MORRIS TOWNSHIP — A few people in the crowd wore familiar-looking red baseball caps with white lettering. But no, unlike the ones sported by Donald Trump supporters, they didn’t say, “Make America Great Again.”
Instead, the hats read, “Steve Rogers for Governor.”
Rogers, a township commissioner in Nutley, has formally joined the ever-growing race to succeed Chris Christie as New Jersey’s governor, kicking off his campaign for the Republican nomination with a Trump-like message Thursday.
Among the promises Rogers, who was an adviser to Trump during the president-elect’s campaign, made at his launch event: reversing the recent state gas tax hike, charge drug dealers of serious narcotics as terrorists, and make it easier for people in the state to legally carry a gun.
“My vision for New Jersey is to make sure the other 49 states envy us,” Rogers, 64, told supporters at the Madison Hotel just outside of Morristown. “And there is no reason we cannot reach that goal.”
Rogers is a U.S. Air Force vet who served for years in both the U.S. Navy Reserves and the Nutley police department. He was previously served on the Nutley school board and was elected to his second term on the township’s council in May.
Rogers has also been a frequent commentator on Fox News. He announced his gubernatorial bid Wednesday night during an appearance on Fox Business Network.
The Trump parallels were obvious Thursday. Echoing the former Atlantic City casino magnate who was elected president last month, Rogers vowed to “renew and restore New Jersey,” partially by getting rid of establishment politics. He also promised to “produce thousands upon thousands of jobs just by thinking a little outside of the box.”
“We’re Americans. We can do anything,” said Rogers, who claims to have been the first elected official in New Jersey to endorse Trump.
As for the hats? They’re not official campaign merchandise. A Rogers supporter had them made and handed them out.
How a populist message plays out in the Garden State is unclear. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in the state, which went for Trump’s top opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, by a wide margin last month. Political experts say the Democratic Party is favored to retake the governor’s office after eight years of Christie, a Republican.
Steven Rogers, Republican candidate for N.J. governor: “We’re Americans. We can do anything.” pic.twitter.com/kWFQNIWcaQ
— Brent Johnson (@johnsb01) December 8, 2016
Rogers is also considered a long shot in a suddenly crowded race for the GOP nod. State Assemblyman Jack Ciatterelli (R-Somerset) and Ocean County businessman Joseph Rullo have already declared their candidacy.
Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said there’s “definately room for an outsider candidate to surprise us” in the race.
But, Hale added, it’s “not clear what is gained in New Jersey by running as a mini-Trump.”
Rogers rolled out a number of ideas Thursday, some of which seemed lofty:
* Repealing the controversial 23-cent gas hike that lawmakers passed and Christie signed to pay for state transportation projects.
Rogers said during his speech he would get rid of it through executive order. While governors can issue executive orders, it’s unclear if they’d be allowed to repeal laws that way.
Rogers told reporters afterwards he would try to convince lawmakers to find another solution.
“I believe when you sit down with people and show them how bad this is, I think they’re going to think twice,” he said.
* Prosecuting dealers of high-level drugs — such as opiates like heroin — as terrorists. Rogers said he would probably need to develop that plan with the federal government.
“I have a message for every drug dealer in the state: You better pack your bags before I get elected,” he said.
Rogers said he would not go after marijuana dealers.
* Making it easier for New Jerseyans to obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm. Under current state law, people need to prove to the court they have a “justifiable need” to carry. Rogers said if need be, he’d resort to an executive order to change that, too.
“The Second Amendment is not negotiable,” Rogers said.
* Restoring cost-of-living increases to pension benefits that were frozen under a law Christie signed in 2011.
* Eliminating PARCC testing and Common Core.
“We need to give the power to teach back to the teachers,” he said.
* Easing traffic along the Route 3 corridor by creating new ferry services along the Hudson River.
The favorite in next year’s race is Democrat Phil Murphy, a former banking executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany who loaned his campaign $10 million. But Rogers said he isn’t worried about facing wealthy opponents.
“I’m a middle class guy who has a calling from God,” Rogers said. “I believe this is a calling.”
One major difference from Trump? Rogers said he won’t criticize his opponents and will focus on policy instead.
“We are not going to lower the bar,” he said.