As rising political star Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) prepares for an uncontested primary, the four Republicans auditioning to oppose him remain far from the spotlight.
They are not complete unknowns. One was prominent in politics long ago. Two have been occasional candidates — though not necessarily as Republicans. The fourth is making his first attempt at elective office, with some organization support.
The GOP candidates acknowledge the obstacles cited by political observers. As a group, they are underfunded and undifferentiated — their lack of money and similar, although not identical, conservative views are making it hard for any of the campaigns to stand out.
Booker’s celebrity, war chest and victory last year scared off “the top-tier established candidates” from the June 3 primary, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. The Republicans left are the second tier of candidates, absent any self-financed millionaire with the money to get out his message, he said.
“No one has caught fire because this is one of those situations that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Dworkin said. “Nobody expects these candidates to ignite, so nobody is paying attention.”
Yet for those who do listen, all four candidates speak in detail, and often passionately, about the issues.
“The Republican Party is the party of optimists,” said Brian D. Goldberg of Livingston, an owner of concrete and construction products businesses who is making his first run for elected office.
“You have to look at this incrementally,” said Richard Pezzullo, an IT consultant from Freehold. “If not for the government shutdown, Steve Lonegan might have beaten Cory Booker in last year’s special election. If I can do better than Lonegan, I could win.”
Pezzullo is part of a rematch in this race, since he was the Conservative Party candidate for governor in 1997, when another member of this year’s Republican field, Murray Sabrin, was the Libertarian nominee.
Sabrin was the first third-party candidate to qualify for matching funds and debated Republican incumbent Christie Whitman and Democrat James McGreevey. Sabrin tried for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2008, finishing third in the primary.
The Ramapo College finance professor said he is running again because this year’s issues are “things I’ve been talking about for 35-40 years.”
That time frame also applies to Jeff Bell, who is unique among the field for having won a primary. In 1978, when he was 34, Bell defeated incumbent Sen. Clifford Case (R-NJ) before losing to former basketball star Bill Bradley in the general election. Bell tried again four years later, but lost in the primary to Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-NJ), who was then upset by Democratic businessman Frank Lautenberg.
Lautenberg served until his death last year, when Booker won the special election to replace him. Case remains the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate race, while Fenwick was an icon of probity in the Watergate era. Bell acknowledged that Republicans who remember his past exploits might not be his biggest fans.
“The more people are on the party committees, the less they like me,” he said with a chuckle.
After 1982, Bell moved to Virginia and immersed himself in behind-the-scenes policy development in the Reagan Administration. He later served as president of an economic consulting firm, then as a principal of a media strategies firm, both in Washington, D.C., before moving to Palisades Park this year.
Supports return to gold standard
With his policy wonk background, Bell is versed in a variety of issues, but unabashedly chooses to focus on one — returning the United States to a gold standard. The approach puzzles his opponents, but Bell said the decision is practical as well as philosophical.
“If you don’t have much money, voters aren’t going to know much about you other than one thing,” Bell said. “I don’t want it to be that I’m the guy whose 70, or that I’ve been living out of state. I want it to be my clear message about the gold standard.”
For much of the 19th century, the leading trading countries chose to tie the values of their currencies to the supply of gold. That served as a check on the amount of monies in circulation, tied varied national currencies together, and limited long-term inflation.
One downside was that shorter-term events — a war between two countries, the opening of new gold mines in a third — sent shocks through the entire international marketplace. Farmers and small businesses often complained of tight credit. To lessen unemployment and other domestic consequences, many countries routinely ignored the gold standard during times of turmoil.
The system collapsed on the eve of World War I, but was reinstated after World War II. Facing chronic trade deficits, President Richard Nixon again took America off the gold standard in 1971.
Bell and some other conservatives see reviving the gold standard as way to end what they portray as the free-wheeling monetary policy practiced by America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, particularly in response to the Great Recession.
Bell describes the Fed’s policy of loaning money to large financial institutions at zero or very low interest as a major contributor to stagnation, benefitting Wall Street “crony capitalism” while harming small business and young people.
“Republicans are very, very wrong to say that inequality isn’t happening,” said Bell, who otherwise is socially conservative. He opposes gay marriage and believes “religious freedom is under attack in this country.”
On economic issues, there is considerable overlap between him and Sabrin, but they each energetically point to differences in substance as well as style.
To Bell, Sabrin lacks focus. As he says, a political conversation with the professor can easily range over a century or two of economic history. But Sabrin presents himself as a champion of individual freedom. From his Libertarian perspective, Bell does not follow through on ideas.
Yes, the Fed’s “unconscionable printing of money” is a critical problem to Sabrin. “The zero interest rate policy, that is an example of crony capitalism,” he said. But such abuses did not arise in a vacuum, he said, the entire “structure of our banking industry is a very shady model,” taking advantage of individuals and small businesses while cultivating political connections.
Meanwhile, Sabrin said, the national debt also ballooned in the wake of the recession. Instead of using our military for national defense, we have pursued wasteful and unwarranted foreign wars, he said.
“Our civil liberties have been under attack,” not least through unconstitutional spying and surveillance programs, he said.
Some of those policies “have been embraced by too many Republicans,” said Sabrin, 64. “That’s why I’m running, I want to do something about it.”
Eliminating taxes, safety-net programs
The Fort Lee resident’s definition of “something” may be the most sweeping of any candidate. Among other things, Sabrin proposes eliminating the corporate income tax, and turning all corporations into limited liability corporations to tax individual members.
On immigration, Sabrin said, “You can’t deport 12 million people,” but his compromise solution might prove controversial in a general election. He would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for resident alien status. But he would never allow them or their children to become citizens.
“That would be penalizing all the people who followed the rules and came here legally,” Sabrin said, but added, “we should have a civil discussion” of the issue.
Sabrin even sticks to conservative principles in critiquing a project that has become an article of faith among orthodox Republicans — TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline. The 2,100-mile project would carry fuel from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in Galveston, TX, for shipment through the Panama Canal to Asian markets. It would be a substitute for a pipeline to Vancouver that encountered environmental, tribal and political opposition in Canada.
“Most conservatives don’t know that private companies have been given the right to use eminent domain for the pipeline,” taking land from Americans, Sabrin said. “That’s crony capitalism at its worst.”
Sabrin is in step with current GOP thinking on health insurance. Despite acknowledging its Republican origins, he is anxious to terminate what is now known as Obamacare. But that would only be a start for him. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security “are not authorized by the Constitution,” he said. “They’re supposed to be private matters.”
The former Conservative Party candidate, Pezzullo, is ready to match his ideological credentials against anyone. He believes voters will respond to a candidate who, like Ronald Reagan, spells out his positions in “bold colors.”
For Pezzullo, New Jerseyans in particular need stronger representation in Washington, because they face trouble with the cost of everything, not just health insurance.
“My parents can’t afford to stay here, my kids want to leave,” and looking around the political landscape, “nobody was stepping up” to fight for the middle class, he said.
“I don’t have a lot of rich friends who want to buy a senator, but that’s what’s wrong with Cory Booker,” Pezzullo said.
His IT job has brought him into touch with a wide range of small and medium-sized businesses, which he described as struggling with everything from employee health insurance rules to delays in rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy to “oppression” from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Opposes bailouts of banks
Like the other candidates, Pezzullo is skeptical both of bailouts for “too big to fail” financial institutions and post-bubble regulations intended to rein in swashbuckling banks. Instead, the marketplace should decide, he said, with corporate chief financial officers again “responsible for finding proper places to park their money.”
But the federal government should underwrite the costs of vital infrastructure such as the ports, airports, bridges, tunnels and highways that are critical to New Jersey’s economy, Pezzullo said. While that may look like pork-barrel politics in Texas or Idaho, it benefits the entire country, he said.
The 2010 cancellation of NJ Transit’s Trans-Hudson train tunnel dealt a lingering blow to employment in the state and region, but Gov. Chris Christie’s action was “prudent” because the state’s share of the project’s expense was too high, Pezzullo said.
To stimulate the economy, he favors a two-year moratorium on capital gains taxes. Pezzullo acknowledged that could be a windfall to conglomerates like the Blackstone Group and Colony Capital. But such firms already are gobbling up real-estate around the country, he said. His said his idea would encourage nervous individuals and families to jump into the market.
“This gives you incentive to put your house on the market, because if you sell it to me, you don’t pay any capital gains,” Pezzullo said, adding that he tried without success to interest U.S. Reps. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.) and Scott Garrett (R-5th Dist.) in the idea.
With his business background and 20 years in the Army Reserve, Pezzullo said he is sure that he is the most qualified candidate.
“Jeff Bell hasn’t lived in the state for 40 years, hasn’t paid taxes here. Brian Goldberg has his dad’s business, that’s all he knows,” Pezzullo said. “And Murray, let’s not talk about Murray.”
Goldberg, 40, feels he has two advantages when it comes to wooing voters. One is that he is a member of the Essex County Republican Committee and a long-time party activist in the state.
“I’m the more mainstream, establishment-type candidate… so voters don’t have to choose somebody who doesn’t really represent the Republican Party in New Jersey.”
Also, he says, he’s polite.
“I’m a conservative Republican, I have strong beliefs,” he said. “But I don’t want to get in your face and shout them. I want to have a conversation.”
As a small businessman, Goldberg has a frank explanation for why he has started his political career with a race for high federal office: he couldn’t afford to think small.
“I run a family business that takes a lot of my time, 70 hours a week,” he said. “I needed to find an opportunity that was full-time. I wouldn’t be able to juggle the jobs if I was in the state Assembly or Senate.”
Goldberg has the catchiest slogan, “Empowerment, not entitlement,” although the details are not self-evident. By way of explanation, he offers an example.
“The parties have been having a protracted debate in Congress about unemployment benefits, whether to extend them,” he said. “I want to re-frame the discussion on creating jobs,” although without treating government itself as a source of employment.
Goldberg sees Obamacare as a potential job-killer and would like to freeze the program in its tracks. More than 8 million Americans are already enrolled, but that response makes Goldberg worry more.
“There’s no way to undo it if it doesn’t work,” he said.
He favors “tort reform,” limiting patients’ ability to file or collect on malpractice suits as one possible solution to rising health costs.
Goldberg has taken minor heat for saying that the Roe v. Wade abortion decision remains the law of the land and that opponents should concentrate on changing voters’ minds on the issue. But he emphasizes his personal opposition to the practice.
He “agonized” over domestic spying by the National Security Agency and other arms of the government. While the country needs protection, the make-up of the Obama administration leads him to conclude, “I don’t think these powers should be so limitless.”
More access to guns in NJ?
In contrast, Goldberg goes all in for Second Amendment rights, an important issue for Republicans elsewhere in the nation. He recently testified in favor of allowing New Jerseyans to carry concealed weapons and against tougher limits on the size of gun magazines.
In virtually the only mention the candidates make of the state’s cities, Goldberg argues citizens could deter street crime if they had the ability to shoot it out with drug dealers and other miscreants.
All the Republicans cast former Newark Mayor Booker as a darling of Wall Street, part of the establishment even before he arrived in Washington. But that cuts both ways, Dworkin said. Without that patina, Sabrin has reported to the Federal Election Commission that he has raised $39,642 and loaned his campaign another $10,000. Bell reported raising $35,805, Goldberg $4,751 and Pezzullo nothing.
“Cory Booker isn’t just a celebrity like Bill Bradley was in 1978,” Dworkin said. “He was elected twice as mayor and then to the Senate last year,” in the special election following Lautenberg’s death. “He’s been doing the work of a senator,” he said.
In a primary with a small turnout, anything can happen, but Dworkin noted there have been no polls to show any trends in the race. One of the state’s prominent pollsters explained that omission in a way that might personally offend the Republicans but still earn their philosophical respect.
“Because none of these guys is going to be U.S. Senator,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “I have a polling budget, and I have to make choices about how to spend money.”