Listen to audio version of this article
CLARK – Tom Kean Jr. wants to make sure there’s no doubt about his philosophy.
“I’m a Tom Kean Republican,” he said Tuesday night to an overflow crowd jammed into the local American Legion hall. Kean Jr., was announcing his candidacy for the 7th District congressional seat now held by Democrat Tom Malinowski.
The reference was to his father, Tom Kean Sr., who served two terms as governor in the 1980’s.
The term, “Tom Kean Republican,” is not merely the type of throwaway line one often hears at political gatherings.
Over the years in New Jersey politics, it has come to mean two things – a moderate Republican as opposed to an uncompromising right winger and an official who sees the opposition as just that, not an enemy to be vanquished at all costs.
The elder Kean took to the podium and essentially made that point.
After first expressing optimism about the future, the former governor said, “This is a difficult time for the country. We’re not talking to each other.”
He said his son has the capacity to do precisely that, talk to the other side and get things done.
It’s certainly true that with Republicans outnumbered in both houses in Trenton, the only way Kean, or any Republican can get things done, is by talking to the other side. The younger Kean is Senate Minority Leader.
But Washington is quite different.
Kean the newly-announced candidate took aim at the Democratic-controlled House, suggesting that “radical progressives” were pushing the Congress too far left. He decried Democratic proposals in Washington such as the Green Deal and what he called “socialized health care” and “so-called free college.”
Asked afterwards to size up Malinowski, who joined Congress in January, Kean said that the Democrat really has been in Washington for decades. Malinowski previously worked for the State Department. As a congressman, Kean said Malinowski so far hasn’t shown a willingness to deviate from party ideology. Malinowski won the district last fall by about 16,000 votes over GOP incumbent Leonard Lance.
Asked if some Republicans are trying to push Congress too far to the right, Kean said only that people have to find ways to come together.
If Kean wins the primary, he will be on a 2020 GOP ticket headed by Donald Trump. Neither Kean mentioned the president.
But a confident Sal Bonaccorso, the mayor of Clark, boldly predicted that with the president at the top of the ticket, Clark will give Kean the biggest plurality in the district. For the record, Lance beat Malinowski in Clark by about 1,400 votes.
Amid the good feeling and hoopla of a candidate launch, an essential question emerges.
Former Governor Tom Kean Sr., was one of the most popular public officials in the state when he left office in January, 1990. But that’s the question, isn’t it? January, 1990 was almost 30 years ago, so how magical is the name, Tom Kean, today?
A memo from the Kean campaign noted that, “The Kean brand is strong in New Jersey. Governor Tom Kean is the most popular governor in the history of the state.”
Still, the senior Kean was elected in November, 1981. A voter 50-years-old today was 12-years-old in 1981. So, how much will the younger Kean benefit from having a father who was a popular governor more than 30 years ago?
It may be somewhat instructive to recall that when Kean Jr.. ran statewide for the U.S. Senate in 2006, he lost by a bit more than 200,000 votes to Bob Menendez.
What gives Kean hope is that the 7th district, which covers parts of Essex, Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Union and Warren counties, tilts Republican by about 5,000 registered voters.