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State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Pennacchio enters race for Senate Republican Leader

Morris County Republican wants to replace Kean in next legislative session

By David Wildstein, July 22 2021 9:22 am

Senate Minority Whip Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) has become the first candidate to formally — albeit not publicly — launch a campaign for Senate Republican leader.

Pennacchio wants to succeed Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), who is not seeing re-election to his State Senate seat in order to focus on his bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.   Kean has been the Senate minority leader for fourteen years.

“It is difficult, and it pains me somewhat to put forward my name against others in our Republican caucus because of the fondness and respect I have for all of my Senate colleagues.  I am no better than any of my colleagues, just different,” Pennacchio said in a letter to colleagues and obtained by the New Jersey Globe “Any of the names being mentioned to succeed Tom would do a fine job.  All I can do is lay before you my focus and direction moving forward.”

State Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), the Senate Republican Budget Officer, may be the front runner to replace Kean.  Senate Assistant Minority Leader Robert Singer (R-Lakewood) is also in the mix.

He pledged to work with Democrats, when possible, put said he will always put the needs of the Senate GOP caucus first.

“Where I can find shared areas of interest with our Democrat Senate colleagues, I will enjoin with them.  If they are purposely harmful to our Republican members or disrespectful to our institution, I will clearly point that out and work towards a resolution,” Pennacchio told the Republican lawmakers.  “No one would be more fiercely protective of our caucus than I will be.”

Pennacchio wants Senate Republicans to get more aggressive with the Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, and coordinate with the GOP nominee, Jack Ciattarelli.

“Heading into this election, we must take the offensive against the Governor and his Democrat acolytes whose policies have harmed, not helped our citizens,” Pennacchio stated.  “Our message and Jack’s should be in sync whenever possible.”

He said that his record as a vociferous Murphy critic out to be taken into consideration.

“Leadership requires purpose, direction and tenacity.  I have not shied away from criticizing the Governor or the Democrats over the years for their failed policies and offering alternative solutions,” Pennacchio told his colleagues.  “This is particularly evident in my relentless and outspoken opposition to Governor Murphy’s failed pandemic policies.”

The Morris County Republican also pledged to open a dialogue with outside interest groups that have traditionally been aligned with Senate Democrats, including the African American Chamber of Commerce, Asian – Hispanic Community and Veterans’ organizations.

“Expanding our conversations with non-traditional Republican groups has educated us to their needs and wants, as well as given our Republican caucus an opportunity to show the many shared interests that we have,” said Pennacchio. “As leader, I will continue to foster and expand on those efforts.”

According to Pennacchio, he has contributed more to Senate Republican candidates than anyone else in the GOP caucus.

“I was the only Republican to be ranked within the top ten State Senators in their fundraising abilities,” Pennacchio said of a list of top-fundraising senators from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. “All others were Democrats.”

He also suggested that Republicans on the Legislative Apportionment Commission work with their Democratic colleagues to pick a retired Judge who would assure a constitutional and fair map.

“My feelings are that academics are non-starters,” said Pennacchio.  I have been an outspoken critic of the current district map and Republican failures the last two cycles which led to our inadequacies.  To whatever extent I can, I will argue for a fair and impartial tie breaker.”

Republicans are hoping to have at least three new members of their caucus after the 2021 election, eyeing former Assemblyman Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor Township and former Rep. Michael Pappas (R-Branchburg) to hold the seats of retiring GOP incumbents in the 2nd and 16th districts, and Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) to oust party-switching State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) in the 8th.

Polistina is likely to win a Senate election next month following the resignation of Christopher Brown (R-Ventnor) to take a job in the Murphy administration.  But it’ unlikely that the Senate Democratic majority will allow him to take his seat before Election Day.  He’s in a tough contest to hold the seat in the fall against Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield).

The leadership elections are traditionally held just after the general election.

This is the first open Senate Republican leadership contest since 2003, when Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township) succeeded John O. Bennett III (R-Little Silver).  Lance was defeated by Kean in 2007, and Kean survived a challenge in 2013.

An earlier version of this story erroneously reported the dates of prior leadership elections.

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