On his way out of the Legislature, Jack Ciattarelli remains passionate about New Jersey

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Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
On a recent snowy Friday afternoon in Princeton, Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli had a window seat at PJ’s Pancake House where he was having a meal and talking about his future and the future of New Jersey.
Set to leave office early next month, he was as methodical dissecting the problems facing the state as he was eating a plate of three blueberry pancakes. In an interview, he touched on his three terms in the Legislature, his ill-fated run for governor this year and what comes next for someone who first got into political office in his late 20s.
Since 2012, the Republican has represented the 14 towns in the 16th Legislative District that span parts of Mercer, Hunterdon, Middlesex and Somerset counties. Before that, he was a Somerset County Freeholder and before that he was on the Raritan Borough Council. The job as a state lawmaker has meant eating in restaurants in his district, attending the round of chicken dinners and events on the weekends and helping constituents. Some things he will miss, some things he will not miss.
He called serving in Trenton a “phenomenal life experience” and felt it “an honor” to win three times in a competitive legislative district. But his entire tenure was spent as part of the minority party, this for someone coming from a Republican part of the state. A check of the more than 70 bills or measures he sponsored or co-sponsored in the 2016/7 legislative session found nearly all died in committee.
“It was a huge adjustment,” he said. “It wasn’t culture shock because you realize going in there’s a hierarchy in place and you realize also that this administration had a certain way in which it wanted things done for its caucuses to act as foot soldiers or pawns in the machine.”
Having turned 56 on Dec. 12, Ciattarelli said he has decided to wait until after the holidays to decide what he’ll do in his public and professional lives.
“Whether or not I run for office again in the near or long term, I do intend to stay involved in the public discourse on the issues that matter to most New Jerseyans,” he said. “I will have a voice, and it’s because I remain passionate about New Jersey.”
He raised the idea of setting up a think tank to come up with solutions to the “property tax crisis,” in his words, and other issues.
But if Ciattarelli had his way, he, not Phil Murphy, would be taking the oath of office to become the next governor replacing Chris Christie. Ciattarelli lost in the Republican primary to Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who went on to get trounced in the general election.
“I do think that Kim failed to separate herself from the Christie era. And it was my concern all along,” Ciattarelli said. “I felt strongly in declaring for governor that my candidacy wasn’t necessarily going to be easy but Guadagno’s candidacy was an impossibility.”
Guadagno’s strong showing in Ocean and Monmouth counties helped power her to victory in the primary. For someone who has seldom tasted defeat in his political career, Ciattarelli had to give a concession speech on election night.
“I’ve never, ever been afraid of failure,” he said. “The two times that I’ve lost (including his first run for local office) what I learned both times is there just wasn’t enough time for more people to get to know Jack Ciattarelli.”
“I mean I honestly believe and I knew going in,” he continued, “that Guadagno’s seven-year-head start was going to play huge in terms of her greatest strength and my greatest challenge. And I really believe that’s how she prevailed – she had a seven-year-head start.”
During his bid for governor, he announced in January that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer, later saying he was free of the disease.
“I mean I wouldn’t have run for governor if I didn’t have a clean bill of health from my doctors,” he said.
In surveying the political landscape, Ciattarelli is open about criticizing his party – having zinged President Donald Trump, and Christie. He famously called then-candidate Trump a “charlatan” and said Christie ought to resign or focus on state issues, rather than stump for Trump nationally.
“I think if you look at my public statements with regard to Christie and if you look at my voting record with regard to the administration, I think what it shows is someone who always tried to do what he thought was in the best interest of New Jersey and not the party,” he said.
With 2018 looming, Ciattarelli and his party will find themselves shut out of power in state government, where Democrats continue to control both houses of the Legislature and, once Murphy begins his term in the middle of January, the governor’s office. He believes the state GOP has a future “if we decide to rebuild our foundation.”
“First and foremost, what is it we stand for exactly?” he asked. “We need something that is appealing to everyone. And if we’re going to spend our time spreading the message and campaigning only in white, suburban, Republican towns, then all is lost and there is no future for the Republican Party in New Jersey.”
When the time comes for him to leave Trenton, Ciattarelli will have more time to ponder if he jumps into the U.S. Senate race in 2018 — or not. He says he is in a “fortunate spot” in life, “proud” of his public service and has options in front of him to do other things, like teaching in college or going back into business.
After he finished speaking, the three-term lawmaker got up and headed out of the restaurant. Where his footprints in the snow-covered sidewalk are headed is something that only Ciattarelli knows.