. “One of the main things I want to do is have quarterly town hall meetings in each county to bring voters together. They can express their concerns on issues. I will bring some of the bills in Trenton to those quarterly meetings and ask the people, how do you want me to vote? If the majority tells me to vote yes or no, then I will go down to Trenton and that’s how I will vote. I’m not voting on my personal agenda, I will vote how the people want me to vote.”
Inevitably, the question of the gubernatorial primary was raised. While Cruz maintained he respected Ciattarelli, he did not have confidence that he could beat Governor Murphy in November. “Mr. Ciattarelli is part of the establishment,” Cruz said. “When someone gets endorsed by all 21 counties, red flags are raised. For someone to get all 21 is a problem for me.”
He asserted that Ciattarelli favored the gas tax nine years ago. “I do not believe I can vote for Ciattarelli. I met the candidates and the candidate who stuck out to me as genuine, very likable, and personable, was Hirsh Singh. I’ve been to some of his events, and I think that he displays some of the concerns that I have. And the most important thing, he’s not part of the establishment, he is an outsider just like I am. He also supported Trump, which is something he and I have in common. We are both outsiders, both Trump supporters, and we both have similar concerns.”
Going back to his urban roots, Cruz was convinced that Ciattarelli would be a non-entity for urban voters. “New Jersey needs to know that Mr. Ciattarelli doesn’t have what it takes to go into the inner cities and talk to the people to steal votes away from Murphy. He just doesn’t have the charisma. I think that would change with Singh. I am from Paterson and I know what the people are thinking when people like Jack are coming in. He just doesn’t have it. This is no knock, no disrespect to the man, but I’m speaking from my experience about the inner cities. Jack doesn’t have a chance against Murphy in those populated areas. He just doesn’t.”
On Tuesday, the litmus test for the NJGOP soul, New Jerseyans will see for sure whether or not Republicans will demonstrate confidence with established figures, or take a dive into the Trump side of “outsider” populism.