Republican Senate Contender Stuart Meissner: The InsiderNJ Interview

Stuart Meissner

CLOSTER – Cory Booker has spent the last few days dishing out emails telling supporters he’s still in the presidential race despite not qualifying for the next Democratic debate. Back in New Jersey, Stuart Meissner met with me this week in a local diner to explain why he thinks he can beat Booker next fall. That would be the race for U.S. Senate, not the presidency.

If that sounds confusing, it is.

Booker is fully-concentrating on what seems to be a symbolic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he also can seek reelection to the Senate – perhaps simultaneously – if he defies the odds and gets the presidential nomination or, in what may be more feasible, the vice presidential nod.

He can do both thanks to special legislation passed by the state’s Democratic Legislature.

That’s a hanging curve ball for Republicans.

Meissner said running for two different offices at the same time highlights Booker’s insincerity and suggests he considers the Senate a “consolation prize.”  Meissner, a former New York prosecutor and now securities lawyer, is one of four Republicans who say they want to take on Booker. The others are Rik Mehta, Tricia Flanagan, and Hirsh Singh.

Whoever earns that right must confront some unpleasant history.

Republicans have not elected a U.S. senator from New Jersey for almost 50 years, And just last year, Bob Hugin spent millions and millions of dollars and still lost rather handily to Bob Menendez, a man who had just survived a federal trial on corruption charges. After a jury failed to reach a verdict, the charges were dropped.

Meissner obviously knows that. He agrees that Booker is without Menendez’ ethical woes, but he’s hardly giving him a pass.

“He’s not sincere,” he says of Booker. “I find him fake. Everything he says is simply to get elected.”

This is not a new observation. Many of Booker’s detractors over the years have labeled him “more show than substance.”  The senator certainly contributed to that description when he most famously – or infamously – proclaimed himself to be “Spartacus” during Senate hearings on now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

On the other hand, Booker’s public persona is an impressive one. Most in state politics know how his family used a civil rights advocate to help them move to a white neighborhood in Harrington Park,  which isn’t all that far from the diner where I met Meissner. He went to Stanford, where he played football, then to Oxford and ultimately moved to Newark to start a political career that culminated in him being elected mayor, He got to the Senate in 2013 after the death of Frank Lautenberg. Meissner, interestingly, ran in that election as an independent.

No one can seriously look at 2020 without confronting Donald Trump, who will be atop the GOP ballot. Meissner says he agrees with the “vast majority” of the president’s policies, but that he’s not always enamored of his tweets. This position is quite consistent with many New Jersey Republicans.

One quibble Meissner has with Trump is over the 2017 tax bill that capped the state’s so-called SALT deduction at $10,000. Like many state politicians from both parties, Meissner wants to do away with the cap. And he suggests that one reason it came about was because there were not enough Republicans representing impacted states like New Jersey to negotiate a better deal. That’s a reasonable point. There were a number of House Republicans from northeastern states back in 2017 – Rodney Frelinghuysen, after all, from District 11 chaired the House Appropriations Committee –  but none in the Senate.

His presidential campaign notwithstanding, Booker gained some positive attention not too long ago when he championed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that was signed by the president, a rare accomplishment in these polarizing days. But Meissner is not ready to give Booker much credit, asking, why didn’t Booker do that during the Obama administration?

But it seems to be foreign policy where Meissner is most critical of Booker.

Meissner says the senator claims to be a strong supporter of Israel, but if that’s the case, he wouldn’t have supported the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement Trump abandoned. Meissner says money returned to the Iranian government as part of the deal has been used by the regime to bomb Israeli settlements. And for that, he blames Booker.

Foreign policy normally is not a major issue in elections. One reason is that things are far more complicated than they seem.  One should not forget that money returned to Iran as part of the deal was money belonging to the Iranians in the first place. Moreover, now that the deal is no longer backed by the U.S., Iran has very much a free hand in moving its nuclear program along. Still, many conservatives on foreign policy matters would agree with Meissner’s views on the Iran deal, which certainly can help him in a primary.

In real life, Meissner seems accustomed to taking on the “power stricture.” He has represented many “whistleblowers” and takes credit for winning what he says is a record $22 million settlement from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

A person’s health history often is a private matter, but Meissner volunteers that he has overcome cancer.

So after fighting cancer, he says there’s no reason for him to fear Cory Booker.

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