With the Republican governor leaving office and his lieutenant governor struggling to gain traction in the race to replace him, state Republicans have challenges ahead. Newly-elected State Republican Party Chair Michael Lavery joins Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.
Aron: Mike Lavery, you’re not well known on the statewide scene. What should people know about you?
Lavery: I think that they should know that I’m a consensus builder, that even though I’m not well known I’ve been around for awhile. I’ve been in the trenches as a mayor of a small town. I’ve run campaigns.
Lavery: Hackettstown, yes, in Warren County.
Aron: Are you still chairman of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission?
Lavery: Yes, I am.
Aron: How long have you been doing that?
Lavery: I’ve been on there for two and a half years. The governor appointed me to serve on that and I’ve been chairman the past two years.
Aron: When Kim Guadagno made you chairman of the Republican State Committee, there was an awful lot of confusion. On a Friday she named your friend Doug Steinhardt the Warren County Republican chairman. And then at the meeting on Tuesday to certify that, right in the middle of the day, she switched gears and named you instead. What was that all about?
Lavery: Well, Gov. Christie had nominated Trudy Steinhardt, Doug’s wife, to be a member of the parole boards for which she’s eminently qualified, I don’t think anybody could dispute that. And the problem was that that news broke around 4 p.m. the day of the meeting, and it was just that the optics looked bad at that time.
Aron: Why would it be bad for one family, the wife to have a job at the parole board and the husband, who’s an attorney, to have a position as Republican state chairman?
Lavery: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but I think it’s just the optics of it. It’s just, I think from the public’s perception there was a thought that perhaps that didn’t look quite right. I agree with you, but that was the decision that was made.
Aron: There was an awful lot of head-scratching going on around that, in part because you’re also the nephew of George Gilmore, a very prominent Republican chairman, probably the most prominent and one of the most long-standing, the Ocean County Republican chairman. Was this in any way an attempt by Guadagno to reach out to George Gillmore?
Lavery: No, I think that the two of them are close prior to this, and I know that George has worked very hard on the lieutenant governor’s campaign, and it just so happens that I’m related to him. I’m proud of that fact, he’s always given me good advice. I’ve learned a lot of things from George over the years. I was there as Doug Steinhardt’s friend, it’s that simple.
Aron: How does Steinhardt feel about having to have given up this spot?
Lavery: Well, it was a job that he was really looking forward to doing. He’s trained for it, he’s been the county chairman in Warren for 13 years. He gets along with everybody, he’s a great guy, we’re very close friends. As a matter of fact, I was there because he had said he was going to appoint me as the attorney for the state GOP as one of his first acts, so I was there to support him. Picked up a couple people from Warren County at Doug’s request and got down there and then what happens, happens. I know he was disappointed, but he didn’t want to deny his wife her dream job.
Aron: It’s kind of auspicious that you’re here today because there are reports out today that Kim Guadagno is not going to get any help from the Republican National Committee. It’s theorized that because she didn’t support Donald Trump that there’s an element of payback. It’s also being said that the National Republican Committee doesn’t back lost causes and she’s so far down in the polls. What do you make of this news?
Lavery: I have more faith in the RNC and the RGA than that. As a matter of fact, Chairman Steinhardt and I met with some representatives of the RNC last week for dinner and discussed the upcoming campaign, what we were going to do on the state level, and we got no indication whatsoever that they weren’t going to be supportive. So, I would be surprised, I think, look, you always have naysayers out there and people that have an interest in spinning that type of thing. But as I said, that wasn’t the indication I got from the RNC. I haven’t spoken to anybody from the RGA, but I have faith that they’re going to do the right thing and support us here because this race is winnable.
Aron: The RGA, the Republican Governors Association, has a meeting next week in Aspen, C.O. The lieutenant governor is going out there and I understand that the governor is going out there as well. Are you going out there to help rattle the tin cup a little bit?
Lavery: As we sit here today, no, but if I’m asked I would go.
Aron: What’s your focus now? Is it the legislative election that Kim Guadagno has said the Republicans can’t win? There’s the gubernatorial race, which she’s down two to one, essentially. And following that there are congressional races where Republicans are running scared a little bit. What are you focusing on?
Lavery: Well, I think I want to focus on top down, bottom up. First of all, 27 points, you can’t believe the polls, because number one if we believed the polls Hillary Clinton would be president and would have won by 12 points, so we know that. It’s an interesting environment out there because the Democrats are motivated, but I think at the end of the day you have the Democratic standard-bearer being a guy who’s a Goldman Sachs guy. He’s spent $20 million in the primary for the few percentage points he has as far as his recognition above what the lieutenant governor has. And I think when we really start drilling down on the issues, the first one being taxes, you know, Mr. Murphy has said he’s going to pretty much raise taxes. That’s what he’s going to do. He said if you don’t have enough money to pay your taxes, make more money. So, I think as long as we stick to the message, and that being taxes and affordability of the state of New Jersey, we’re going to be fine and be able to close that gap.
Aron: You think that’s a winning message, cutting taxes?
Lavery: I think if you look at any of the polling, taxes and affordability, that is the highest thing on the citizen’s priority list.
Aron: You succeed Sam Raia. He was very difficult to get an interview with. You seem more forthcoming, or more eager to get out there in the public realm. What’s your specialty? Raising money? Message? Organization?
Lavery: Well, I think message and organization. I think fundraising we’ve got some other people doing that to head that up, but I’ll do whatever it takes. We’ll be in the office on Fridays making fundraising calls. I think the thing we want to do is we want to be a little more visible out there as the state GOP. I think we want to motivate people, get people involved so it’s kind of all of the above. So we obviously have to fundraise. We’re going to be losing obviously the governor for the time being. We’re hoping to gain that and keep that on a continuum. We have the president of the United States who can be very helpful, even despite reports that we heard today. So, I think we can have a great year this year. And that’s the nice thing about politics, you never count us out.
Aron: Alright, Mike Lavery, thanks for telling us where you stand.
Lavery: Thank you.