WOOLWICH – The blur of a heavily rained-on human figure came through the Van Gogh-impressionist smudged working class outline of homes, yards and bogs, the image somewhat marred by South Jersey TV antennae, telephone poles, gas stations, pick up trucks and sport utility vehicles, and yet the doggedness of parking lot purpose displayed by Republican Fran Grenier somewhat transcended the environs.
He crossed the lot on a Saturday afternoon and ducked into a local Applebee’s, greeted almost simultaneously by the image of himself on a suspended TV screen in an attack ad run by the super-PAC that backs opponent Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) in this strange election year mosh pit that tag teams a Trump-backing Greiner with the moose rack-headed New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) intent on stampeding Sweeney.
“Hey, look, I’m on TV,” Greiner cracked, as the ad unloaded in the spacious room.
Grenier, 52, looks to be having some fun. His three kids are out of high school and in college. The U.S. Navy veteran (1983-1988) works a daily eight-hour shift as a radiation protection super in a nuclear power plant in New Jersey’s southernmost county of Salem. Formerly a union technician, he’s been there at the plant for 22 years. Chairman of the Salem GOP, he embraces politics partly as a way to message his fatigue over inequitable taxes and school funding.
One of the most powerful people in New Jersey politics atop his senate presidency perch, Democrat Sweeney has greeted the impertinence of Grenier’s unlikely partnership with the NJEA – which is pumping money into the Republican’s coffers – by allowing his allies to mount heavy (and early) PAC artillery. But even as Sweeney’s troops use the broad visuals of Trump and a dismally limping Governor Chris Christie to sandwich Grenier as an out-of-touch Republican preposterously propped by a bitter teachers’ union, Greiner intends to suction cup Sweeney to Christie in an effort to broadcast a cross-the-aisle partnership run amok. NJEA-infused mail will intensify in September and October, but the campaign, Grenier said, “is not planning a television blitz.”
Sweeney’s politics, including his attempt to run for governor this year, have hampered South Jersey, Grenier maintains. “Our district has been short changed as he [Sweeney] has given away so many favors to North Jersey,” said Grenier. “Sweeney and George Norcross Norcross cut deals to make him the senate president and that has hurt us in terms of the funding we receive for schools, for example. Of course, he’s coming around now in an election year with checks, but he’s playing catch-up. He put us in this position of not funding us incrementally over time.”
Pressed on the dual problem of Trump and Christie, Grenier – who campaigned for Christie for president last year and then backed Trump when Christie bowed out – said people in LD3 are “disappointed” more than anything with Trump. He laughs off the Democrats’ efforts to depict him as a crazy right winger, and doubles down on the Sweeney-Christie symbiosis on everything from the two percent cap to public pensions and benefits overhauls. The early portion of the contest here appears to have devolved into Sweeney and Grenier each trying to brand the other as the more abundant Christie lover.
The Republican challenger says if elected he wants to back legislation creating legislative term limits. “If it’s good enough for the governor or president, it should be good enough for state senators,” he said. “Sixteen years in Trenton is enough. If you’re doing such a good job, you should move up.”
The remark seems aimed at gouging a Sweeney sore spot: his ambition to be governor, short-circuited when Democratic nominee Phil Murphy grabbed the backing of the North Jersey Democratic chairs.
Touching on national politics, Grenier said he hopes the killer of the woman in Charlottesville gets life in prison or lethal injection. He concedes that Trump was “way off message” in the aftermath of the horror that erupted in the clashes between right-wing activists and hate mongers and leftist and progressive counter-protesters. “My concern is where does it end? There’s a history behind it,” Grenier said, when asked about U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s efforts to ban Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. “I think Jefferson Davis was a bad guy. Robert E. Lee lost the war. If you’re offended by a statue, walk by it and don’t read the inscription.”
There’s at least one road down here in these parts here named after Sweeney, and – when asked about it – Grenier didn’t say he would like to have it removed, but as he headed determinedly out on the trail again in a spitting South Jersey rain, he appeared intent on the massive challenge of displacing the actual senate president.