In the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Rashomon, everyone has a different recollection of a critical life event.
So it is too in LD26 that every one of the principals has a unique perspective.
Everyone sees the contest in his own way – or her own way.
For the allies of Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce, this unfolding contest represents the machinations of those quietly calculating purveyors of misogynistic mayhem – ideological dinosaurs who would prefer to stand in the way of Morris County’s lone flinty and politically pragmatic woman in the legislature for the sake of their unflinching dedication to the 19th Century.
For the allies of Freeholder Hank Lyon, this is about those wolves in sheep’s clothing in Trenton, who would go so far as to back a gas tax hike while at the time time blocking the rise of a young and talented whippersnapper, who was told once before that he needed to wait his turn – and paid no heed.
For the allies of Assemblyman Jay Webber, this contest is about preserving a Reaganesque way of life, and protecting the political purity of one of the state’s brilliant stars – a fierce gas tax hike opponent – at risk of being marred by a raging moderate like one-time slate mate turned deal-cutting menace Betty Lou.
For the allies of Freeholder John Cesaro, this is about loyalty. Others have their own back stories and ambitions. But Cesaro stood in line and waited, and did what he had to do, and won the tough elections, and unselfishly advanced the agenda of the district’s alpha male: state Senator Joe Pennacchio (R-26). It’s John’s time, they argue.
In other counties, contests like this are decided in backrooms. The handshakes occur, the deals are cut, gubernatorial candidates who might ally with people off the line are broken or minimized, and those different vantage points merge into the infinite, otherwise known as the county party organization. In Morris, the county organization is weak, and personalities strong, the combination making for optics that resemble another Kurosawa movie – The Seven Samurai – only in this version the main characters are relentlessly training their hardware on one another – not the brigand bad guys.
It all starts with Webber, really, in a 2-1 Republican District.
He’s the player, the comer, the ethos of a generation, whose horizon keeps lengthening with each stride the aging U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) takes to extend his life in Congress.
Someday, they say, Webber will be a congressman. Or governor. Or senator.
There’s too much talent there for voters in the mostly affluent and upwardly mobile district to resist, and he will translate to larger populations with time.
Even his opponents whisper: “Dammit, he’s smart. There’s no point in denying it. He’s smarter than me.”
That’s a real quote from a source.
The source forgot that Webber’s also better looking.
And he’s the patriarch of a huge family.
And he’s consistently conservative, which means that when something like Governor Chris Christie’s gas tax hike for estate tax deal to replenish the state Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) came up, Webber went into Webber beast mode.
No way on the gas tax hike.
DeCroce, meanwhile, was open to it.
There was at least one mayor in the district – Frank J. Dreutzler – who for years had put off a transportation infrastructure project because he can’t get funds. Well, if Webber was shoring up the right wing of the district, DeCroce could put on the slate’s pragmatic hat and soothe a crusty mayor like Dreutzler and…
Morris Politics doesn’t work that way.
For while Webber and DeCroce split their slate on the gas tax, and opposed each other on more than just policy too as staffers fought and at least one nose to nose incident took place between someone on Team Webber and someone on Team DeCroce and now the pair of politicians agreed to field operations out of separate offices – “It just didn’t work” – Lyon was on the ground back in Morris railing against the gas tax.
The freeholder even put together a resolution against it and put it to the freeholder board for a vote, just in time for a primary election year when the biggest and thorniest and most unrelenting issue for the GOP happens to be that gas tax.
“Well, it’s not really a gas tax,” a DeCroce backer told InsiderNJ.
But if you’re explaining in politics, you’re losing, the Webber forces say with barely repressed laughter.
They’re not responsible for Lyon, they insist.
DeCroce is responsible for him. She voted for the gas tax. Even Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno knew enough to distance herself from the tax, as did Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16), both of whom are running in the Republican Primary for governor.
But not DeCroce.
Anyone who thinks Webber groomed Lyon is crazy, sources say. Lyon is a policy nerd and a fierce anti tax and spend Republican, who also knows a little about politics and timing. He was never supposed to get to the freeholder board, but came out of nowhere with the rise of the Tea Party.
“Out of nowhere.”
That tempest in a teapot style irritates the retainers of Cesaro, who for some time now have seen their man as the natural next heir to an assembly seat. So when Lyon jumped in, Cesaro jumped in.
As evidenced by past freeholder elections, Cesaro has a strong base in Parsippany. He wins elections. Lyon will have a harder ideological edge in a GOP Primary – but Cesaro has a very credible campaign work ethic. He’s also shown the ability to maintain poise in the face of incessant artillery fire. His 2015 freeholder re-up was brutal, and he walked through it to handily win reelection.
Like DeCroce, he’s seen more as a political pragmatist than Lyon or the irrepressibly Bill Buckley-like Webber.
He’s shown before that he can prevail in Republican Primaries where opponents- like John Krickus – punch him from the right on ideology. But for all his talent, Krickus isn’t Webber, and to the extent that Webber engages, and to the extent that on ideological grounds Lyon can capitalize – Cesaro may find himself in the toughest campaign of his career.
Still others insist Webber’s fingerprints are all over Lyon.
And then there are those who say that Webber doesn’t leave fingerprints.
For her part, DeCroce has several advantages, as Morris insiders see it: incumbency (although that always carries a double edge, the name ID counts), pragmatic politics, and, critically, what could turn into her opponents’ inability to resist stepping over the line and playing the macho card, which could allow the widow of Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce to unite women and those in the party who fear an all-out encroachment into the ranks of intolerance.
Assailed on all sides, can DeCroce turn her gender into a clear advantage?
That’s a critical question right now in Morris.
Already beaten by Webber, Attorney Larry Casha once made the mistake of appearing to lecture DeCroce about the serious business of government in his pursuit of the late DeCroce’s assembly seat – just before Betty Lou ran him over.
Two other nagging questions emerge.
Will Freeholder Tom Mastrangelo, a bitter political foe of Cesaro, jump into the race, or will he run for senate against Pennacchio, as sources also suggest, or simply stay out of it and snipe from the sidelines?
And will Essex – which claims four towns in the district – stay out of it, or – with Morris divided – find a way to recruit a lone Essex candidate who can cohere support on his or side of the county line, hence increasing the probability of more Rashomon perspectives in this already very divided Republican district.