Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no brain.”
While New Jersey Assemblyman Rick Merkt ’71 — a self-proclaimed “conservative constitutionalist” — said he has softened up since his undergraduate years, he admits he would have definitely fallen in the first category as a history major in Timothy Dwight College nearly 40 years ago. But his political roots, partly fostered during his time in New Haven, have only developed since his Eli days. Now 59 years old, Merkt, a resident of Mendham Township, N.J., is mounting a longshot bid for the Republican nomination for governor in his home state.
ELI DAYS AT YALE
Merkt, a Lawrenceville School graduate, set out for Yale in the fall of 1967, when the campus was abuzz with anti-war sentiment, bubbling with liberal ideals, and two years shy of coeducation.
“I got more of a political education at Yale,” Merkt said in a telephone interview on Friday. “During the tumultuous Vietnam years, there was a riot on the green and strikes all over the place by the students. We even had a shortened academic year one year.”
As one who spent his adolescence reading Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley ’50 and counts Churchill as his personal hero, Merkt said the “loony left” was alive and well at Yale, and he naturally gravitated towards the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Right.
But he was never the chief whip or even the most outspoken member. Merkt admitted that he was afraid of public speaking.
Robert Cottrol ’71, who lived in Timothy Dwight with Merkt, said he remembers Merkt as a pensive, politically minded friend who always brought a different perspective to conversations with his conservative viewpoints.
“So many students, certainly at the time, simply assume the liberal position, because at most universities you absorb it by osmosis,” Cottroll said, adding that Merkt had “the other point of view.”
But instead of voicing his conservative convictions on the YPU floor during his undergraduate years, Merkt sat back and carefully observed those who were already prominent in politics.
He recounted one particular visit by Ronald Reagan, who came to campus as a Timothy Dwight Chubb Fellow during his time as governor of California. Although it was a brief three-day trip, but Merkt said he “trailed Reagan around like a puppy dog” during his whole visit to TD.
“Those of us in the college could eat with him,” Merkt recalled. “I remember that he was incredibly down to earth. His voice had a certain softness to it, and he was a very clear thinker.”
Merkt’s first personal encounter with politics came in 1975, when he was a new graduate of Fordham Law School. He attended a local “candidates night” to meet state legislature hopefuls and became inspired by one of the candidates, a young, 28-year-old Jim Barry, who focused his candidacy speech on applying business principles to government.
Inspired by Barry’s work in government, Merkt ended up volunteering for Barry’s campaign.
Still, Merkt’s disdain for public speaking kept him away from the spotlight.
After working as a legislative aide for Barry, Merkt had a few political appointments, including a stint as deputy attorney general for the New Jersey division of Casino enforcement. In 1987, Merkt graduated with a Master’s degree in public management from the University of Pennsylvania. Eight years later, he finally decided to face his fears.
“I was faced with a choice: remain behind the scenes and continue to support the political agenda of others or step forward, despite my discomfort with public speaking,” Merkt said of his decision to run for state assemblyman in 1995. “I could play a more meaningful role in formulating public policy in New Jersey.”
In the 1995 Republican primary, Merkt was “clocked” by defeat, coming in third of five candidates, losing to the incumbent, Anthony Bucco, and another challenger, Michael Carroll.
But two years later, he ran again and won. He is now in his sixth term in the New Jersey Legislature, where he represents part of Morris County in the northern part of the state.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Though Merkt said he occupies a “safe” seat in the New Jersey legislature, after “herding cats” for 12 years, he decided to run for governor out of concern that the state could become insolvent.
Merkt officially filed his petition to run on Monday.
He said the biggest issue in the state is the overreaching power of the state Supreme Court, a court he claims has made decisions that pushed the state’s finances over the edge — creating an income tax of nearly 9 percent, a 7 percent sales tax and a high property tax.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court is perhaps the worst in the country,” said Carroll, who later won office and now represents another district in Morris County. “They continue to usurp power, and Rick would slap them down a bit.”
Merkt said he also wants to scale back the size of government “responsibly” (one in six New Jersey citizens are employed by the government, according to Merkt) and control government spending by exercising the line-item veto.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released in March, 40 percent of Republican voters said they were likely to vote for former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, followed by 19 percent for former Bogota, N.J., mayor Steve Lonegan, 3 percent for Franklin, N.J., mayor Brian Levine and 1 percent for Merkt. (Thirty-two percent said they were still undecided.)
Although Merkt may have a lot of ground to make up, he said whatever the outcome of the primary and general election, at least he is getting his ideas of reform out to the public — ideas staunchly principled in the constitution and a twinge of Yale-born conservatism.
“We need a governor who already knows the ropes and can hit the ground running from day one,” he said. “There may be places where ‘on-the-job’ training is okay, but the New Jersey governor’s office isn’t one of them.”