Veteran municipal manager joins N.J. Assembly with budget-busting in mind

By: - February 24, 2022 7:07 am

Brandon E. Umba during the reorganization meeting of the New Jersey Assembly in Trenton on Jan. 11, 2022. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Brandon Umba grew up with the sound of sirens. He was just 16 when he followed his father and grandfather into the volunteer fire service.

He remembers sprinting on foot to the firehouse whenever there was an emergency, until he got his driver’s license. He’d dry off the firetruck after calls and otherwise contribute however he could until he graduated from the Gloucester County fire academy when he was 18.

It was his first experience in public service, but just the start of what would be a lifelong commitment. Now business administrator in Ocean County’s Manchester Township, Umba has had a 15-year career in local government, previously serving as township administrator in West Deptford, Franklin Township, and Lumberton.

“That was the root of what my parents always instilled in both me and my brother, this sense of giving back and helping others,” said Umba, whose brother is a police officer.

Last year, Umba made his first bid for elected office, and in November, the Republican won a seat in the New Jersey Assembly, representing about 20 communities in the 8th Legislative District.

“Being an elected representative is not something that I ever viewed as being a career. It’s more of a calling and giving back to your community,” he said.

At 36, he’ll be one of the youngest lawmakers in the Trenton Statehouse and one of 17 newcomers to the Legislature.

He’s also already one of the busiest, signing on as a sponsor to 36 bills just six weeks into the new legislative session. Those measures run the gamut from allowing hunters to ride in the beds of pickup trucks to allowing police departments to donate unclaimed bicycles to nonprofits.

A passion for politics

For Umba, politics was a passion long before he ran for office.

He studied political science at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., interning during college with former U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican, and Michael D. Higgins, who then was an Irish Parliament member and now is Ireland’s president.

After graduating, he worked for former U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan and former Gloucester County Freeholder Larry Wallace, both Republicans. Umba also has been involved in local party politics and now is municipal chair of the Republican County Committee for Medford Township, where he lives with his fiancee, Dana. He also has served on Medford’s zoning board.

That government experience helped hook voters, one of his running mates said.

“Brandon brings to our team a great understanding of the South Jersey area that we serve,” state Sen. Jean Stanfield said. “He’s been very active for years in government, both as a staffer for Congressman Jon Runyan as well as a business administrator in several towns. He really has his ear to the ground, he knows what people want, and he’s not afraid to speak up and make it happen.”

Umba and fellow Assembly newcomer Michael Torrissi handily won their heavily competitive district, located mostly in Burlington County. They had no incumbents to beat: Former Assemblyman Ryan Peters, a Republican, didn’t seek re-election and Stanfield, a former GOP assemblywoman, left the Assembly race wide open when she decided to run for state Senate, which she won.

Micah Rasmussen, who heads the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said Umba stands out because of his age, which is roughly 20 years younger than the average Assembly member.

“At 36, he is definitely one of the rising stars, if you will, of Republican legislators in New Jersey,” Rasmussen said. Youth “is not so ready to come by in the state Legislature, where people tend to stick around for a while. He’s a fresh face, and that definitely makes a difference, because New Jersey gets the benefit of that fresh perspective, which is healthy to good decision-making.”

Eye on the budget

As a state lawmaker, Umba aims to ensure South Jersey’s interests are protected in a Legislature where neither chamber is led by a South Jersey politician.

He also hopes to bring the ballooning state budget back down. In local government, he was tasked with running the day-to-day operations of the towns where he worked and introducing and managing municipal budgets.

“I enjoy doing budgets. I enjoy looking through and trying to analyze. That’s what I want to do on the state level. I want to review our budget,” he said.

The state budget brims with “Christmas tree items,” local pet projects and pork spending that taxpayers statewide shouldn’t have to shoulder, he said. He listed a few examples from last year’s budget, including $1 million each for the Hoboken community center and the East Brunswick Community Arts Center and thousands more for other local attractions like the Battleship New Jersey on the Camden waterfront.

“Shouldn’t we be supporting that by the patrons going to that facility?” he said. “What is the core function of government? What do we need to operate?”

He also said legislators deserve more time to review and offer input to the state budget. Last year, lawmakers ignited bipartisan outrage when they gave initial approval to a record $46.4 billion budget just 12 minutes after the 280-page spending plan — containing $1.5 billion in previously undisclosed projects — was publicly posted.

“They voted on a budget without even knowing what over a billion dollars of that money was going towards,” Umba said. “It’s a game. We need to stop playing games. Because this is people’s lives. It’s their livelihoods. It’s their tax dollars. We need to start acting like adults in Trenton.”

I enjoy doing budgets. I enjoy looking through and trying to analyze. That’s what I want to do on the state level.

– Assemblyman Brandon Umba

Fully funding pensions should be a priority, he added. New Jersey’s public worker pension system is considered one of the worst-funded in the country.

“A local municipality cannot skirt its obligation to the pension system. Why can the state do that?” he said.

Umba will serve on the Assembly’s education, higher education, and human services committees, and he’s already turning his budgetary eye to educational issues. He plans to examine what’s known as S2, a 2018 law intended to help underfunded school districts that has proven controversial because overfunded districts lost state support.

A short-term fix to that conundrum is the $6 billion in federal funding New Jersey got under the American Rescue Plan, Umba said, but most of that funding hasn’t been released yet.

Umba, along with four other GOP lawmakers, sent Gov. Phil Murphy a letter earlier this month demanding the governor detail his spending plan and a timeline on when communities will get $5 billion of that funding that hasn’t yet been committed. Besides offsetting school funding cuts, the federal funding should support the state’s Eviction Protection Program, which Umba said has distributed less than 1% of the money it was allocated to assist struggling landlords and tenants.

A Murphy spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment.

Umba has plenty of other issues in mind.

He hopes to find fixes to dwindling volunteerism, a shortage of truck drivers, skyrocketing higher education costs, and lingering pandemic-related economic woes. He’s a vaccinated and boosted Republican who opposes mandates and hopes to restore the civility he says has been lost in politics.

“I need to do the best that I can in the time I was given,” he said.


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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.