Somerset County Sheriff Frank J. Provenzano will not seek re-election to a 7th term, setting up a fight for an open seat in one of New Jersey’s most politically competitive counties.
Provenzano has endorsed North Plainfield police chief Bill Parenti to succeed him.
Provenzano, 75, won his 2016 re-election bid by just 1,286 votes and had just $2,500 in his campaign warchest, according to his most recent filing with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
“Next to my family, my years as Sheriff have been a true highlight of my life,” Provenzano said. “None of this could have been possible without your support, encouragement and hard work.”
Democrat Darrin Russo, a former Franklin Township police lieutenant who won 49.6% of the vote, says that he will seek the Democratic nomination to run for the open seat.
Art Akins, a school resources officer in Bridgewater and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, is also in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Democrats appointed a screening committee last night with plans to interview candidates in February.
“We will endorse a candidate at our convention. We expect Darrin to screen,” said James Corti, the executive director of the Somerset County Democrats. “We hope all candidates will respect the decision at the convention but have not yet secured such an agreement.
Tim Pino, a former captain of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department, is seeking the Republican nomination. He has raised more than $15,000 for his fledgling bid and has the endorsement of State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Oxford).
Democrats must also decide on a candidate to challenge four-term GOP freeholder Patricia Walsh. If Democrats can oust Walsh, they will win control of the Somerset County Board of Freeholders for the first time since 1964.
Once a Republican stronghold, Somerset has become a swing county in recent years.
The county has 15,798 more Democrats than Republicans. A decade ago, Republicans had an edge of 879.
Somerset has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton winning by 20,184 votes in 2016. Murphy and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez won Somerset in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
In 2017, Somerville Councilman Steven Peter unseated veteran Republican County Clerk Brett Radi by 407 votes; the Democratic Freeholder candidates lost by 1,489 votes.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Rocky Hill) became the first congressman from Somerset County since Michael Pappas lost re-election in 1998. He ousted five-term Rep. Leonard Lance in the November 2018 mid-term, carrying the Somerset portion of his district by 8,758 votes (53%-45%).
In total, Somerset County voters cast 60% of their ballots in 2018 for Democratic congressional candidates. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) won her part of Somerset with 70% of the vote.
Two Democratic Assemblymen live in Somerset: Joe Danielson (D-Franklin) and Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough). A third, Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), lives in Middlesex County, but his district is mostly in Somerset County.
Democrats are beginning to build a bench in Somerset, where they’ve made significant gains on the local level.
For the first time, women hold a majority of seats on the Somerset freeholder board. Sara Sooy is the county’s first Hispanic freeholder and Shanel Robinson is the first Black to serve on the board.
The last time Somerset County elected a Democratic Sheriff was in 1964, when Rocky Hill police chief George Gurisic ousted six-term GOP incumbent Ernest Hunnewell in the Lyndon Johnson-led Democratic landslide that year.
Republican Paul Zanowic, the North Plainfield police chief, defeated Gurisic in 1967.