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Some say, abandon DiFrancesco

Originally appeared in the Trenton Times on 04/19/01

TRENTON -- Republicans yesterday said several GOP county chairmen may defect to Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler in the gubernatorial primary, as acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco made it clear he will not bow to party pressure for him to withdraw.

Many Republicans feel DiFrancesco has been badly damaged by a series of newspaper reports about questionable financial deals. The worst came Tuesday when The New York Times reported DiFrancesco was nearly fired as township attorney in his hometown of Scotch Plains in 1998 because of alleged ethical lapses.

Lawyers hired by the township said DiFrancesco repeatedly represented the interests of his family in a local land deal -- in clear conflict with his role as township attorney -- without disclosing his own financial interest or the fact that he benefited from a payment made by K. Hovnanian Companies, which wanted to develop the land.

DiFrancesco has denied any wrongdoing and yesterday rejected any suggestion that he might step aside in the governor's race and let his party tap a replacement candidate.

"It's absurd to think it's a firestorm," DiFrancesco told reporters who mobbed him in a State House hallway. "It's absurd to think that I wouldn't be running."

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Franks is "willing" to enter the race if DiFrancesco withdraws, according to sources close to Franks.

"Notwithstanding a lot of pressure from Republican leaders, both to his face and otherwise, he's (DiFrancesco) staying in," the source said.

Another prominent Republican said few are willing to tell DiFrancesco to his face to get out, but the groundswell of feeling is undeniable.

"I haven't heard a single person say anything other than that he should pull out," he said.

With a June 5 primary, yesterday was the deadline for DiFrancesco to step aside if the party wanted to name a replacement on the ballot. But that deadline -- 48 days before the primary -- will be moved back if Republicans follow through on plans for the Legislature to move the primary to June 26 because of a court battle over the newly approved legislative map, which clearly favors the Democrats.

Warren County GOP Chairman Walter Orcutt said many Republicans worry DiFrancesco could hurt their chances of keeping control of the Senate and the Assembly this fall.

Asked if his party members wanted DiFrancesco out, he said "They're absolutely saying that to me, and I'm trying to stem the tide."

Meanwhile, Schundler has been openly courting Republican county chairmen. Yesterday he said he expects to win the support of a number of them.

"On the one hand, I think they feel that Don has been involved in activity that is serious and wrong, and therefore they feel that the party is at risk if he continues as a candidate," Schundler said. "Beyond that, I think a lot of them feel that he has been dishonest with them, because he had looked them in the eye and said there wasn't anything he had done which anybody should be concerned about."

Schundler referred to a meeting last month in which DiFrancesco assured party leaders that all the bad news from his past had already surfaced.

Another Republican leader confirmed that some county chairmen are preparing to jump ship. "There are clearly five or six chairmen that will go to Bret without much prodding at all," he said.

Until now, DiFrancesco had backing from all but one of the state's 21 counties. Monmouth County's GOP chairman, Bill Dowd, has said he would consider taking DiFrancesco's name off the party's line on the primary ballot.

Democratic candidate Jim McGreevey said DiFrancesco has more explaining to do.

"I believe that the issues raised in The New York Times as well as previously. . . raise legitimate questions for the citizenry which must be addressed," McGreevey said yesterday. "Simply stating they are untrue does not rise to the level of refutation necessary."

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