JIM TREFFINGER: The Next Jack Kemp?
Jude Wanniski
May 10, 2000


Memo To: Jack Kemp
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The New Jersey Senate Race

A month ago, just as I was giving up all hope of a new political leader suddenly appearing on the scene who would pick up the banner of economic growth in the Republican Party, I received a telephone call from a fellow named James W. Treffinger. He said he was County Executive of Essex County, N.J., which encompasses Newark and is the locale of the popular HBO series "The Sopranos." He told me he was running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Frank Lautenberg ... and that he was running as a supply-sider. I was mildly skeptical, Jack, but as the call stretched out to almost an hour, I began to think he might be the genuine article. Not only had he read The Way the World Works years ago, soon after it was published. He also carried around a copy of your 1979 book, An American Renaissance. It dawned on me that he might be the next Jack Kemp, now that you have retired from politics and entered elder statesmanship with a weekly column for the Copley papers. How else could he be twice elected in Essex County as a Republican, where registered Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans?

He came to Morristown two weeks ago and we had dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant, Valentino's. I soon learned: He had been born in 1950, an Italian-American, named Jim Padalino, but when adopted at the age of four, he became a Treffinger. He was raised a Catholic and a Democrat, with one wall of his home in Verona, N.J. displaying a crucifix and a picture of Franklin Roosevelt. He became a Republican, he said, after having voted for Reagan and deciding he was no longer a Democrat but had become, like Reagan, a "populist conservative," which is how he describes himself. We talked for five hours at Valentino's and left the place only because they were turning out the lights. I could see in him the same kind of genuine concern for ordinary people that I could see in you, when we first met in early 1976, and that I could always see in Reagan. As county executive, he told me he used supply-side principles, cutting tax rates several times where they were inhibiting growth, reducing spending where he could find more creative, efficient ways to deliver services. After the dinner, his office sent me a copy of a 1995 New York Times article that lavished praise on him for having accomplished what seemed an impossibility, cleaning up Essex County and straightening out its finances after decades of corrupt Democratic rule. Rarely is the Times so unstinting in its praise of a Republican.

Monday night, the New Jersey cable station ran the first of three debates between the four candidates for the Senate nomination. You know one of them, I think, Bob Franks, a member of Congress. The others are Bill Gormley, a state senator, and Murray Sabrin, a finance professor who ran for governor three years ago as a libertarian. I'd paid no attention to the race, to tell you the truth, because I assumed it would be safely held by the Democrats, either former Governor Jim Florio or a Goldman, Sachs financier named Jon Corzine who is spending megabucks on the race. I think you have to go back to the 1920's to find a Republican in a New Jersey Senate seat who was not a liberal. Clifford Case held the seat for 30 years before he was defeated by Jeff Bell in the 1978 primary, but Democrats have held both seats ever since. If Treffinger gets the nomination on June 6, I think he could easily roll over either Democrat. He would not only pull a lot of blue-collar votes, but would also get a good slice of the African-American vote. When Patricia and I watched the debate Monday night, all four of the candidates did well I thought, but Patricia said she could not have been more impressed with Treffinger ... and for the first time since she registered to vote, as a Democrat, she said she would try to switch parties in time to vote for him on June 6. She said "He not only sounded like Reagan ... his manner and style of speaking reminded me of Reagan." I'd told Aron Pilhofer of the Gannett papers, who had done a great profile of Treffinger for the Morris County Daily Record, that I thought he might be "the next Jack Kemp." Patricia says he reminds her of Reagan, who also began life on the other side of the social/political tracks, as a Democrat, that his manner and style of speaking made her think of Reagan. He knows how to think like a Democrat, which makes it easier for him to work with Democrats in bridging the kinds of partisan differences that make life in Washington so unpleasant these days.

Does Treffinger have a chance to win? If there is the usual turnout of organization Republican voters in the primary, the nomination will probably go to Bob Franks. Treffinger is not that far behind at the moment, but he is clearly not the betting favorite. Remember how Jeff Bell came from far behind in the last week in his race against Clifford Case? In this political universe of the new millennium, with no other clear leader of what had been the Kemp "Growth Wing" of the GOP, if Treffinger wins the primary and the general, he will be it. Keep your fingers crossed.