Whither Witherest Bergen

Discontent thy name is Bergen County GOP.  The Bergen Republican Leadership Team, an organization which formed in opposition to the Bergen County Republican Organization’s leadership, has been challenging the BCRO leadership’s credibility and threw down a gauntlet in front of Bergen Chairman Jack Zisa.  This came in the form of a letter to the state’s Republican leaders, urging other Republicans to call for him to step down.  If not, the BRLT charges, the GOP will suffer at the ballot box.

Early this summer, the BRLT’s leader, Joseph Hakim issued a letter which accused the Bergen County Republicans of being “essentially leaderless for the past 7 years.”  He further added that, “We have no organization. We only have a losing record.”  Some members of the Bergen County Republican Organization, however, rejected the assertions and claimed that the BRLT was a disruptive movement which was sabotaging Republicans’ efforts in New Jersey’s most populous county.

On October 7, Hakim dispatched a letter to State Republican Chairman Bob Hugin and Jose Arango, leader of the New Jersey GOP County Chair Association, attacking Bergen County Chairman Jack Zisa.  

“I would like to share our opinion with fellow Bergen County republicans and their elected representatives, relating to the recent published comments dealing with the selection of candidates by the Bergen County Republican Organization,” the letter from Hakim said.  “With the honor of becoming the BCRO Chairman, comes great privilege and responsibility. However, in some cases, unilateral decisions are made that tarnish the reputation of the Republican Party with their actions, when they act unlawfully as in the BCRO chairman election two years ago or simply not fulfilling their obligations of vetting candidates for elected office. In such cases, and in the absence of them volunteering to leave, Republican State and County elected officials and Bergen County elected Republican State and local office holders should step up for the good of the party and ask the Chairman to resign. Until such a time that our party leaders lead by example, our party will continue to struggle to win elections.”

The letter was signed by Hakim on behalf of the board of the Bergen Republican Leadership Team.

All may not be so bleak for the GOP in Bergen County, however.

State Senator Holly Schepisi is seeking re-election in LD-39 along with Assemblyman Robert Auth and John Azzariti, a doctor from Saddle River.  Azzariti replaced Assemblywoman DeAnne DeFuccio who is not seeking re-election.  Democratic challengers are Jodi Murphy for State Senate and Damon Englese and John Vitale for Assembly.  The battle which has the attention of many political wonks, however, is the LD-38 contest which sees State Senator Joseph Lagana trying to defend his incumbency against Micheline Attieh, a Paramus businesswoman who emigrated to the US from Lebanon as a child.  Her GOP assembly candidates are Barry Wilkes and Gail Horton.  Democratic incumbents are Assemblymembers Lisa Swain and Chris Tully.  Much of the campaign attention has been on hot button “kitchen table” issues, namely: parental rights, school curricula, and reproductive rights.  

Lagana had been a councilman in Paramus, and that formerly-blue municipality—one of the retail hubs of North Jersey—flipped to Republican control in 2021.  Lagana was re-elected in 2021, but only by a fairly small margin.  Richard Garcia, his Republican challenger, took 47.1% of the vote to Lagana’s 52.9%, and had a minimal campaign war chest, dwarfed by Lagana’s.

On the highest level regarding Bergen County, Congressman Josh Gottheimer of Wyckoff is fairly secure in his position representing CD-5.  Commanding one of the biggest campaign treasuries nation-wide, Gottheimer successfully defeated Republican Frank Pallotta in 2020 and 2022, the former with 53.2%–a higher turn-out overall being a presidential election—and the latter with a slightly wider margin of 54.7%.  Gottheimer, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton while in his early 20s, was able to muster the former president to appear with him on campaign.  Redistricting also removed more conservative constituencies in the more rural Warren County and parts of Sussex.  

Though the BRLT says the Republicans struggle to win elections, in generally conservative and affluent Bergen County, Republicans may find fertile soil for their endeavors on the state, county, and local level, especially as Senator Lagana’s last re-election was no great and overwhelming mandate.  The key will be party unity for their get-out-the-vote mission.  In July, the BRLT claimed to have about 300 members, which could make headaches for Zisa.  

As stated in the letter, the BRLT condemned the Bergen County Chairman particularly for failing to vet candidates.  LD-36 comes into the spotlight in this case, where it is safely assumed Democrats will have a reasonable expectation of re-election.  Incumbent Assemblymen Clinton Calabrese and Gary Schaer are facing Republican challengers Craig Auriemma and Joseph Viso.  Incumbent Senator Paul Sarlo (D) is running against Craig Auriemma’s brother, Chris Auriemma.

Viso, according to reports by the New Jersey Globe, had admitted to smearing “fecal matter” on an East Rutherford daycare center, notably its door handles and locks, following a dispute with the facility in 2009.  He claimed he regretted doing it but, among his rationales, was that he had been upset Barack Obama won the presidential election.  Viso also has a history of weapons charges (possessing a sawed-off shotgun near an elementary school), drug-related charges, and lawsuits over the years.

So, such an individual appearing on the ballot was too much for the BRLT.  “We’re dying a slow death here [in Bergen county],” one source told Insider NJ.

Viso had told the Globe that he did not claim to be a “perfect person” and that that time was “the lowest part of my life.”

Contrite or not, the character and quality of candidates speaks to the organizations which back them—the thrust of the BRLT’s complaint which they hope will resonate with the broader party leaders.

Despite infighting among Bergen’s GOP, the Bergen battlefield is one where Republicans can realistically expect to make some gains and potentially impact the make-up of Trenton if their efforts in LD-38 prevail.  To carry the banner forward, party unity will doubtless be a chief concern for the GOP to build on some of its past successes.  Whether or not that will require (or result in) a change of leadership in Bergen County remains to be seen.

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