Kennedy O’Brien is coming out of retirement to run for mayor of Sayreville, a post he held for 20 years, setting up a substantial opportunity for Republicans to flip one of New Jersey’s premier blue-collar swing towns in the November general election.
The incumbent, Democrat Victoria Kilpatrick, won the open seat in 2019 by three votes out of more than 7200 cast against Republican Arthur Rittenhouse.
Kilpatrick is not expected to seek re-election, and former Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), who had considered a mayoral bid, appears to have decided against it. Democrats seem to have settled on Zoning Board Chairman Bill Henry, former councilman and the brother of South Amboy Mayor Fred Henry, as their candidate.
The decision by O’Brien to seek a return to local government comes nearly two months after a Republican councilwoman, Eunice K. Dwumfour, was shot and killed outside her home. Her murder remains unsolved.
“Sayreville used to be a place where people were proud to call home. But with more crime, higher taxes and neighbors moving out every day, people don’t recognize our town anymore,” O’Brien said. “To all those residents have asked me to step up, I have one message: I’m in and ready to fight back. I won’t sit back and watch the town we all built and fought for get destroyed – that’s not how we’re made here in Sayreville.
Local Democrats are still dealing with successive losses over the last two cycles that flipped the borough council from a 6-0 Democratic majority after the 2018 elections to a 4-2 majority for Republicans. Both Democratic council seats are up this year; so is Republican John Zebrowski, a former police chief appointed to replace Dwumfour.
Last September, Democratic Municipal Chairman Thomas V. Pollando resigned after his arrest on bribery charges. Prosecutors recorded him accepting a cash payment for allegedly offering to use his political influence to help the owners of a local strip club beat charges of promoting prostitution and money laundering.
Sayreville went narrowly for Hillary Clinton (281 votes) in 2016, Phil Murphy (135 votes) in 2017, and Joe Biden (1,341 votes) in 2020. But Murphy lost Sayreville by 899 votes in 2021, and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-Long Branch) was defeated in 2022 by 101 votes.
The 70-year-old O’Brien was first elected mayor in 1999, defeating one-term Democratic incumbent James Zagata by more than 1,800 votes, 63%-37%. He had been elected councilman three years earlier on a ticket with 27-year-old Joseph DiBella, now the Howell GOP municipal chairman and a top executive at Connor Strong & Buckalew. He was re-elected four times before deciding not to seek re-election in 2019.
In 1997, O’Brien made his first and only bid for higher office. He challenged freshmen Democrats John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) and Arline Friscia (D-Woodbridge) for State Assembly in the 19th district. He ran 18,494 votes behind Wisniewski and 16,401 votes behind Friscia.
“I am running for Mayor to make our town safer, to always have the back our law enforcement and make sure we’re not wasting money. But maybe most of all, I am running to reinstill the spirit of our town,” said O’Brien. “Let’s get back to work, Sayreville.”