SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – When Mayor Frank Gambatese and his family moved to the township in 1992, it was supposed to be to enjoy retirement.
Instead, the former West Paterson, and now South Brunswick Mayor found a second political career and has spent almost the last two full decades in public service.
“When we moved here there was an election,” Gambatese said during an 80th birthday celebration at the Municipal Building earlier this month. “I called (the Democrats) up and said ‘put a sign on my lawn,’ and no one came over. I thought ‘the Democrats are in trouble,’ and my wife (Ellen) said I should run for office.”
At the time, Republicans had control of what was then a Township Committee and Democratic upstart Debra Johnson was trying to break through to get a seat on the governing body.
Once that was successful, the local Democrats learned about Gambatese’s past experience as mayor of West Paterson for several years and appointed him to the Planning Board.
In 1997, Gambatese won his first term on the committee, but would have to start campaigning almost immediately after taking office in January 1998 when the township shifted to a Township Council/Manager form of government under the Falkner Act.
Eleven candidates competed that year for the office of mayor and four council seats.
Johnson became the first directly elected mayor in the town’s history and Gambatese, who also won a seat in that election, was voted as the town’s first deputy mayor.
At the end of Johnson’s first term in 2002, she decided not to seek another four years in office and highly endorsed Gambatese to take her place.
The lifelong Democrat with massive political chops and insight, easily won that election and the next three.
“That’s how it started,” Gambatese said as co-workers stopped by to wish him well and grab a piece of cake. “I originally came down here to retire.”
The strongest opposition Gambatese has had to deal with in the last 14 years of his mayoral tenure was, believe it or not, at the hands of Debra Johnson, who opposed him in a Democratic primary in 2006.
Johnson lost that bid and two other attempts to regain a seat on the governing body since.
A retired corporate accountant, Gambatese was no stranger to the rough and tumble world of politics.
During his time in West Paterson, he said he faced strong opposition and tough elections due to the strength of the position there.
“Being the mayor up in West Paterson was a powerful position,” Gambatese said. “It was the most powerful mayor in the state of New Jersey. I didn’t need council (to agree) on anything. If I wanted to do something, I did it.”
He said that council was purely there to pass ordinances and not run the day-to-day affairs of the township.
In South Brunswick, that power is vested in Township Manager Bernie Hvozdovic, and the mayor is just one of the five council members.
Although still a part time position, Gambatese is at the office during the week participating in meetings primarily with new businesses looking to make a home in South Brunswick.
In addition, he still has a very active schedule during the nights, attending council, planning board and other committee meetings.
Besides the political differences with West Paterson, Gambatese said the nature of that town is different than South Brunswick.
“The people in South Brunswick are different. It is an involved community,” Gambatese said. “There is a lot of pride in South Brunswick that I didn’t see in West Paterson.”
As an example, Gambatese points to the recent name change in 2008 of that northern New Jersey town of about 11,000 people to Woodland Park.
“That would never happen down here,” Gambatese said.
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