By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog
We met for breakfast at 9:30 a.m. on a brisk December Saturday but Sheriff Shaun Golden (R-Monmouth) had already held a full meeting earlier in the day before sitting down with your Blogger-in-Chief for eggs and toast at Freehold’s Sweet Lew’s Cafe, a greasy spoon located directly across from the country government complex.
We both drink a lot of coffee. He estimated at least four or more cups per day. It’s probably the only category of daily living where I outwork the man who succeeded Kim Guadagno as Monmouth sheriff in 2009 and, most recently, in June 2014, supplanted former Senate President and acting governor John O. Bennett as the most populous Jersey Shore county’s Republican chairman.
I don’t have as much time as I used to for sit-down interviews, Save Jerseyans. Over the last year, I’ve focused on N.J. Republicans doing big things in blue or contested/purplish territory. This particular guy is one I’ve wanted to grab a coffee with for awhile and especially after he turned back a Democrat insurgency led by young Democrat up-and-comer Vin Gopal and financed by a lopsided 4-to-1 spending gap courtesy of North Jersey party bosses.
What did I learn? Breakfast is more than just an opportunity to caffeinate for a busy day of heading up a dominate party (Democrats are once again shut out from county offices following solid 2014 county-wide wins) in addition to a sheriff’s department budgeted for $68 million and staffed by 600+ employees. It’s a vital facet of his approach to leadership.
“I believe that kind of regular contact with our active Republicans is key to our success,” Golden shared, calmly going back-and-forth between his over-easy eggs and mixed fruit as the din of gaggle of excited young children remained constant in the background (Lew’s was hosting an annual ‘breakfast with Santa’ that morning). “I’ve been holding breakfasts all over the county, and will continue to do it next year. It’s important and I enjoy it.”
It’s not an intimidating experience, one I had looked forward to as part of my ongoing effort to ferret out and celebrate Republicans making good things happen in “blue” Jersey territory.
Don’t misunderstand me: there’s no doubt about Golden’s ability to throw down when he needs to.
The two-term incumbent law man came out on top in a contentious chairman’s battle marked by plenty of slung mud (including ethics allegations) against one of the state GOP’s enduring modern figures. He exhibits real presence and palpable drive. All the same, the Sheriff presents with the humility of the local cop which, as chance would have it, is where he got his start with Colts Neck Police Department. Plenty of chairman try to impress younger guns with back-slapping pomposity. Not Golden.
Quiet charisma over eggs, toast and coffee helped generate a 53-vote win over Bennett. He hosted breakfasts all over the county last spring (Exhibit A on the right). Golden is nevertheless quick to remind anyone listening that it was a team effort.
He puts a lot of faith in his team. “We did a really good job of reorganizing in a short period of time; first off, I created a liaison based on regions in the county,” explained Golden, who also readily offers up that he is a life-long resident of the county save for his undergraduate tenure at Seton Hall. “Monmouth’s regions have real differences. I picked hard-working county chairs who had already worked hard in those regions. It paid off.”
That grouping of seasoned allies includes Christine Hanlon, an attorney with Archer and Greiner and close Golden politically ally who lost a previous chairmanship challenge to Golden’s predecessor by only a few votes. Sheriff Golden describes her as “one of the hardest working Republicans in the county going back to ’06.” She serves as Vice Chair/Republican State Committeewoman. Also on the team are the plain-talking Tony Fiore, former mayor of Middletown and current Monmouth GOP Vice Chairman, Vice Chairwoman Mary DeSarno (Wall Township Municipal Chairwomen), and Vice Chair Robert Nicastro of Howell (“I’ve never seen so many neighborhoods walked in Howell, and they won 3-to-1 as a result,” Golden recalled, beaming right as we were interrupted by a diner employee who recognized him and wanted to say “Merry Christmas” to the regular VIP).
The extended team includes NJ GOP consultant Chris Russell (the paid media and messaging guru) and Executive Director Thomas Szymanski (a young veteran, not at all an oxymoron in this instance, who ran the field operation).
Still, hard work and diligent execution are naturally only part of the equation behind the Monmouth GOP’s successful 2014. Golden thinks the GOP’s messaging needs work as a general matter, and he isn’t the least bit shy with his opinions on the topic.
For starters, Golden considers his county organization as being an in-state leader at Hispanic outreach.
“The GOP is afraid to take the lead, charge on this issue but we’re not,” said Golden. “Members of that community are hardworking, family-oriented, church-going, entrepreneurial. It’s a natural fit for the party.” He’s even re-branded GOP to stand for “GROWTH, OPPORTUNITY and PROSPERITY” for the purposes of diversity outreach in and around the county. His coordinator, Juan Malave (who doubles as the Howell municipal chairman), worked closely with the chairman and NJ GOP “Chair-of-Chairs” Jose Arango (of Hudson) to craft the messaging for thousands of mailers targeted to Latino and Latina voters in battleground communities with diverse populations like Matawan, Red Bank, Long Branch and Freehold. Naturally in-person outreach is irreplaceable and they quietly but deliberately put in the hours.
In terms of the mode of delivery, Sheriff Golden gets “social media” and wants to leverage it in a way that many local Republican organizations still aren’t (as evidenced by his willingness to watch me attack an innocent plate of hashbrowns on a perfectly lovely Saturday). It’s also one area where he wants to improve. “We’re still running campaigns largely on robo calls and mailers, and that’s going away,” he admitted. “We need to engage the youth where they actually are.”
It’s a process. “Getting our core in the county to embrace social media contacts is going to be a focus into next year,” he added.
Where did the Democrats go wrong?
“I like Vin [Gopal], but when we met for a drink, before the cycle, that ‘hey, negative doesn’t work here.’ And that’s how it turned out.” Specifically, Golden thinks they spent way too much time harping on the infamous Lucas land deal (“a transparent, arm’s length transaction” out of hundreds passing the county’s gaze, he noted, making the point that the freeholders didn’t miss anything, or do anything wrong, despite the scandals’s namesake’s alleged culpability).
Golden further opined that Monmouth taxpayers like the way Monmouth County is governed. “It’s gorgeous,” he says, glowing again when describing the beauty of his home county, including my point of entry traveling from Camco through the western farmland, “but it’s by design.” He believes 2014 incumbents Lillian Burry (a preservation crusader) and Gary Rich (the financial wiz) help maintain a solid quality of life without the reckless taxes and borrowing occurring at other levels of government. In short, Democrat attacks didn’t jive with what Monmouth residents experience living in the county.
Do Monmouth Dems have a shot in 2015? Particularly in LD11, where Vin Gopal is considering throwing his own hat in the ring for a second time to challenge incumbents Caroline Casagrande and Mary Pat Angelini?
“No,” Golden said through a grin, followed by a coffee chaser.
By now, at this point in the breakfast, my plate is cleaned and I’ve taken more notes on my yellow legal notepad than at some depositions, Save Jerseyans. The Sheriff and I proceeded to talk on (and off) the record about 2015, big projects in the works, and his thoughts generally on the state of politics in New Jersey.
We’ll save it for another post. This one is long as-is. I think I’ve made my point, too – that this is a guy worth watching in all 21 counties – and most importantly, your appetite is sufficiently developed for more news from the Monmouth GOP (and Shaun Golden) in the very near future.