CRANBURY, NJ – With primary season just heating up in a much-hyped election year, county GOP faithful gathered at The Cranbury Inn Sunday afternoon to celebrate the life and times of the party standard-bearer Ronald Reagan.
About 125 people came out to the seventh annual Reagan Day, which featured a silent auction, Reagan memorabilia display, jelly bean contest and photo op with an ever ready cardboard Reagan cutout.
Adding some sparkle to the occasion, a patriotic boutique showcased Swarovski crystal encrusted jewelry, as well as neck ties and scarves in various red, white and blue weaves.
Following a call by state Sen. Sam Thompson (R-12) to muster at the podium, military veterans from several branches of service gave their name and branch served in, before leading those gathered in the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.
Cheryl Bass then offered up a prayer in honor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away Feb. 13 in West Texas. Justice Scalia was appointed to the court by President Reagan in 1986.
Middlesex County Republican Women's Club President Sue Tisiker next welcomed attendees to the celebration of all things Reagan before ceding the floor to Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
“Let's talk about what's going on in Middlesex,” Lt. Gov. Guadagno said. “You guys have really begun to show the rest of the state of New Jersey how it is done and it all starts in the ground game.”
She continued by saying that the focus of the party's attention should be on building a better tomorrow for the next generation in the state.
“It's honoring our past, working for today and looking forward to the future,” she said.
Making New Jersey an affordable place for families to call home again is also an important priority, Lt. Gov. Guadagno said.
“I don't know about you, but I'm kind of used to New Jersey,” she said. “I don't want to have to go find another place to live. I don't want to have to fly from Florida up here to meet my family or for my family to fly down to Florida to meet me.”
Founder of the Save Jersey blog Matt Rooney said that younger Republicans have no first hand knowledge of Reagan and stressed the importance of older generations of Republicans teaching younger ones.
“The stakes are huge,” he said. “So get out there and be teachers. Talk about our values. Do it for yourselves, do it for your grand kids, do it for your state, your county. Do it for these teenage Republicans.”
Offering the unique perspective of having actually met Reagan, former U.S. Senate candidate and Reagan speechwriter Jeff Bell spoke of his time with the former president.
“We didn't know he was great at the time,” he said. “There are people that we do know are great. I know a couple of people who were in the presence of Pope John Paul II and no one who was with the Holy Father had any doubt that they were in the presence of greatness. With Reagan, you didn't know that. You realized it gradually.”
Drawing a comparison between Reagan and current Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, Bell said that the two men are similar in their ability to take cues from the everyday “man on the street.”
“Donald Trump is somebody who learns from his audiences,” he said. “If he takes a shot at one of his opponents that falls flat, there's a good chance you won't be hearing that again.”
According to Bell, Reagan was similarly attuned to his audiences.
Representing the next generation of the Republican party, there were a number of teen Republicans in attendance.
Seventeen-year-old Nick Tharney, of Monroe Township, founded the Monroe Township Young Republicans Club earlier this year and learned about Reagan Day after attending a MCRWC meeting.
“This seemed like a great opportunity to get more involved, not necessarily at the local level but more at the county level,” he said. “I figured it would be an interesting experience to talk to different people, hear some more guest speakers and absorb all the information I can.”
Tharney also said that it's important for people to understand the issues.
“One of the things that I've noticed, even among the Bernie Sanders fans in my school, once they start becoming more knowledgeable about the actual issues they tend to lean, at the very least, a little bit more moderate,” he said. “(For) a lot of people in my grade, this is going to be the first presidential election which we're going to be able to vote, myself included, so it's interesting to see why they pick that side and if they actually know the issues.”
Dennis Cherian, 17, of East Brunswick, said that he is drawn to the conservative movement in large part because it makes sense.
“I think if you stop and think about sustainability, about the actual principles of economics, you'll realize that the only way forward is to have a smaller government, lower taxes, a better business environment,” he said. “I am a conservative because I believe in working for the people of my generation, so that they'll have jobs in the future, they'll be able to raise families, they'll be able to have an America that's as great as the one that we inherited from this previous generation – the generation of Reagan.”
Given the large number of students attracted to Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, Cherian said that he doesn't find his school environment to be unwelcoming for conservatives.
“I see it as an environment of opportunity,” he said. “It's a good place to teach kids. If you're a sensible-thinking person, you can make your own ideas and think of what's best for your own generation.”
Cranbury Republican Committee Chair Phylissanne Stehn said that she was impressed with the large turnout for the event.
“It's hard to be a Republican in New Jersey,” she said. “So I think it's nice people come out and they're in a room where it's okay to say and feel the way you do. To come out and have the camaraderie of people who have similar feelings. We probably all disagree on who we would want for president, but, at the end of the day, the principles are the same.”
The Reagan Day event committee included MCRWC President Tisiker, First Vice President Tonia Kulberda, Second Vice President Lisa Goldhamer, Secretary Roslyn Kane, Corresponding Secretary Sue Hucko, Treasurer Jacqui O'Sullivan, Sylvia Engel, Don Katz, Shannon Spillane, Brian Kolendriski, Dan LeBar, Gwynne Kesselman, Connie Balitsky and Jackie Thompson.
Platinum sponsors of the event included Old Bridge Councilwoman Anita Greenberg, DVM, Conservative Commandos Radio Show Host Anna Little, state Sen. Thompson (R-12), Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-12), Assemblyman Rob Clifton (R-12), state Sen. Kip Bateman (R-16), Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16), East Brunswick Republicans, Edison Republicans, Monroe Township Republicans, North Brunswick Republicans and Old Bridge Republicans.