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‘The Guts to Look You in the Eye’ – Assemblyman David Wolfe of Brick: The InsiderNJ Interview

 

BRICK – Assemblyman Dave Wolfe (R-10) landed in the legislature with the wave of Republicans elected in the anti-Florio election of 1991, but he never wielded a flamethrower and that may well be his legacy now as he finishes the last of his 28 years in Trenton: a nonpartisan-minded public servant who arguably enjoyed his greatest political success as chair of the Assembly Education Committee.

Serving as education committee chair in the era of Governor Christie Todd Whitman, Wolfe – a college professor by trade – said he learned then the particular responsibility of a committee-chairing Trenton lawmaker.

“I saw the job as representing the entirety of the state,” he said, sitting last week in the Rainbow Diner across from his district office, where they all call him ‘Dave.” “My task as chairman was to see the bigger picture. I represented my district of course, but it still had to do with how you delivered education to kids – everywhere in New Jersey.”

First appointed to fill a vacancy on the Brick Township Council in the 1970s, Wolfe won in a field of 14 candidates, on the strength of the community work he did, which included advocating for kids’ soccer. “I was the last one who spoke of the 14, that’s why I won,” said the assemblyman, in his typically quiet and understated way. He would serve on the council from 1976-1991. It was originally nonpartisan, like him, he said, but when the town changed to partisan elections in 1989, he had to make a choice. Wolfe said he met with leaders in both parties and chose the GOP because the Democrats told him “you can’t do anything for us” in the way of fundraising or patronage.

So Wolfe formally became a moderate, pro-choice Republican.

In the early years of his service in government, he said he was struck by the number of people locally who qualified for welfare, who refused to take it. That Brick Township character, he said, made an impact, and left a mark he won’t forget.

In 1991, he was among 58 Republicans who won seats in the New Jersey General Assembly.  The day after the election, the assemblyman-elect from the 10th District received a call from the U.S. Secret Service. Then-President George Bush had invited him to a reception at the British Embassy. In a way Wolfe’s own style wasn’t too different from that of Bush. “I don’t really get involved in the bomb-throwing,” said the assemblyman. “I try to work with people. After the story about my retirement appeared, I told my wife that I couldn’t believe how so many people called me and talked to me.”

Governor Phil Murphy called him to wish him well, and Wolfe said he truly appreciated it, even though the Republican voted against Murphy’s signature agenda-item: raising the minimum wage to $15.  “It’s going to be devastating to small business,” the assemblyman said. “I find it ironic too that The Asbury Park Press had a banner headline to that effect, after we took the vote.”

Murphy is a gentleman, said Wolfe; still, wherever he goes in his shore district, “everyone is complaining about the progressive agenda.” As for President Donald J. Trump, Wolfe said he “obviously disagrees” with his methods and vitriolic attitudes (“I don’t like the way he treats people”), but mostly encounters voters who agree with the president’s economic policies. “But,” he conceded of his Republican Party in New Jersey, “we’re outnumbered.”

He retired from Ocean County College three years ago, and decided the time had come, too, to step away from Trenton.

“I don’t know too many people who just walk away from, but I’m going to walk away,” he told InsiderNJ. “I will miss the politics, not the brass knuckle stuff, but the people, working with people. Getting things done through cooperation and listening.”

When he looks back on his years in office, he recalls with affection those interactions with others. He prizes them to this day. He remembers, for example, then-Speaker Albio Sires championing his bill making the blueberry the state fruit, and those children with whom he worked to make the legislation happen. “Albio and I had the connection of being teachers,” he said. “I really liked him.” The so-called blueberry bill passed in the assembly by a vote of 79-1. “A friend of mine said, ‘I didn’t want you to think it was a perfect bill, so I voted against it.’ Governor Jim McGreevey signed the legislation in Wolfe’s district.

A history major in college, the assemblyman read Machiavelli’s The Prince and later compared it to the reality of politics.  “A lot of it is pretty true,” he said.

When he chaired the Education Committee, then-Assemblymen Louie Bassano and Kevin O’Toole took him up to the Newark North Ward Center to see Democratic powerbroker Steve Adubato. As he waited in the walnut room upstairs, Wolfe said he looked up and saw a huge portrait of Machiavelli.

“I was pretty impressed,” he admitted.

Mostly, Adubato impressed him, he said.

“He had started a charter school; I spent a day there,” the assemblyman recalled.

Because of the relationship, classrooms in Newark and Lavallette schools ended up partnering to track whales as part of their science curriculum.

“He was so nice, Adubato,” said Wolfe. “I haven’t seen him in some time. But for a time he invited me to things. You ever meet somebody like that? I’m not saying you fall in love but you really admire him. He made an impression.”

So did former Governor Tom Kean, who invited Wolfe to Drew University while Wolfe served as education committee chair. “He gave me free advice and he was very influential, I’ll never forget that,” the assemblyman said.

It wasn’t just New Jersey leaders whom he connected with, he recalled.

After Hurricane Sandy, Prince Harry paid a visit to Seaside Heights.

“He walked down a ramp shaking hands and he came up to the governor [Chris Christie] and me and said ‘How are you?’ We talked and I said, ‘I want to thank you for your concern for the men and women in the Middle East.’ He had been over there, you know. He asked me, ‘Do you know anyone over there?’ And I said, ‘Yes, my son.’ He said, ‘I hope he will be ok and Godspeed to him.'” He didn’t forget that. I appreciated that.”

His son was in the tank corps.

“He told me before he went over there, ‘I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to get maimed.’ He was working with drones, and the base he was in was constantly under attack by the Taliban. They could tell them from the normal Afghan troops because they wore sneakers. He received some shell injuries but he’ll be okay. But for the prince to ask me about my kid, that was memorable.”

Wolfe said he didn’t know Governor Jon Corzine well, but one encounter stands in his memory that told him something positive about the Democratic governor.

“He came up to me after school funding was decided in the budget and he came right up to me and said, ‘You’re screwed by this. You’re going to get hammered by the spending outcome in this budget.’ It was one of the few conversations I had with him, but I appreciated that he had the guts to look me in the eye.'”

Then there was McGreevey.

“There was a soldier from Brick killed in Iraq,” Wolfe recalled. “I got a call after that. It was the governor. He was concerned about the soldier’s wife. He wanted to make sure she was going to be looked after, and she eventually enrolled in my classes. But that told me something about McGreevey. He was concerned enough to help this person. We see the headlines but not the people. This was an individual who cared about people.”

Regarding the challenges ahead for his party, Wolfe said, “I was surprised [Democrat] Andy Kim won [the 3rd Congressional seat]. I saw the debates on NJTV and he really seemed like a lightweight.

“I would say put myself more in the [Republican Leader] Jon Bramnick school,” he said of where he wants to see the party go. “Jon would do a great job as a gubernatorial candidate. I heard [Senate Republican Leader Tom] Kean might be interested. But Republicans are really outnumbered. [Former Assemblyman] Jack Ciattarelli’s great. He’d be very good, too. He’s really overcome a lot health-wise and he’s a brilliant guy.”

Closer to home, Wolfe said he does not expect the federal indictment against Ocean County Republican Committee Chairman George Gilmore to ruin the vaunted party organization. “That indictment has nothing to do with politics, it’s a personal issue,” he said. “It’s been two or three weeks, and I haven’t heard too many negative political comments. When you see an indictment, it looks bad, but let’s see what happens.'”

He said he won’t endorse anyone to take his seat. Toms River appeared to be making a concerted play for the seat. Brick, too. “Maybe someone from a town other than Toms River or Brick will emerge from the melee,” he said. But Wolfe, with a smile, said he’s staying out of it, and doesn’t plan to endorse.

“I have no idea,” he grinned happily, when asked about his replacement.

He’s hopeful of the future and of New Jersey, in spite of it all. “The silver linings are young people on their own initiative who want to make a difference,” said the assemblyman, with a year left on the clock, of his long and gratifying legislative career.

He looks forward to continuing to serve.

 

 

 

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  • 1Prop

    Bright, thought, reserved. A class act. It’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

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