Being Levine: Somerset GOP Freeholder Hopes to Withstand the Wave


FRANKLIN – Seeking total dominion of the freeholder board and of county government, Democrats have not planned a lone Viking funeral for incumbent Brian Levine but rather a side-by-side political dumptrucking of him with his running mate, fellow Republican Freeholder Brian Gallagher, to achieve a 5-0 D to R washout. But even if he acknowledges inevitable political turbulence and virulence that will most likely find the mild-mannered, almost Leonard Lance-like public servant – an accountant by trade – opening his mailbox one morning to see himself arm-in-arm with Donald J. Trump in a mail piece courtesy of Somerset Dems, Levine has a ready narrative. It’s probably the reason he made freeholder in the first place, as the GOP began to scent the terrible onslaught of a blue wave even prior to Trump’s 2016 election.

When he ran for governor in 2009, Levine presented himself as a successful mayor, whose shaping arose out of the apparent incongruities of his hometown. It was a compelling narrative when one considered how the shapes of Franklin Twp. seem to have arisen out of the immediate overflow refuse of surrounding municipalities, consisting of ghetto portions of other places, blended with McMansions mustered for maximum luxurious effect, farmland preservation pieces laid down like square sections of turf, historic Washington-slept-here-style colonials offset by a Dunkin Donuts-KFC-gas station-dollar store corridor to oblivion, all somehow sustained as less of a conscious act than a kind of nightmarish, sprung-to-life Jackson Pollock painting. In short, the Somerset County town, which in this case had a diversity factor based, at least in terms of political influence, on equal parts white, black and South Asian, seemed a little like New Jersey. At the heart of it lay the fact that Levine was a Republican who had managed to bootstrap himself up to the chief executive’s position in a sprawling, 3-1 Democrat town.

“Almost the whole time I was mayor, almost everyone else was a Democrat and I had to work with the other side,” Levine told InsiderNJ.  “When it came time to make appointments to the Franklin Planning Board I had one pick, and I chose someone named [future Democratic Assemblyman] Joe Danielsen. Other Republicans told me, ‘Brian, you have one appointment, why are you picking a Democrat.

“Because he shared my philosophy,” Levine asserted.

Now, it didn’t help him in a statewide Republican Primary in which movement conservative Steve Lonegan wanted the field cleared of moderates so he could get Chris Christie in a rundown. Lonegan challenged Levine’s petition signatures, which resulted in the Franklinite’s ejection from the contest on a technicality and, in one of the stranger twists even by New Jersey political standards, Levine’s campaign manager, slated to run as his lieutenant governor running mate, turning around and herself (unsuccessfully) running for governor.  But all that mattered little when Somerset County GOP Chairman Al Gaburo, suddenly deprived of incumbent Freeholder Bob Zabrowski in 2014 and with the blue hueing of Somerset already in effect, went to the Republican mayor of the county’s most Democratic town.  Now, with Levine and Gallagher (another former mayor of a Democratic town) the last remaining freeholders on the 3-2 Board the Democrats won last year for the first time since the administration of Lyndon Johnson, Levine hopes his brand withstands the apparently interminable (or as long as Trump is president) Somerset blue wave.

“From a selfish perspective, I love doing it,” said Levine. “Somerset County has a great quality of life, a  great park system, which I want to grow, as well as a fine community college in Raritan Valley and VoTec, which I want to expand. I want to put together a mayors’ group, and I want to continue to focus on economic development. I tried very hard to get Amazon here. I would like to see more coordination among towns.”

Before him he has two examples of Republican pillars who channeled their own versions of bipartisan friendliness in an attempt to withstand the worst incursions of Trump upon the county and district: Lance, who lost in a federal election year (2018); and Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21), who won in a non-federal election year (2019).

Levine – who has a political relationship with CD7 Republican congressional hopeful Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R-21) going back to when Levine ran for senate in LD17 in 2013 – will try his own version of the same in 2020 to fend off whatever Democrats throw at him. “In such polarized times, I want that civility on the table, which I tried last year as director,” said Levine. “I hope I succeeded. It’s for others to say if I did or not.”

His exceedingly self-effacing manner is not unlike Lance, or state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16), the county’s towering political figure, who managed to hang on by 600 votes in 2017.

When asked to talk about county priorities, Levine mentions “diversity,” and a willingness to serve the whole county, from multimillionaires to those who live in the housing projects, to the commuters struggling to get to New York every day. Somerset, said the freeholder, “Is part of how I always feel. I just love meeting all the different people. I love to do something for someone directly.

Regardless of the torments of time, “I think there’s another term in me,” Levine said. “When I don’t have more to offer, I won’t. People don’t have time. They’re running their lives. They’re giving their money [in taxes]. It’s a debt I have to them.

“I have to give back,” added the Republican incumbent.

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