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Assemblyman Brian Bergen. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Brian Bergen enters race for Assembly minority leader

Ex-Army helicopter combat pilot seeks to succeed Bramnick

By David Wildstein, September 21 2021 7:10 pm

Brian Bergen (R-Denville), a conservative freshman assemblyman from Morris County, said tonight that he would run for Assembly Minority Leader in a bid to make the GOP more aggressive as the party out of power in the lower house.

“Anybody can steer a ship in calm waters. I want to navigate Republicans through the storm,” Bergen said. “We have to be relentless getting our message out, especially to new audiences and new generations.”

Bergen becomes the latest candidate to succeed Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who is giving up his Assembly seat to run for the State Senate.

Three other lawmakers — Ned Thomson (R-Wall), Nancy Munoz (R-Summit) and John DiMaio (R-Hackettstown) – are already in the race, but none appear to have enough votes to clinch the post, New Jersey Globe tallies show.

Bergen, a 42-year-old West Point graduate who flew U.S. Army helicopters in Iraq, has pushed Assembly Republicans to be a little more combative with the Democratic majority.  That’s reminiscent of the game plan Newt Gingrich used when he was elected House Minority Whip in 1989, after the GOP had already spent 34 years out of power.

“For me, this race isn’t to hold some position, it is about taking back the majority,” he said.

That would mark a change in strategy for the Republicans.  As minority leader for nearly a decade, Bramnick has pushed for greater civility and bipartisan cooperation.

Democrats currently hold a 52-28 majority in the State Assembly, but it’s not clear what the magic number will be after the November 2 general election.

Republicans are defending two open seats in the 8th district and think they can score one or two seats in the 2nd district, where former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and Claire Swift, a former deputy attorney general, are running.  They face two-term incumbent John Armato (D-Buena) and Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick.

Also on the radar screen for Republicans are uphill fights in the 11th and 16th districts.

Thomson is working off a base in Monmouth and Ocean counties, which right now could mean as many as seven votes.  Munoz could be at four, assuming that DiAnne Gove (R-Long Beach) and Aura Dunn (R-Mendham) vote for her – and that New Providence Councilwoman Michelle Matsikoudis wins Bramnick’s open seat.  DiMaio has a solid four votes out of western New Jersey from Erik Peterson (R-Franklin), Parker Space (R-Wantage) and Hal Wirths (R-Wantage).

At least one lawmaker, Kevin Rooney (R-Wyckoff), is being counted as committed votes for both Thomson and DiMaio, the New jersey Globe has learned.
So far, Bergen has no publicly committed support within the caucus.

To win, Bergen would need to start by securing support from two other conservatives from Morris County – Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) and newcomer Christian Barranco, who defeated BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany) in the June GOP primary and is heavily favored to win the general election.  He’d also need to flip Dunn, his one-time opponent and now running mate.

His chances also depend on peeling away votes from Munoz or DiMaio and picking up the backing of Bob Auth (R-Old Tappan) and DeAnne DeFuccio (R-Upper Saddle River).

Some Republicans think that Munoz and DiMaio could team up and somehow forge a coalition, although the details of how that might work are still sketchy.

Two uncommitted South Jersey freshman Republicans, Antwan McClellan (R-Ocean City) and Erik Simonsen (R-Lower), are widely viewed as pivotal votes in the caucus.  McClellan, who was one of the finalists to be Jack Ciattarelli’s lieutenant governor candidate, is widely viewed as a likely candidate for a leadership post.

If Bergen wins, it will mark a meteoric rise after just one term in the legislature.  When Thomas H. Kean (R-Livingston) became Assembly Majority Leader in 1971, he was in his second term but his third year in Trenton.

With Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) not seeking re-election to focus on his 2022 challenge to Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes), there is also a leadership fight brewing among Senate Republicans.

State Sens. Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), Robert Singer (R-Lakewood) and Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) are seeking to succeed Kean.

These could be the first contested Republican leadership race in ten years. While Senate GOP leadership races been common, there hasn’t been one on the Assembly side in decades – unless you count the never-went-to-a-vote ouster of Paul DiGaetano in 2003.

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