TREFFINGER: The Next Jack Kemp, Part II
Jude Wanniski
May 11, 2000


To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: New Jersey’s Jim Treffinger

In yesterday’s “Memo on the Margin,” I wrote to Jack Kemp, who had been the leader of the Growth Wing of the Republican Party for the last 25 years, until he recently retired from active politics. I told Jack that I may have found just the fellow to pick up the banner and run with it. He is Jim Treffinger, who is running for the GOP nomination for the New Jersey U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Frank Lautenberg. If you missed that memo, you can read it here, but today I thought I’d run out the profile of him that appeared in some of the Gannett papers last Monday, which offers an independent view of Treffinger. The N.J. primary is on June 6 and there are four candidates in the race, but I think Treffinger is the only one who could win in the general election against either of the Democrats in the contest. My interest is not in electing a Republican to the Senate. I actively supported a “liberal” Democrat, Bob Torricelli, in his 1996 campaign for the Senate, because I became persuaded that he was the closest thing to being a leader of the growth wing in the Democratic Party -- and a supporter of supply-side tax cuts. Without someone willing to take the lead on the Republican side in pushing for the controversial tax and monetary policy reforms I believe we desperately need -- the way Kemp did when he was in Congress -- the country and the world will slump back into balance-the-budget, no-risk economic strategies. Please read the Gannett article reprinted below, with Gannett’s permission, and if you are impressed, you can go to Treff’s website and find an appropriate way to give him a hand.

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May 8, 2000
By Aron Pilhofer
Gannett New Jersey State Bureau

Try to put a label on James Treffinger.

He is a Republican with deep roots in the Democratic Party, a conservative with decidedly liberal views on many issues. He is a believer in market-based solutions, but also a pragmatist who knows government must be there to help those who need it.

In an era when political discourse comes in neat prepackaged, pre-masticated, press-release-ready 30-second sound bites, Treffinger is thoroughly old school. Ask a simple question - like, why is he running for U.S. Senate - and you will quickly discover there is no such thing as a simple answer.

During 20 minutes, Treffinger talks about his blue-collar background, his drive to succeed, his belief in the American system and faith in the power of ideas. Then he stops, and smiles at the reporter: “I know, I got sidetracked. I’m not made for the sound-bite age. That’s my problem.”

It may also be Treffinger’s unique appeal -- and why this little-known, two-term Essex County executive could become New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator.

Born James Padalino in 1950, he was adopted by the Treffinger family at age 4.

Fred and Ann Treffinger were the typical working-class family of their generation. His father left school at age 15 and supported the family working in a local factory.

Treffinger’s mother worked two jobs as well as raising Jim and his brother, Gary. “By the time my father retired, he owned his house, a car; his two children graduated college -- it was the American dream,” Treffinger said.

Like many blue-collar families, the Treffingers were staunch Democrats. Jim was too, until he changed parties in 1986.

I grew up a Catholic, so there were some rooms in the house with crucifixes in them, and in one room there was a picture of FDR next to the crucifix -- but just a little higher up,” Treffinger recalls. “They lived through the Depression, and FDR was like a saint to them.”

Treffinger graduated from St. Benedict’s in Newark and went on to become the first in his family to earn a college degree. He put himself through Seton Hall, graduating magna cum laude in 1972. Treffinger was selected as the school’s second-ever Fulbright Scholar, and spent two years in Germany studying history, jurisprudence and economics.

During that time, he married his college sweetheart, Janet Fitzpatrick. After returning to the United States, Treffinger went back to school land earned his law degree from Rutgers University in 1976.

They moved to Verona to raise their family as Treffinger was beginning a highly successful career in corporate law. By age 34, he had risen to vice president and chief legal counsel of a $5 billion corporation in New York City.

Always interested in politics, Treffinger served 12 years as a member of the township council and mayor in Verona, and served three years as Essex County freeholder.

“It was something I cared about, and part of being involved in the town and my community, “ he said. “I never wanted to make politics my profession. I always wanted to do it part time.”

That changed rather abruptly in 1994, when he was asked to run for Essex County executive -- the top administrative post. The previous county executive was embroiled in a corruption scandal, and eventually went to jail on money laundering charges.

Still, Republicans had not controlled the Essex County government since 1959.

“I never expected to win. Republicans don’t win in Essex County, which in a way was a liberating experience,” Treffinger said. “I went around telling people what was on my mind.”

That included a promise to reduce the county workforce, to straighten out the fiscal mess left behind by his predecessor and even proposed eliminating county government altogether, including the job for which he was running.

County Republican Chairman Kevin O’Toole said that was exactly what attracted voters to Treffinger, and why he was able to win a seemingly impossible race.

“He’s not afraid to take on a fight even if it is unpopular. In a day when politicians are guided by polls, he’s just the opposite. He decides based on what’s right,” O’Toole said.

Not everyone subscribes to that point of view. He has been criticized for reducing the county’s role in certain key services too quickly as a way to save money and balance the budget.

Last year, Treffinger became embroiled in the removal of then-County Prosecutor Patricia Hurt, whom he had hand-picked for the position.

“I was largely responsible for putting her there, which is why I pursued it so zealously. She was a friend and trusted part of the administration,” Treffinger said.

Hurt resigned from her $115,000-a-year job as prosecutor in August after the state made her position largely a figurehead.

She was fighting allegations of frivolous spending, that her narcotics task force was incompetent and that she had botched the investigation into the killing of an Orange policewoman.

Both the Black Ministers Council and New Jersey and the NAACP were highly critical of Hurt’s demotion, and Treffinger knows he probably burned some bridges by asking the governor to take action against Hurt.

“There were so many problems, and we are still reeling from them,” He said. “It had to be done.”

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Treffinger, one thing you can say is this: He never makes a decision without thinking through it first, according to those who know him best.

He’ll examine a problem forward, backward, upside down and sideways before taking a position on anything, said Janet Treffinger, his wife of 27 years.

“I don’t know if people know how much time it takes to be a good representative. He will sit for hours, thinking and writing,” she said. “Maybe other politicians don’t take that kind of time.”

Sarah Treffinger, his eldest daughter, agrees. “Ask him any question, and he’ll have an opinion and he’ll support that opinion,” she said. “You may disagree with him until you are blue in the face, and he respects that and values that. But he can support every argument that comes out of his mouth.

Changing parties was a decision he mulled for some time before setting on a course of action, he said.

“Leaving your party is almost like leaving your religion. It was hard for me,” Treffinger said.

But after supporting Ronald Reagan in 1980 and again in 1984, it became clear that the change was inevitable.

By 1986, he was actively working for Republican candidates.

Treffinger explains that it was not he who left the democratic Party behind, but the other way around. He still admires Democrats like John F. Kennedy and New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

“If all Democrats were frozen to the views of John F. Kennedy, maybe a lot of us would still be Democrats today,” Treffinger said.

But the party as a whole has moved far away from that tradition.

“When I grew up, I was always told, and I believed, the Democrats were the party of the people, and the Republicans were the party of special interest and the rich. I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” Treffinger said. “I think the Democratic Party is the party of new special interests, and we are the party of the people.”

He calls himself a “populist conservative,” who believes the free-market is the best tool to achieve social progress and social justice.

“Look, poverty means no money. How do people get money? They are given the opportunity to move up the ladder,” Treffinger said. “It’s certainly elitist, and almost prejudicial against the lower-middle class and the working class to believe they can’t be rich, to believe they will be stuck where they are. There should be ample opportunity for everyone to move up.”

The way you do that is by growing the national economy, rewarding entrepreneurs, lowering taxes and encouraging investment-what Treffinger describes as “democratic capitalism.”

“The object is to get as many people into the capitalist system as possible,” he said.

Treffinger, for example, believes individuals should have the right to invest a portion of their Social Security savings if they so choose.

He supports George W. Bush’s proposal to cut taxes for every American and would advocate for the elimination on capital gains.

But before putting Treffinger into any neat little category, consider this: He’s deeply religious, and considers himself pro-life, but believes it is not right for him or any public official to criminalize women who choose to have abortions.

“It’s a question of patience. We have to strive to eliminate it by advocating against it,” Treffinger said. “I do not believe we should use the blind instrument of government to criminalize those persons who have abortions. If my position is called pro-choice, so be it.”

On other issues, like campaign finance reform, Treffinger sounds more like Ralph Nader than Ralph Reed.

He supports the virtual elimination of all special interest money from politics: No soft money, no political action committees, no corporate contributions, no billionaires spending millions of their own money to get elected. Treffinger is the only candidate in either party who does not accept PAC money.

“I don’t know why so many people in my party are opposed to reform. I think we can compete on ideas,” he said. “If you level the playing field, and eliminate the special interest influence, I am confident our ideas will win out.”

Whether his ideas alone will allow him to win this election against better known and better funded candidates is very much in question.

“I have always been interested in ideas, and ideas can move the world,” Treffinger says. “I do feel passionately - I know I use the word a lot, but it’s true - that these ideas work, these things can work.”