Three Republicans competing for chance to unseat Gottheimer in November

GOP has uphill climb in district that has become more Democratic

By: - May 23, 2022 7:07 am

Rep. Josh Gottheimer is seeking his fourth term representing the 5th Congressional District, which has become a safer win for Democrats after redistricting last year. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The three Republicans vying to take on Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer in North Jersey’s 5th Congressional District have presented very different personas they hope will snag them a primary win next month.

Nick De Gregorio is the military hero who will fight for Americans in Congress like he did in war zones, Frank Pallotta is the seasoned businessman eager to use his fiscal prowess to fix Washington’s woes, and Sab Skenderi is the libertarian-leaning constitutionalist with the unsubtle slogan “End Vaccine Mandates/Deport Illegal Aliens.”

But they all have positioned themselves as political outsiders whose independence will help fix what’s wrong in Washington, D.C. One even borrows the key catchphrase of the most recent president to successfully wield the appeal of the outsider: Donald Trump.

“We need to drain the swamp and pull out all the elected officials that only serve private interests,” Skenderi told the New Jersey Monitor.

It’s already tough to topple incumbents, who tend to have more name recognition and campaign cash than their challengers. Voters reelected Congressional incumbents at least 90% of the time in the past decade, according to the government transparency group Open Secrets.

The demographics of the district, which covers most of Bergen County and parts of Passaic and Sussex counties, may prove especially challenging for the GOP as the party seeks to regain control of Congress after November’s midterm elections.

The district had been a GOP stronghold for decades and was considered a swing district until very recently. But Democrats have gained in registration here: Of nearly 573,000 registered voters, Democrats now outnumber Republicans by more than 57,000, while unaffiliated voters outnumber both major parties, with almost 215,000, according to state data. And recent redistricting turned it more Democratic.

Dan Cassino is executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson Poll and a politics and government professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Cassino thinks any candidate aiming to win over Republicans in the June 7 primary — and then win enough Democratic and unaffiliated voters to unseat Gottheimer in November — will have to walk a very fine line. Gottheimer faces no Democratic challenger next month.

“The Republican Party has become much more conservative. So you have to win that primary. And somehow at the same time, you then have to be able to pivot and win the general election by being a moderate,” Cassino said. “I am not sure someone who’s moderate enough to win the general can also win the primary. De Gregorio is doing his darndest.”

Cassino also predicts the race will be a good test of the strength of the county party.

De Gregorio has raised nearly three times as much money as Pallotta, largely because De Gregorio won some weighty endorsements. The Bergen County Republican Organization gave him its support at its annual convention in March, and the National Republican Congressional Committee in February named him an “On the Radar” candidate in its Young Guns program, which supports the campaigns of promising GOP candidates.

“If Pallotta pulls off a win, this will be a huge story in New Jersey politics, because it will be a failure of the county machines,” Cassino said. “If Bergen County can’t pull De Gregorio over the finish line, it’s the death knell for them.”

Meet the candidates: Nick De Gregorio

With the most campaign cash on hand and a few weighty endorsements, De Gregorio is the candidate regarded as the race’s front-runner.

He’s a Fair Lawn father of two who served nine years as a U.S. Marine, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. After he left the military in 2016, he went to Georgetown University on the GI Bill to study business administration and international relations. He worked as an equities sales trader for Bank of America before he took an unpaid leave to run for office.

Nick De Gregorio announcing his candidacy for Congress at the veterans monument in Glen Rock on Nov. 10. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

He told the New Jersey Monitor he regards his bid for the Congressional seat as both an extension of his military service and a way to improve the world for his children.

“After four deployments, I view running for Congress as almost like a fifth deployment,” he said. “The reason that I’m running for Congress, having no background whatsoever in politics, is for my kids. We have an obligation to make sure that we pass on a better America than what we were given.”

At 37, he’s the youngest candidate in the race. He considers his age, along with his military background, as two of his best selling points. Both millennials and veterans are underrepresented at the Capitol: Only about 7% of House members are millennials and now there are the fewest veterans in Congress since at least World War II.

“It makes us stronger to have varying points of view and to be able to come up with a compromise and a consensus that is reflective of all the many different lives and experiences and journeys that we’ve had,” De Gregorio said.

Frank Pallotta

After running against Gottheimer in 2020, Pallotta arguably has the greatest name recognition among his competitors for the seat.

Pallotta lost to Gottheimer by 7 percentage points then. Still, he’s confident of his chances this time around, saying rising inflation, crime, and taxes have warmed voters to the GOP.

Frank Pallotta said problems like rising inflation will help the GOP in the fall. (Photo courtesy of Frank Pallotta)

Pallotta studied finance at St. John’s University and worked on Wall Street as an investment banker before co-founding a small Jersey-based business to help financially struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

He said New Jersey’s stifling taxes and sagging economic growth drove him to enter the race.

“Our district here has the highest taxes in all of New Jersey, and we’re looking at a job growth, an economic growth, that lags the country. My background is entirely consistent with what we need in this country,” Pallotta said. “I wish politicians would serve at least 10 years in the private sector before moving into politics. You have to know what it’s like to serve a customer, to serve a shareholder, before you learn how to serve a voter.”

Pallotta, 61, is a Queens native who has lived in Mahwah for about three decades. He has two grown sons.

He has been endorsed by Passaic County’s Republican Party.

When he ran in 2020’s GOP primary, the Bergen Republican Party did not support him then either, giving its support to opponent John McCann. Pallotta later defeated McCann in the primary before he lost to Gottheimer. Pallotta said the Bergen GOP did not support him because a party official demanded money in exchange for its support, something Pallotta said he would not do.

“The Bergen County Republican Organization’s leadership is corrupt. I am a principled businessperson who will stand up against corruption wherever I see it,” Pallotta said.

Jack Zisa, the Bergen GOP chair, calls Pallotta’s allegations “laughable.” When the Bergen Republican Party decides to give its support to one candidate over another, county committee members meet for a convention and vote for their favored candidate. This time, Pallotta lost that vote “convincingly,” Zisa said.

“I think he’s still smarting form that,” he said. “Desperate people do desperate things.”

Sab Skenderi

Skenderi decided to run for public office when his mother got sick, and the hospital wouldn’t let him visit because he was unvaccinated.

“That really made me angry, and I figured if I feel this way, there’s many other people that do,” he said. “They say, ‘I can’t go there, I can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ They’re very upset that their liberties are being restricted.”

Sab Skenderi of Wyckoff said he plans to challenge the status quo and the bureaucratic elites. (Photo courtesy of San Skenderi)

So he turned his anger into a campaign slogan and entered the race. Skenderi studied political science and public administration at Rutgers, Montclair State, and Bergen Community College, but this is his first political run.

He’s raised so little money that he hasn’t filed any campaign finance reports, which require public reporting of fundraising that exceeds $5,000. But he bristles at the notion that he’s a longshot candidate.

“When I go door to door and meet ordinary folks, they’re really happy that they have an alternative, somebody that’s going to challenge the status quo and the bureaucratic elites,” he said.

He has nothing to say about his competitors.

“I just want to stand with my message,” he said.

Skenderi lives in Wyckoff and tutors grade schoolers in after-school programs, after previously working in catering.

Their issues

On many issues, the three candidates echo the key talking points of the Republican Party.

All oppose abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. All object to illegal immigration. All have concerns about government mandates and meddling in everything from school curriculum to health care. All supported Trump.

But they voice different priorities.

Pallotta lists inflation and infrastructure as two of his chief concerns.

“This state has to be made attractive to live and work in order for us to continue to advance, so it’s about getting the state back in economic shape, in my mind, and tackling inflation. Inflation is really about growth, and sound fiscal policies are the way to growth,” Pallotta said.

De Gregorio told the New Jersey Monitor transparency tops his priority list, especially when it comes to accountability around insider trading. About 60 members of Congress recently made headlines when they failed to properly report their financial trades.

If elected, he said would work to ensure voter integrity, saying voters should be required to bring a photo ID to the polls to prove their citizenship and right to vote.

“We require ID for things that are much less important than then the sacred, democratic right to vote,” De Gregorio said. “I’m certainly not in any way a proponent of disenfranchising anyone. But I do think that we need to have an apparatus in place to ensure that we know who is voting.”

Parental control also concerns him, he added.

“We’re getting into a place where 7-year-olds in the second grade are potentially going to be taught sexual education and gender studies. That to me is too early,” he said. “The solution is choice and charter.”

He supports a stalled bill by Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) that would expand charter schools.

Skenderi sums up his priorities as an “America-first agenda.” He’s against “foreign entanglements” and believes the U.S. should withdraw from foreign wars and conflicts. He believes undocumented immigrants shouldn’t get any government support and should be deported, including those known as Dreamers who were brought as children to the U.S.

“I’m not against immigration. I’m against illegal immigration,” he said.

If elected, he would work to end “corporate welfarism” and “pork barreling.”

“I believe in free markets. I like companies and corporations. But not when they seek government aid and they get pork barreling,” he said.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.