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Over the course of the 17 years since 9-11, Ryan Peters of Hainesport made four separate overseas deployments as a Navy SEAL: to Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and to Central and South America.
In the Middle East, he tested that virtue they inculcated at the Naval Academy called loyalty.
And if loyalty to country and to his fellow service-members were his first priority, he also found a way to advance the interests of his home county of Burlington when – during those time spaces back home – he filled an assembly vacancy in January of 2018.
They tested loyalty in Trenton, too, in their own inimitable way.
The defection to the Democratic Party by state Senator Dawn Addiego (R-8) and what he perceived as wobbly legs by Assemblyman Joe Howarth (R-8) in the aftermath of Democrat Andy Kim’s detonation of Republican Tom MacArthur in the 3rd Congressional District and the loss of GOP control countywide left Peters with a bad feeling about the team. Their overall intestinal fortitude was hardly SEAL-like, to put it mildly.
His irritation over Addiego’s party-change probably caused more agita than Howarth’s hesitation. But the latter’s behavior irked him. In fact, he was so put off by other politicians in his immediate midst that he considered quitting politics. “Joe made a mistake,” the assemblyman said. “He tried to flip parties and they didn’t want him. His silence for two days on the matter didn’t help. No one believes that.” The whole sorry episode, conceived as a way to protect business interests under the guise of a Road to Damascus epiphany, revealed such striking lack of backbone, courage, character, and, frankly, loyalty, that it left Peters dangling at the end of a question.
“What am I doing this for?” he pondered.
But he realized if he gave up, “Then they win.”
For the moment, at least, the assemblyman said he’s encouraged by the outcome. The party furnished him with retiring BurlCo Sheriff Jean Stanfield, a stout GOP loyalist.
“I couldn’t be happier with my running mate,” he told InsiderNJ.
“It can’t be Joe,” he noted. “[Assembly Majority Leader] Lou Greenwald will say, ‘Joe called me and said he wanted to switch parties.'”
Peters started out as a Republican himself as a matter of familial loyalty.
He developed the concept as he grew up.
“My parents were Republicans,” he recalled. His political science studies at the Naval Academy reinforced lessons about sacrifice and government service. Never a rabid partisan, he did identify with core party beliefs. “I knew I was a Republican because I like limited government,” he said. “I knew government’s job is to provide safety and law enforcement but not raise taxes astronomically and then decide which groups to give tax breaks to.”
So there was a basic core values system there.
But it went beyond that.
“I’m one of the most loyal guys you’ll ever meet,” Peters said. “I’m staying here, running with the party that got me here. That’s how I was raised. So many people knocked on doors and gave me their time. [Former Lieutenant Governor] Kim Guadagno, [former Senator] Joe Kyrillos, [Senator] Chris Brown all sat down with me and taught me. Imagine me saying now, ‘This is looking scary, I might not win, I’m going to take a safe bet and switch parties.”
He couldn’t do it.
He felt a sense of, well, loyalty.
“I’ll go down fighting for the people who believe in me,” Peters said.
Newly promoted to commander-select and facing his first reelection bid, the SEAL assemblyman stands poised for a fifth overseas deployment. The work in Iraq and Afghanistan is conditioned by multiple external forces. As for Trenton, he doesn’t want to say the sky is falling – his words – “But people are fed up with the amount of taxes,” he said. “People who have lived in New Jersey their whole lives are saying, ‘What are we doing here?’ We’re paying more taxes to the point where [Senate President Steve] Sweeney and Greenwald – the guys who are part of the leadership team that contributed to the mess we’re in – are trying to talk to a Democratic governor and tell him, ‘You can’t raise taxes anymore.'”
So how does the minority party assemblyman who endured six minutes of holding his his breath underwater while getting pummeled as part of his SEAL training survive State Street?
“Constituent service,” he said. “That’s your oxygen.”
He’s managed to find a way to humor himself too amid the dumbfounded, bewildered looks of those who try to figure out how a bill he authored can suddenly materialize in the hands of a favored Democratic colleague.
“At a very basic level, I was prepared for a toxic environment in Trenton,” said the combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and a 14-month counter narcotics and counter terrorism tour in Central and South America. “I graduated from high school a while ago and I can play these games. I just don’t want to.”
So when he encounters bipartisan friendlies as a matter of routine, like Assemblyman Roy Freiman, Assemblyman John Burzichelli and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor, he takes heart. His military veteran colleagues also give him a sense of across-the-asile esprit de corps.
“But where it starts to have real consequences, up at the Sweeney-Murphy-CoughlinNorcross level, there’s nothing you can do, and it’s frustrating,” Peters said.
Does he see a 2020 congressional run in his future?
He’s focused on 2019.
“I got a lot of good breaks, and I really like where I am right now,” he said. “I really want to win.”
It’s the loyalty thing.
He started a job.
He wants to finish it.
That’s why he’s been on the Middle Eastern front for 17 years.
Job to do.
“I was a sophomore in physics class when the Pentagon got hit,” Peters said of that initial burning bush moment. “All I could think of was ‘how can I get to the tip of the spear?’ We train for war. Peace confuses the warrior. When you’re in war, you enjoy the clarity.”
He added, “I can narrow foreign policy down to what i teach my kids: ‘don’t ever be a bully. If you see a bully, step in and defend. Be a sheepdog, not a wolf.’ The next part is diplomacy.” In the bigger scheme, “We lost what our strategy is. …We should have had a plan to get in and out. It’s drawn out fighting in an endless war, and I’d certainly appreciate a way out.”
But in the meantime, “I’m a happy warrior.”
And loyal to the cause.
The words linger.
Are there times when he craves more of it from leadership in Trenton?
A lot of the time.
Or all the time, in point of cold fact.
“More of the same,” Peters said of Murphy’s budget address last week. “I didn’t hear about any programs we’re going to audit. All I heard was we’re going to raise taxes. As [Minority Leader Jon] Bramnick says, ‘We haven’t had a session yet where we haven’t raised a tax.’ A guy who lives in a gated community [Murphy] is not going to lecture me on how we’re going to save our people.”
Although he has concerns about how it will impact recruiting, he’s not completely opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana provided he can tie post traumatic stress disorder relief for combat veterans to the ultimate bill.
He wants to help people, and when it comes to veterans in particular, he’s loyal to those guys.
Listen to the CIG Insider NJ Podcast’s recent episode with host Paul Crupi and Peters.
- Andy Kim
- Burlington County
- Burlington County GOP
- Chris Brown
- Craig Coughlin
- Dawn Marie Addiego
- Eliana Pintor Marin
- George Norcross
- Jean Stanfield
- Joe Howarth
- Joe Kyrillos
- John Burzichelli
- Kim Guadagno
- Lou Greenwald
- Phil Murphy
- Ryan Peters
- Steve Sweeney
- Tom MacArthur
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