BRIDGEWATER – Janet Linnus participated in many critical contests in this county, her career as executive director of the Somerset GOP bookended by the exultation of helping Christie Todd Whitman become governor in 1993, the horror of watching Whitman back Democrat Joe Biden for president during the difficult era of Donald Trump; and getting Jack Ciattarelli close to a statewide win last year in a bit of 2021 Somerset Republican redemption, the same year Linnus departed her party leadership position.
Along the way, a county demographic shift combined with Trump’s blowing up of the Republican Party brand in this sedate and leafy Central Jersey stronghold of politics and culture – the same place that produced international diplomat Millicent Fenwick – deoxygenated the GOP and empowered Democrats, who now have full control of county government.
Those changes came recently, however.
The campaigns and elections over the course of Linnus’ 28-year career as ED of the Somerset GOP included many positive highlights, starting with Whitman, of course, and among them the 2009 statewide election, when Republicans statewide displaced Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, with the help of Somerset County.
It was in this very room, the cafe of the local Barnes and Noble, 13 years ago that Linnus sat over coffee with a county committee ally and laid out the strategy for how the party establishment here would help Chris Christie defeat Steve Lonegan in the Republican Primary.
Movement conservative Lonegan would go on to beat Christie in neighboring Hunterdon County, but Christie held his own in Somerset, beating Lonegan 9,749 to 7,625 votes, as he nabbed his party’s nomination. In a sign of how the numbers have shifted from then until now, Republican Christie beat Democrat Corzine in Somerset that same year 56-34%, while winning statewide by 3.5 percentage points; Somerset favorite son Republican Ciatatrelli in 2021 lost Somerset to incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy 47.7-51.5% while losing statewide by three percentage points.
“That was really an exciting campaign,” said Linnus, reflecting on Christie 2009.
She had met Christie in 2000, when George W. Bush was running for president and he attended, as a special guest of the Somerset Republican Committee, the organization’s candidate’s screening, moved from the Somerville Elks to the Manville VFW.
Dale Florio, then the county party chair, had given Linnus the heads-up that Bush was coming, and the ED nearly dropped the phone.
It was a bit of a logistical nightmare, but they made it happen.
What’s interesting is Bush’s father, President George Herbert Walker Bush, had closed out his 1992 reelection campaign with a stop in Madison, as he would go on to lose New Jersey. “W”, appearing with Christie and Bill Palatucci in Manville eight years later after Bill Clinton won twice in New Jersey, might have seen the potential to reclaim ground his party lost since his father was president. The younger Bush beat Al Gore 60K to 56K in Somerset, while losing the state by 500,000 votes, and hanging on nationally to controversially win the presidency.
Linnus stayed in touch with Christie through the Bush II era and to this day called the 2009 election “One of the exciting milestones” of her long and respected career as a fundraiser, organizer and behind-the-scenes party leader.
An Italian American native of Jersey City, who spent part of her youth in Port Reading before settling with her family in Montgomery Township in 1985, Linnus served as vice chair of the local party organization while Florio served as chair. When Florio became county chair, succeeding Jack Penn, he selected his Montgomery ally for his executive director.
The pair assumed power in time to work on Whitman’s historic 1993 campaign, when the Somerset County Commissioner defeated Democratic incumbent James Florio to be elected New Jersey’s first – and to date only – woman governor.
“I was heavily involved in organizing county events that year, and raising money for our local campaigns,” said Linnus, who was thrilled to feel like Somerset, with Whitman’s win, had become the center of New Jersey’s political universe and a model for other party organizations.
She learned politics from key political figures of the day, among them Walter Kavanaugh, Rodney Frelinghuysen, Jack Ewing, Pete Biondi, and Dale Florio. “What really struck me about politics in Somerset County at that time was everyone cared for one another,” Linnus said. “Dale told me that I should get to know [then-Assemblyman] Walter Kavanaugh, and I did. Walter took me under his wing. That’s how politics was then. People looked out for one another, and helped other people, and our organization was the jewel of New Jersey.”
Linnus also came into contact with Ciatatrelli the comer, who expressed interest in running for the 7th District Congressional seat prior to the 2008 election, but opted to go for freeholder instead, in part in deference to Leonard Lance, who would win the seat and hold it until 2018.
Linnus acknowledged that Trump’s style didn’t fit Somerset County, a genteel place at heart, although when he prepared to run for president, Trump appeared at the Imperia, and proved a gracious presence, the ED said. “He was a phenomenal speaker that night,” she said. “I was told he likes things to be on time, and I was a nervous wreck when they brought him in from the airport in Manville, but he posed individually with elected officials in pictures, even though the plan was for him to pose in groups. That’s what he wanted.”
The years ahead proved difficult for the GOP here, as Trump divided people.
“It was very different to be in the middle, because on the one hand, Trumpsters were very excited, and on the other side, there were those in the party who wanted nothing to do with Trump, and in a way I was afraid to say we supported Trump, but we had to put on a happy face,” Linnus said.
Elected New Jersey’s only woman governor, Republican Whitman couldn’t stand Trump, and even went so far as to speak at the 2020 Democratic National Convention in support of Joe Biden. “That was very disappointing, considering her whole family consisted of hardcore Republicans,” Linnus said.
Trump’s loss of Somerset County (a nearly 40,000-vote burial by Biden) on his way to losing nationally, though, didn’t prevent Ciattarelli – with his own uniquely authentic Somerset brand – from making a big GOP comeback in New Jersey a year later and almost defeating incumbent Murphy in a supposedly solid blue state.
Linnus said she’s already excited about Ciattarelli as the party’s prospective 2025 standard-bearer.
“I would love to see that happen,” she said of a third Ciattarelli candidacy for governor. He’s actually already announced that he’s running.
“I would be the first one to volunteer and to help out; I believe he is the right person for the job, and I just wish it were not so far away,” Linnus said. “I hope and pray he keeps up the energy has; he’s still heavily involved all over the state.”
Ciattarelli connected with voters because he represents certain core values, she said; the kinds of values she grew up with and put into place as executive director of the party organization here, first for Florio for 18 years, and then Chairman Al Gaburo for ten.
“For me, it’s about respect,” said Linnus, who remains happily and passionately involved, having just assumed the oath of office as vice president of the Somerset Federation of Republican Women. She also serves as treasurer of the New Jersey Federation of Republican Women, and is a member of Jersey Women Strong.
“I grew up in politics with such wonderful people; people who were always there to help,” she said. “I would like to see more women leaders involved in the party. I don’t see Republican women coming up just yet, but Jersey Women Strong in particular is trying to encourage more women to get more involved in politics. I don’t see us right at this time having those shining stars, but we will.”
- Al Gaburo
- Al Gore
- Bill Palatucci
- Chris Christie
- Christie Todd Whitman
- Dale Florio
- Donald Trump
- George Herbert Walker Bush
- George W. Bush
- Jack Ciattarelli
- Jack Ewing
- Jack Penn
- James Florio
- Janet Linnus
- Jersey City
- Joe Biden
- Jon Corzine
- Millicent Fenwick
- Pete Biondi
- Phil Murphy
- Port Reading
- Rodney Frelinghuysen
- Somerset GOP
- Steve Lonegan
- Walter Kavanaugh
Click here for the full Insider Index