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State Sen. Sam Thompson. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe).

Some GOP officials want 87-year-old senator to retire

Sam Thompson would be 92 if he gets re-elected and serves a full-term; speculation that Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry could be Senate candidate

By David Wildstein, January 23 2023 5:24 pm

Some Republican leaders are quietly voicing an opinion that the oldest member of the New Jersey Legislature, 87-year-old State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Old Bridge), should not seek re-election, with Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry emerging as the leading candidate for the seat, the New Jersey Globe has learned from multiple sources speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The preference for GOP insiders is that Thompson leave on his own accord without facing a primary.

But Thompson doesn’t appear ready to retire and isn’t aware of discussions regarding his political future.

“I haven’t heard a word of it,” he said.  “I am seeking re-election.  I will be running and I will be re-elected.  I have no doubt.”

It’s also not clear if Henry is prepared to challenge him in a primary if Thompson, who turns 88 in July, seeks party support for another four-year term.

Henry did not immediately respond to a 2:04 PM text message.

Either way, the matter will get decided soon.  The first filing deadline comes in Ocean at the end of this month, and candidates will need to submit their letter of intent by then if they want to be considered for the organization line.

The other counties in the 12th legislative district – Middlesex, Monmouth and Burlington – have screening committees and convention coming up over the next two months. Burlington, which represents the smallest part of the district, has a filing deadline of February 10 and a screening committee on February 18.

A former Middlesex County GOP Chairman, Thompson spent fourteen years as an assemblyman until legislative redistricting unexpectedly paved the way for him to move up to the State Senate in 2011.

He is reportedly in good health, physically and cognitively, and remains an active legislator and popular with Republican leaders.

But Republicans are concerned that Thompson’s age could result in extended absences over the next four years, something that could be problematic if the GOP expands their footprint in the Senate in the November mid-term elections.

The move to back Henry for the Senate seat would preserve senatorial courtesy for Republicans in Middlesex, the county with one of the top Democratic machines in the state.  Statewide, Republicans get the political sense of keeping the Senate seat in the state’s second-largest.

That consideration left the two Republican assemblymen, Rob Clifton (R-Matawan) and freshman Alex Sauickie (R-Jackson), out of the discussion for the Senate.

Henry, 63, flipped the Old Bridge mayoralty back to Republicans when he defeated interim incumbent Patrick Gillespie in 2011 by  a 53%-47% margin.   He was re-elected by fourteen percentage points in 2015 and 2019.  Henry had previously served on the school board.    Old Bridge is New Jersey’s 21st-largest municipality.

The 12th district is solidly Republican; Thompson was re-elected to his third term in 2021 with 65% of the vote.

In 2017, Thompson faced  a primary challenge from Arthur Haney, a former Old Bridge mayor and Middlesex County freeholder.  Haney beat Thompson in Old Bridge by 20 votes out of 2,046 cast, but Thompson won Monmouth and Ocean with 65% each, and Burlington, where he was off the line, by 51 votes, which translated into a ten-point win.  In the end, Thompson bested Haney by 1,404 votes, 60%-40%.  (Haney died in 2018  at age 70.)

Another primary doesn’t frighten him.

“I’d be happy to take them on anytime they come forward,” said Thompson.

Still, Thompson may not want to chance seeing his career end the way it did for his former running mate, Joseph Azzolina (R-Middletown).

Azzolina had a long career in the legislature, starting in 1965, and served eleven terms in the State Assembly, non-consecutively, interspersed with a two-year sting in the State Senate in the early 1970s’s and an unsuccessful Senate bid in 1987.  But by 2005, the 79-year-old Azzolina lost the Republican primary to Amy Handlin (R-Middletown) by 624 votes after Handlin, then a Monmouth County freeholder, replaced him on the line in their home county.

Thompson declined to take sides in the Azzolina vs. Handlin primary, where he was on the ballot for re-election.

“Running on the line with Amy in Monmouth County, it would be inappropriate for me to turn around and try to bang her,” he told PoliticsNJ reporter Steve Kornacki at the time.  “And in Middlesex I’m running on the line with Joe, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to bang him either.”

Henry is up for re-election this year and a Senate candidacy would trigger an open seat race for mayor.  Republicans would be strong favorites to hold the seat.  Republican Jack Ciattarelli carried Old Bridge by fifteen percentage points, 57%-42% against Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in 2021.   Donald Trump won Old Bridge by one point and 339 votes in 2020.

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