Letter: Is Phil Rizzo trying to throw the June 8th primary election for Jack Ciattarelli?

As the New Jersey Republican primary draws closer to its conclusion, longshot candidate Phil Rizzo has many conservatives scratching their heads. Rizzo has trailed frontrunners Hirsh Singh and Jack Ciattarelli throughout the entire campaign, consistently polling in the single digits. It’s safe to say he has little to no chance of securing the nomination. Yet he has refused to drop out of the race, leading many Republicans to conclude that Rizzo is simply attempting to draw votes away from the other openly pro-Trump candidate in the race, Hirsh Singh, thereby handing the nomination to Jack Ciattarelli.  

The theory does appear to have some merit given the disconnect between Rizzo’s past statements about President Trump and his current pro-Trump campaign rhetoric. Rizzo has openly admitted that he did not vote for President Trump in 2016, and instead voted for a third-party candidate. So why the sudden turnaround during the 2020 campaign? Although Rizzo at one point posted a photo of himself with President Trump at his Mar-A-Lago resort, President Trump has never mentioned Rizzo or indicated that he supported his candidacy. 

Rizzo’s campaign has also been plagued by several other controversies that have only heightened accusations that he is intentionally playing spoiler to Mr. Singh. Earlier this year, a video from 2011 revealed that Rizzo, a protestant pastor, declared Catholics were “in bondage to their sin” and “in bondage to religion.” Rizzo also wondered aloud whether Catholics “have ever heard the gospel” and remarked, apparently with disdain, that “in a one-square mile town there’s seven Catholic churches.” New Jersey is the second most Catholic state in the country, with a full 40% of New Jerseyans identifying as Catholic.

Rizzo also ran into trouble recently when it was revealed that, although New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country, the pastor currently pays no property tax on his luxury $1.6 million home. Rizzo purchased the house in 2015, but shortly thereafter sold it to City Baptist Church, where Rizzo was the lead pastor at the time, at a profit of more than $100,000. Although Rizzo and his family still live in the house, because it is technically owned by the church, Rizzo lists it as a tax-exempt parsonage and saves more than $15,000 a year in property taxes. Critics have slammed Rizzo for the move, accusing him of taking advantage of both his leadership position in the church and his congregation to avoid paying taxes. After making extensive renovations, Rizzo put the home on the market in September of last year for $2.65 million before withdrawing the listing in November. 

It’s also not clear just how much Rizzo is receiving in salary from the church. The Rizzo campaign has repeatedly dodged questions about the figure, and Rizzo himself has been notoriously tight-lipped about his finances and past real-estate dealings. 

Ultimately, the combination of past anti-Trump comments and personal controversy has by and large doomed Phil Rizzo’s chances of winning the nomination next Tuesday. However some – especially in the Ciattarelli camp – are hoping Rizzo can still draw enough votes away from Mr. Singh to prevent New Jersey from having a proudly pro-Trump nominee for governor to face Phil Murphy this November. 

This is a letter to the editor and represents the opinion of the author and not Shore News Network or its staff.

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