A controversial book written 12 years ago by an Assembly candidate in Bergen County has thrown the 38th District’s Republican ticket into disarray.
The resulting turmoil is threatening the GOP’s hopes of gaining two seats they almost won two years ago, while also possibly derailing the party’s aspirations of taking control of the chamber.
Meanwhile, in the adjacent 35th District, the Republicans seem to have little chance of unseating the Democratic incumbents.
The Republican candidates — former River Edge Councilman Anthony Cappola and county Housing Authority Commissioner Mark DiPisa, had their sights set on a pair of potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents: Tim Eustace, who entered the Assembly in 2012, and freshman Assemblyman Joseph Lagana.
Two years ago, Eustace bested a Republican challenger by just 56 votes after a recount, while Lagana won by a 314-vote margin.
But earlier this month, Cappola quit the race and his council seat in response to a report that he had written a typo-filled book called “Outrageous!” that is “filled with rants, slurs and stereotypes about gay men and women, blacks, Asians, senior citizens, Muslims and foreign-born business owners.”
The book was condemned by his running mate, DiPisa, and by state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union).
However, the flap over the book came so close to next month’s election date that getting a replacement Republican on the ballot would require court action and the reprinting of ballots at the party’s expense.
Bramnick concluded that he could not afford a legal battle that could cost $200,000 on behalf of a weakened ticket.
Cappola then jumped back into the race.
That has led to awkward scenes like a debate last week that DiPisa refused to attend because he did not want to legitimize Cappola’s candidacy.
Cappola, for his part, has apologized repeatedly for the book and said it doesn’t represent his real views.
Eustace and Lagana have said little about the controversy, content to watch the Republican ticket collapse on its own.
But General Majority, a Democratic PAC, has sought to tarnish DiPisa with the revelations as well, running a television ad juxtaposing descriptions of the book with pictures of both of the Republicans.
“For months, DiPisa said we should put our trust in his running mate, Anthony Cappola,” the narrator of the TV ad says. “How can we trust him?”
It was also reported last week that DiPisa pleaded guilty to “attempting to cause bodily harm” in 2002 and had paid a fine for the offense.
DiPisa said he was acting in self-defense and accused the Democrats of “slinging mud,” while Eustace and Lagana said they were unaware of the incident until it was reported.
In addition to their incumbency and the Cappola scandal, the Democrats have the advantage of much richer war chest. They had raised $522,000 as of October 3 and had spent most of it, while the Republicans have brought in just $18,600. (In 2013, the Democratic ticket, which included Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), spent more than $1.7 million to achieve their narrow victories.)
No longer on speaking terms, Cappola and DiPisa continue to campaign separately and both say they are still aiming to win.
Cappola, 41, a DJ and comedian who runs a party entertainment company, says the book was meant as a “raunchy satire” in the vein of Howard Stern and Eddie Murphy. He notes that his wife and son are Korean , says that he has gay employees and friends, and suggests the controversy has made people pay attention to what he really stands for.
“There are some people that I’ve talked to who said, ‘Anthony, in a way you have an even better chance now because people know who you are. People in the know know this is a smear campaign,’” Cappola said in an interview. “This could possibly backfire big-time on my opponents. I’ve got a chance, absolutely.”
Looking beyond the controversies, the candidates’ platforms resemble many others around the state.
Eustace and Lagana, conscious of the GOP’s near-wins in what they call a “fiscally conscious” district, express concerns about raising the gas tax to pay for transportation infrastructure, and prefer to talk about their work supporting small businesses.
Cappola and DiPisa rail against high property taxes and pledge to change the school-funding formula in favor of suburban districts.
DiPisa, 34, an attorney and Lodi resident, said it’s unfair that a small number of poor urban districts receive billions of dollars in dedicated state education funding while suburban residents are stuck with high property taxes to fund their schools. He said the higher state funding for cities is unfair and ineffective.
“I don’t believe that the money that we’re giving to the inner-city schools is getting the job done like people would lead us to believe,” he said. “I don’t believe that the graduation rates have increased like they’re trying to claim. If it’s not positively affecting our schools, we’re just throwing money down a black hole. Every student is entitled to their fair share, and I don’t believe students in other districts should be getting shortchanged simply on a belief that the inner-city schools are benefiting from the money if we don’t have any concrete proof.”
New Jersey’s school-funding formula stems from the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of the state constitution’s “thorough and efficient” education requirement. Some Republicans have proposed amending the constitution to allow a new formula, a suggestion that Lagana called “preposterous.”
“Our funding formula has been deemed one of the fairest by national groups,” said Lagana, a 36-year-old attorney and former Paramus councilman. “The problem is that it’s not funded the way it’s supposed to be funded. So you can say that other schools are getting more money, but that’s really the executive branch’s fault, because we should be funded at 100 percent…or as close to 100 percent as possible. And that will help local municipalities with property taxes.”
Eustace and Lagana also bemoan inadequate school funding in their district, though they blame it on Christie’s rejection of more generous Democratic proposals.
DiPisa argued that Lagana and Eustace have a history of supporting tax increase proposals and said the Legislature treats residents “like ATM machines.” As a business owner — he and his wife have a law firm — he understands financial management and would do a better job in Trenton, he said.
Cappola said much the same thing, pointing to his years spent running his business. During his time as a councilman in River Edge, the borough cut costs by renegotiating contracts for newly hired officers, and he said he believes communities could slow the growth of their education spending through similar efforts focused on new teachers. He cited incarceration reform as another high priority: nonviolent offenders should be offered drug treatment and mental health care rather than being jailed for “stupid” offenses, he said.
While DiPisa and Cappola are adamantly opposed to new taxes, Lagana and Eustace do not competely rule out a gas-tax hike to replenish the nearly empty Transportation Trust Fund. But they say the TTF should be constitutionally protected to prevent it from being raided, and that New Jersey’s notoriously expensive road-building programs should be overhauled.
“If there is to be any sort of increase, first we need a constitutional guarantee that the money can’t be touched,” Eustace said. “As you know, many governors have raided funds to balance the budget and move things around on the chess board, and we lose out on doing things like open space and environmental protection.”
Eustace, 58, a chiropractor and former Maywood mayor, also touted the work he and Lagana have done to bring jobs to Bergen County.
Eustace sponsored a law that allows the electric-car maker Tesla to operate its own dealerships, including one in Paramus, helping hundreds of people keep their jobs. Lagana authored a bill that would permit large amusement centers to serve liquor, which would allow Dave and Buster’s to open several outlets statewide with several hundred workers.
Among other business-focused bills, they’ve sponsored a measure that would both establish a Small Business Action Center within the state Economic Development Authority and create new business and gross income tax credits tied to labor costs for new small businesses.
Democrats appear to have a lock on the race. Voter registration in the district, which includes six towns in Bergen and Passaic counties, is 41 percent Democratic, 9 percent Republican, and 50 percent unaffiliated. In 2013, Democratic Assembly members Shavonda Sumter and Benjie Wimberly received more than 20,000 votes each while the challengers got fewer than 8,000 apiece.
Sumter, 31, a hospital administrator, and Wimberly, 50, Paterson’s recreation director and a school football coach in Hackensack, were first elected in 2011. They both live in Paterson.
The Republican candidates are David Jimenez, 39, a real estate agent from Garfield, and Ilia Villanueva, 57, a Paterson social worker who works for the state Division of Family Development. Villanueva has run for city council several times.
Sumter has raised $43,843 this election cycle and Wimberly reported $40,875 in contributions. Jimenez last reported raising $1,300 for his primary campaign and Villanueva has not filed any finance reports.