TOMS RIVER – Ocean.
The very word conjures up an impression of overwhelming force, as though any utterance to the contrary – any suggestion of disrespect – would surely end up engulfed and overpowered.
If that energy could be harnessed and packaged in one iconic person, and a movie made anthropomorphizing the calm and sedate and nonetheless potentially explosive condition of the sea, County GOP Chairman George Gilmore would undoubtedly play the part.
He’s been playing that part for a long time, the part of most powerful Republican County chairman in the state, in a county that went for Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton 64.7 to 31.5% (or 179,079 to 81,150)
“The thing about jokes is that it’s in the timing,” he deadpanned when InsiderNJ asked him what he thought of Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) gently swatting at Gilmore’s longtime charge, Freeholder Joe Vicari from the podium.
Sandwiched between Joe Rudy Rullo of Ocean County (who gave a well-received speech) and newcomer engineer Hirsh Singh, Ciattarelli spoke early to the crowd of Ocean Republicans, which included veteran state Senator Robert Singer (R-30), Clerk Scott Colabella, and Assemblyman Brian Rumpf (R-9), in addition to freeholders Jack Kelly and Joe Vicari and veteran GOP operative Larry Weitzner of Jamestown.
In his speech, Ciattarelli emphasized his ability to compete and succeed in battleground elections. He won his seat in a redistricted 16th district that includes South Brunswick “and the people’s republic of Princeton,” he cracked to an appreciate crowd.
“I have won three very, very tough elections,” he said. (In the last one, in fact, Democrats picked off his running mate).
“I know how to win tough elections,” the assemblyman added. “I take nothing for granted.”
At the podium, Gilmore, for his part, lingered on the buildup factor between everyone else and that individual whom everyone here suspects will be the Ocean County Committee’s preference for governor in the GOP Primary: Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. She came in about 15 minutes after the other candidates spoke, Vicari supplying some drum roll time with a speech in which he joked to the crowd that he had been responsible for giving Ronald Reagan his bounce in Ocean County.
But despite Guadagno’s clear edge with Gilmore’s establishment here, on the same night that Democratic committee members in Middlesex raised their hands to give Murphy their support by acclimation, Republicans gave a stage to several competitors, the LG and assemblyman, of course, the best known among them in insider political circles.
It looked competitive, in fact, as both Guadagno and Ciattarelli worked the crowd after her speech, right up to the end of the night, shaking hand after hand. They’re both good at retail politics. They both enjoy people. Guadagno has seven years of spending time with precisely this crowd, building on those personal connections starting with the enigmatic chairman himself.
Certainly it’s not competitive enough for those seeking to displace Guadagno as the front-runner, and there was some grumbling in the background, about her perceived reluctance to debate.
“Oh, I’ll debate – when the public financing requires me too,” said the LG, who also made reference to her time as a prosecutor when she wore a gun and bullet proof vest.
The remark reminded InsiderNJ of that 2007 Monmouth County campaign when Guadagno first ran for sheriff, and won a tough, bruising contest against the Belmar Police Chief in a year when Republicans lost seats countywide. She was a tough campaigner then, her aggressive work rate and accessibility blunted maybe by years of having to play second banana to Governor Chris Christie.
The old school sheriff’s candidate appeared reborn tonight.
“We’re going to have some fun,” said Guadagno, who hinted at the coming occasions supplying more opportunity for conversation than in recent years.
She made the comment while Ciattarelli, one of the most accessible politicians in the legislature, continued to shake the hands of Ocean’s power players.
Gilmore sized up the contest with a grimly tenacious expression on his sun-burned face.
“You should be very proud of these candidates,” he told county committee members, referring to all four of those in attendance (comedian and radio show host Joe Piscopo did not show up tonight, and neither did Nutley Commissioner Steven L. Rogers, who had scheduled a kickoff event for his statewide run).
He gave the unopposed GOP incumbent Vicari props.
“For the office of freeholder no one screened to run against Joe Vicari, because it would have been foolish if they did,” said Gilmore.
Then he turned his attention to the Democrats, who he says have already anointed former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy.
Straight-faced and solemn, Gilmore condemned those rival party bosses who formed a phalanx around Murphy last year to end the pre-primary battle, and noted rank and file Dem disaffection.
“There’s angst in the Democratic Party because the party chairs decided who the candidate was going to be for governor,’ said Gilmore. “We’re going to have 18 conventions over the next 35 days, and that strengthens our party.
It’s good to have a primary.
“I want all of you to take this very, very seriously,” the GOP chairman told the room.
He faced a sea of rapt and respectful silence.