It’s hard to envision Michael P. Carroll making a transition from assemblyman to county surrogate.
Carroll long has been a guy who enjoys debating and sparring about politics, which, of course, is part of what state lawmakers do; county surrogates do not. The job of surrogate basically is to probate wills and to appoint guardians for those who are incapacitated. It’s important, but hardly exciting, work.
Carroll, who is perhaps the most ideologically conservative, if not Libertarian, member of the state Assembly, says he won’t seek reelection when his term is up next year. Instead, he said he’ll consider running to replace the retiring John Pecoraro as Morris County surrogate.
In a conversation Friday morning at the Morristown Deli, a popular spot for political gatherings, Carroll succinctly identified the problem.
“The Dems don’t need us,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world more impotent than a legislative minority.”
Carroll, who just turned 60 and who lives in Morris Township, has been in the Assembly since 1996, representing District 25 in northern and western Morris County.
No, he has not always been in the minority – at least not technically. But Carroll says that even when Republicans controlled the Assembly, “We conservatives never got anything.”
True to his fiscal conservative roots, Carroll never has been one of those lawmakers who “brought home the bacon.” In fact, he took pride in not succumbing to the time-honored and bipartisan political rite of getting grants and other state money for his district. That is why, he often said, state spending and taxes are out of control in New Jersey.
He says that if an expenditure is truly needed for a legitimate statewide need, let it be discussed, debated and inserted into the budget by the full Legislature.
Since we long have been told that all politics is indeed local, one might think this stance would be politically problematic. Not really. In addition to fiscal hawks, Carroll always could count on primary support from Second Amendment boosters and right-to-lifers. That was always enough for him to survive.
Carroll might not have been a key player in Trenton, but he seemed to like being on the outside. He and some fellow Republican lawmakers from northwest Jersey once dubbed themselves the “Mountain Men,” a moniker that made them sound like modern-day Daniel Boones.
Carroll took pride in routinely voting “no” on the state budget, even when the governor was a fellow Republican. When he tried that with Governor Christie, it caused problems.
Sources said at the time that the governor summoned Carroll for a tongue-lashing and threatened to support a candidate running against him in the next primary. Christie lives in the 25th District.
Carroll says that wasn’t precisely correct. He said the governor told him – and another GOP holdout on the budget, Assemblywoman Alison McHose – what he needed to do with the state budget.
As for the tone of the meeting, Carroll said the governor was not annoyed, adding, “I never saw Chris angry.”
There is a Christie connection, of course, in how Carroll got to the Assembly in the first place. That was by beating then-freeholder Christie in a divisive 1995 GOP primary. That campaign unfolded as it did because the district’s two Assembly seats were becoming vacant. Incumbent Art Albohn was retiring and fellow incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen had gone to Congress.
Anthony R. Bucco, who is now a senator, was named as a temporary replacement for Frelinghuysen, but he still needed to win election. The four main primary candidates were Bucco, Carroll, Christie and Rick Merkt with the latter two running as a team. There were also two fringe candidates, including a guy who ran a go-go bar in Mine Hill. Some things in politics, you just can’t make up.
This campaign garnered a fair amount of attention in 2015 when Christie ran for president, primarily because in 1995, Christie was the moderate, or dare we say, liberal, candidate. He was pro-choice and he attacked Carroll for opposing the state’s ban on assault weapons. Considering the make-up of the Republican primary electorate in Morris County, it was no surprise that the winners were Carroll and Bucco.
When I saw Carroll making the rounds at Republican clubs during his early campaigns, part of his stump speech was poking fun at the Morristown Daily Record, where I worked at the time. Bashing the media is always good for applause at GOP gatherings. Notwithstanding, Carroll was popular with reporters, mainly because he was always ready and willing to talk on the record. This may be because he comes from a newspaper background. Both his parents were reporters. His mother worked for the Daily Record and his father ended his reporting career with the New York Times and later became a respected pollster with Quinnipiac University.
Carroll said he recognizes the job of reporters, but added, “I never made the mistake of assuming the press was on my side.”
Taking a philosophical long at government, Carroll asked when was the last time anyone saw an elected official in New Jersey exhibit a vision that extended beyond the next election?
To ask the question is to answer it.
“It’s got to stop. You do have to care about the next generation,” he said.
The future for Carroll most likely is running for surrogate. He said he wants a “non-controversial” job that would still allow him to contribute to the public good.
He’s probably not the only one who wants it. Others are bound to seek it as well, including now-freeholder Doug Cabana.
There also will likely be a big primary battle next year for Carroll’s Assembly seat. Names out there already are Freeholder Deborah Smith, Denville Councilman Brian Bergen and two Morris Township Committee members, Peter Mancuso and Bruce Sisler. Of course, we are talking about the 2019 primary, so no one really knows what the landscape will look like in 12 months.
As for Carroll, he’s one Republican who long has supported legalizing marijuana, although he claims never to have smoked it himself. This is one of Governor Phil Murphy’s goals and Carroll thinks it should happen.
This issue for Mike Carroll, as it is with most others, is individual liberty.
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