Listen to audio version of this article
WESTFIELD – To those observers from the outside, the town looks like the area’s most obvious manifestation of a corporate stronghold impervious to the rest of the world; a fragile little Norman Rockwell postcard of pavers, oak, concrete, and burglar alarms, and yet, even here – maybe even especially here – town residents want to make sure no one believes they’ve walled themselves off from reality.
Not while President Donald J. Trump undertakes a political strategy of routinely angrily playing to a nativist base.
Standing in a gazebo in Mindowaskin Park on Saturday at the town’s first annual multicultural day, Mayor Shelley Brindle made sure to let the sizable crowd know that the event occurred courtesy of the (all-Democratic) Union County Freeholder Board. But the ensuing South Asian dance numbers didn’t immediately reflect the contentious political war going on here in the 21st District, home to incumbent Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-21) and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-21).
Bramnick has made a political career out of advancing good manners in the public square, but grinding one’s teeth on the subject of civility does little good within a blinding maelstrom of party pooh-bahs intent on incivility, or so say his rivals.
“It’s not enough to talk about civility,” Brindle told InsiderNJ.
There’s some history here.
Brindle bumped off incumbent Republican Mayor Andy Skibitsky in 2017, the same year Bramnick suffered the political fright of his life when Democrat Lacey Rzeszowski came within 2,564 votes of beating him in this district where Republicans once retreated for some of their quietest Christie press conferences. InsiderNJ remembers talking to a Republican from Westfield in a bar in Bridgewater right before that 2017 election. It was as if he had driven to another county to escape what he anticipated would be a dreadful conflagration in his hometown.
Does the mayor see a continuation of Democratic Party success this year?
“Yes, we gave voice [in 2017] to something that was already here, as did [U.S. Rep. Tom] Malinowski [D-7],” she said, reflecting on the latter’s pick off of incumbent Republican Congressman Leonard Lance.
Now, despite a largely moribund election cycle, Democratic challengers Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman want to keep the trend alive. Attorney Mandelblatt originally ran for Congress last year on the heels of Brindle’s success. She ended up dropping out of the contest (ahead of Union County Democrats awarding their support to a CD7 candidate) and endorsing eventual winner Malinowski, presumably strengthening her position within the party for a future run.
In the midst of an ongoing rift in the Union County Democratic Party, Mandelblatt and Gunderman muscled their way to the nomination, in part owing to the support of Union County Democratic Committee Chair Nick Scutari, who remembered Mandelblatt’s support for Malinowski at a critical juncture.
The mayor sees the political inter-connectivity of events in her hometown, the locus for an area anti-Trump movement. When she riffed on Bramnick’s inability to penetrate the surly hides of the likes of Christie and Trump, Brindle – with an eye, perhaps, on next’s year’s election when Trump will occupy the top of the ticket – didn’t hesitate to throw in the Assemblyman’s longtime running mate.
“I’m very disappointed in Tom Kean,” Brindle said of the Republican state senator from her hometown running to secure the Republican nomination to run against Malinowski in 2020. “We’ve worked well together but he has jumped aboard the Trump bandwagon.”
Bramnick has publicly urged the president to work harder at civility, but also hosted a fundraiser at Trump’s Bedminster golf course. A source close to the Mandelblatt-Gunderman campaign said the challengers’ intend to specifically focus on the incumbent’s close connection to Christie, the volatile former governor who limped out of office with a 16% approval rating. To date, Bramnick in his cable television ads has emphasized his own nice-guy side. But the challengers, the source said, consistent with what Brindle told InsiderNJ, will make Bramnick own his association with bully Christie. Sources, it should be noted, buzz about the fact that Bramnick only features himself, and not running mate Munoz in his cable ads, even as Democrats on the ground who are women, when given the chance to talk about the contest, reflect with particular irritability on Christie inner-circle player Bramnick, not Munoz.
Trying to be pleasant hasn’t worked well while trying to occupy the party of Trump, and Christie, another source noted. “Everybody likes a comedian but not when the house is on fire,” said the Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity about Bramnick, who in the late 1990’s won the title of New Jersey’s funniest lawyer.
The multicultural event was well-attended, but just one of many ongoing activities here on this day, where children played soccer in a packed park nearby. The energy belied – or maybe emphasized – a political divide, and the fact that general election politics ultimately arrives, even on the doorstep of a nice, leafy, affluent New Jersey town called Westfield.