SOMERVILLE, NJ - Longtime Republican Mayor Brian Gallagher trusts his instincts, and his instincts tell him the time is right to move on and seek higher office.
Gallagher confirmed on Monday that he is lobbying members of the Somerset County Republican Committee to be selected as the candidate who will replace veteran Somerset County Freeholder Director Peter Palmer, who is retiring at the end of his term this year after serving 20 years on the board.
If he is selected by the committee, Gallagher would be paired with Freeholder Brian Levine in the Nov. 7 general election. Levine is the former three-term mayor of Franklin Township; he will be seeking his second term as freeholder.
Gallagher has embarked on a screening process that leads up to a March 7 meeting where the GOP chairmen from all of Somerset County’s 21 municipalities select their candidates for the five-member freeholder board.
“There’s a little bit of legwork that has to be done,” Gallagher said, “letting folks know who I am and what I’m all about; I’ve started that outreach with members of the municipal committee,” he said, declining to identify those with whom he has spoken.
Some of those conversations occurred this past weekend, while Gallagher was painting his daughter’s bedroom to surprise his wife Lisa when she returned from a trip to Florida with some friends.
He’d take a break, put down the paintbrush, pick up the phone and make a call.
Gallagher’s name had surfaced as a potential freeholder candidate several times in past election years, but the mayor said the timing hadn’t been right until now.
“I don’t know that there was any one point that it started,” Gallagher said. “Over the course of the years there has been discussion back and forth. I go by instinct a lot, and I just felt at this point the time is right,” he added.
Gallagher has served on the Borough Council and as mayor for 15 years.
“We’ve started a great renaissance in Somerville, but now is the time to see if I can take some of my energy and enthusiasm and bring it to a higher level and join the great leadership we have at the county level,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher first ran for Borough Council in 2000, but lost the election; he was appointed in 2001 to fill an unexpired term, and ran successfully in 2002, beginning his first full term on the council in 2003.
“Being mayor is one of the most exciting, hands-on, rewarding positions one can have,” Gallagher said, “but there are other opportunities out there to do good work, not only for Somerville but for Somerset County,” he added.
Gallagher is the chief architect of an ongoing economic redevelopment in the seat of Somerset County government, characterized by a resurgent downtown retail/restaurant/arts district, the Division Street pedestrian mall, a world-class ShopRite supermarket and several multi-family residential developments now under construction with others in various stages of approval.
Gallagher, the Borough Council and professional staff also helped to cobble together a series of grants from state agencies that has enabled the borough to undertake a multi-million dollar environmental rehabilitation of the borough’s former landfill, an 80-acre expanse, triangular in shape, bordered by the NJ Transit Raritan Valley Line, Route 206 and South Bridge Street.
Preliminary plans call for a mix of residential, retail and commercial use, with a passive recreation park as its centerpiece, including walking paths, jogging and bike trails.
The mayor has been able to advance his agenda all those years working with a Democrat majority on the Borough Council.
“I’ve had the ability to work with all types of councils and across party lines to get the job done, because it’s about getting the job done,” Gallagher said.
“The voters in Somerville have seen that; that’s how I kept getting re-elected,” he added. For most of his tenure, the Democrats have held a 4-2 or 5-1 majority on the Borough Council.
By contrast, the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders has been dominated by the Republicans for 35 years. The last Democrat to serve on the board was Michael Ceponis, who left the board in 1982.
In addition to Palmer and Levine, the other members of the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders are Pat Walsh, Green Brook; Patrick Scaglione, Bridgewater and Mark Caliguire, Montgomery.
Caliguire is running as a GOP candidate in the 16th Assembly District in November with former Assemblywoman Donna Simon. Caliguire is looking to replace Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, R-16th, who is running in the June 6th state Primary to be the GOP Gubernatorial candidate in November.
Win or lose, Ciattarelli is giving up his seat in the Assembly.
Democrat Andrew Zwicker, D-16th, who defeated Simon by a narrow margin two years ago, will seek re-election. The Democrats have yet to decide who will be his running mate.