Senate race pits veteran GOP leader against young Democratic mayor

By: - October 5, 2021 7:05 am

Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, left, is vying for the 21st District state Senate seat with Democrat Roselle Park Mayor Joe Signorello III. (Photos courtesy of Bramnick and David Pilmenstein)

Voter disillusionment with politics often boils down to indistinguishability. This old white guy seems just like the other old white guy. Every candidate ever pledges to reduce taxes.

And sure enough, the candidates battling for the open state Senate seat in the 21st District — which covers 16 municipalities in Morris, Somerset, and Union counties — are both white guys who vow to lower constituents’ tax burden.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Republican Jon Bramnick has been the minority leader in the General Assembly since 2012 and has served about 25 years in public office. He has mulled running for governor several times and set his sights on the Senate seat this year after incumbent Republican Tom Kean Jr. bowed out to take on U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski in 2022. Outside politics, Bramnick is a personal-injury attorney who moonlights as a stand-up comic and self-published author.

Democrat Joe Signorello is the fast-talking young mayor of Roselle Park, arguably best known for the free-speech flap over “F*** Biden” signs in his Union County borough. He’s a venture capitalist who helps start-ups grow, and he speaks fluent German and still follows German politics after working for four years in Germany and Switzerland. At 33, he’s about half his opponent’s age — and if elected, would likely be the youngest lawmaker in the 120-member Legislature.

Signorello thinks he can beat Bramnick in this district where Democrats outnumber Republicans — and unaffiliated and third-party voters make up more than a third of the electorate.

“We’re going to win this race — and if we don’t win this race, we’re going to give him the scare of his life,” Signorello told the New Jersey Monitor. “We have, for the first time, a 6.5-point Democratic registration advantage. Biden won this district by close to 18,000 voters. We’ve done polling, and Gov. Murphy is incredibly popular in our district. The district has shifted. Now, it’s just about getting those Democratic voters out in an off-year election.”

Bramnick, for his part, expects his status as a veteran state lawmaker will deliver him to office. The district’s voters already know him as their longtime assemblyman.

“It takes years in Trenton to know how to navigate the system and how to respond to and help constituents. That doesn’t come overnight,” Bramnick said. “I like experienced surgeons, I like experienced lawyers, and sometimes, I like experienced legislators.”

Priorities wide-ranging

Both candidates list tax relief as a priority. From there, their goals diverge.

Signorello has three top issues: growing the economy, modernizing infrastructure, and expanding access to affordable childcare and eldercare.

“I care about equal rights, I care about passing the RFA (Reproductive Freedom Act to expand abortion access), I care about protecting the LGBTQ-plus community, pick your liberal value. I lean left on social issues,” Signorello said. “But I’m also a mayor with a track record of delivering really tight budgets. I think voters want to feel like they’re getting the best bang for their bucks. I burn with passion for efficiency.”

I burn with passion for efficiency.

– Joe Signorello, Roselle Park mayor and state Senate contender

As Roselle Park mayor since 2018, he led efforts to regionalize garbage collection and emergency dispatch, which he said saved taxpayers money while improving service.

He would like to see more economic development to anchor residents and businesses here — specifically, helping small businesses grow, creating economic hubs around the state, and facilitating multi-use development in downtowns.

He also wants to expand green infrastructure in the state, especially when it comes to public transit.

“Having lived in Europe, I know the importance of trains,” he said. “We focus in New Jersey on getting from here to New York. I think we need to shift that mindset — how to we get from point A to point B in New Jersey?”

Bramnick has other issues on his mind.

He supports a constitutional amendment to cap state budget increases to 2% a year. State spending has risen more than 30% since Murphy took office in early 2018, according to NJ Spotlight.

“You see sometimes double-digit increases in state spending. There’s a lot of excess spending,” Bramnick said. “If you are on a budget, you will figure out how to correctly spend your money. If you have a 2% cap, you would put the state in a position to be able to say ‘no’ to unnecessary spending and return that money to property tax relief.”

Bramnick says he has worked to pass billions of dollars in tax cuts since he first joined the Assembly in 2004, helping to eliminate the estate tax and supporting tax relief for seniors and veterans.

Reforming health insurance regulations to loosen their stranglehold on what care is covered is a priority, he said.

“You should not have to get approval from your insurance company once your doctor has determined you need something like an MRI,” he said. “I trust the doctors more than the insurance company to determine the appropriate care for patients.”

On criminal justice reform, he says the punishment should fit the crime.

“With respect to violent crime, let’s lock the people up for a long period of time, but for non-violent offenders, let’s find some other solution so it doesn’t ruin their lives,” he said.

It takes years in Trenton to know how to navigate the system and how to respond to and help constituents. That doesn’t come overnight.

– Jon Bramnick, New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader and Senate contender

Bramnick regards himself as a moderate Republican and a watchdog responsible for standing up to “extremism in Trenton.”

“When you’re the minority leader and a bad bill comes up, you have to stop that bill,” he said.

Criticism from both sides

Bramnick’s leadership has come under attack, though, from both political parties.

Freshman Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) said at a fundraiser New Jersey’s Republicans are “happy captives” who have become “more mild” as Democrats make minor concessions. Bramnick told Politico it was Bergen’s “right” to criticize his leadership but was “off base” maligning the entire GOP caucus.

Last Friday, conservative commentator Matt Rooney blasted Bramnick for his “lack of leadership,” saying: “Bramnick doesn’t want to be a Republican leader! He wants to wear the pin, do his comedy routine, and boast about his close relationship with the Murphy Administration. It’s called ‘Trentonitis,’ and it’s incurable once the infection takes hold.”

From the Democratic side, Signorello piled on, saying Bramnick uses abstentions to avoid accountability with Democratic voters on progressive bills.

“Bramnick is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Signorello said. “He tries to pretend he’s a never-Trumper, but he was there for the nomination of Donald J. Trump in 2016, cheering him on. Only recently has he tried to look like a moderate. But instead of actually voting with his values or against his party, he abstains.”

Legislative records show Bramnick abstained 21 times in the current session, most often on left-leaning bills including those that would designate a Black Lives Matter Day, make Juneteenth a public holiday, require schools to teach diversity and inclusion, and condemn the Capitol insurrection and urge Trump’s removal from office.

Bramnick pushed back on drawing any conclusions from his abstentions, saying he sometimes abstains from voting when he objects to something tacked onto a bill that negates its “positivity.” For example, he said, he supports Black Lives Matter conceptually but objects to the Black Lives Matter organization.

“If you think some of these bills aren’t crafted in a political way, you’re wrong,” he said. Sometimes, he added, he abstains due to cost concerns. “It’s really a case-by-case basis,” he said.

He distanced himself from Trump, saying he never endorsed him. “I didn’t like the way he ridiculed people, the way he talked about John McCain and Jeb Bush. I found it offensive for the president of the United States to act like that. I come from the school of a George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan — the type of presidents who, in my judgment, acted with class and in a way children can look up to.”

Bramnick declined to say whether he voted for Trump in 2016.

Signorello hopes the record-shattering voter turnout that occurred in the 2020 election continues this year. He was living in Europe when Trump won the Presidency in 2016 — and he said that win is what drove him into public service.

“I moved back to America, because it was really impossible to take my mind off of it,” he said. “Let me not mince words: It sucks to run for office. I am a 33-year-old man with a 45-hour work week, and I’m mayor. My social life and weight have both taken a hit. But apathy is a killer. Bad people win when good people do nothing.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.