The unexpected resignation of a freshman state senator cleared a path for Jon Bramnick to win a seat in the New Jersey State Assembly.
A switch of two votes in Union County would have sent Bramnick, now an eight-term incumbent and the Assembly Minority Leader, to defeat.
In late 2002, State Sen. Richard Bagger (R-Westfield) resigned to accept a promotion at Pfizer, Inc., the pharmaceutical company. That set the stage for Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), who had won a special election convention for State Assembly in 2001, to move up to the Senate without opposition.
Thirteen Republicans initially expressed interest in Kean’s open Assembly seat in a January 2003 special election convention: former Cranford Committeeman Phil Morin, former Union County Freeholder Henry Kurz, Westfield Mayor Greg McDermott, Berkeley Heights Mayor David Cohen, former state Commissioner of Labor Mark Boyd, Summit Councilwoman Kelly Hatfield, Summit Councilman Henry Ogden, former Assemblyman James Barry (R-Harding), Millburn Mayor Thomas McDermott, Madison Councilwoman Mary Anna Holden, Warren Township Planning Board Chairman Dan Gallic, controversial former Union County Democratic Chairman Harry P. Pappas, and Bramnick.
Bramnick, the Westfield Republican Municipal Chairman, had served two terms on the Plainfield City Council from 1984 to 1991.
At the time, the 21st district was about two-third Union County and the rest split between Morris, Somerset and Essex.
The race become sort of like an NCAA Tournament as Union County sought to prevent a split of its votes and lose the Assembly seat to Morris or Somerset. The idea that Westfield was seeking to keep two of the three seats in the district was a significant campaign issue.
Morris held a mini-convention between Barry and Holden on January 25 in a bid to keep their votes together as a block. Barry won it by one vote, 21 to 20. With that came Holden’s withdrawal and endorsement.
Union County Republicans held a non-binding straw poll of 21 municipal chairs to get a sense of which candidates had support. Bramnick won that vote decisively, although numbers were not released.
The February 18 special election convention – postponed once due to a snowstorm – was bedlam.
Some Republicans felt that Union County Republican Chairman Ronald Frigerio — who organized the convention — had kept the other chairmen in the dark on how the convention would work.
Gallic proposed that Somerset, Morris and Essex hold a joint mini-convention to vote as a block against the Union County candidates. Barry and Tom McDermott refused.
At the special election convention, Gallic sought a vote on a rule change that would have prevented any candidate who shares a hometown with a current legislator from running for the open seat. That too was unsuccessful.
By then, the Union County filed narrowed to three: Bramnick, Morin and Hatfield.
Union County held a mini-convention just before the balloting. That took two ballots, with Bramnick finally defeating Morin by three votes, 99-96. That kept the rest of the voters waiting for more than 90 minutes; loud music was streamed into the hall to prevent the Morris, Essex and Somerset delegates from hearing what was happening in Union County.
In the final vote, Bramnick won 137 of Union County’s 167 votes. The Union votes he didn’t get mostly went to Barry, who had 31 votes from Morris County at the convention and won 51 votes for a second place finish. McDermott get 25 votes – 24 from Essex – and Gallic received 19 votes – three more than Somerset’s 16.
Half of Cranford’s 44 county committee members went home between the mini-convention and the vote to fill Kean’s Assembly seat.