Brian Levine, the former Somerset County Freeholder and former Mayor of Franklin Twp., has decided to form an exploratory committee to examine the efficacy of a run for governor this year in the Republican Primary. First elected to the freeholder board in 2014, the moderate Levine at that time gave his party a countywide win in the face of shifting demographics that imperiled the GOP’s longstanding hold on county power.
He held the seat when he ran for reelection in 2017 but lost in 2020.
If he decides to run this year, it would be the professional accountant’s and former freeholder’s second run at statewide office.
“It is a preliminary analysis for now,” insisted Levine, “but New Jersey needs so much rebuilding, that a patchwork quilt of concepts will not solve the problems; we need bold steps with our residents in mind.
“In the best of times, these last few years, New Jersey is broke,” he added. “Now New Jersey is destitute with no survival plans. We need a Governor who has new ideas and can resolve our fiscal crisis. When I left office as Mayor, we had one of the highest surpluses in the state, while growing our police force and increasing services to citizens. During my tenure as Freeholder, we maintained our AAA rating.”
Touting his credentials as an accounting and finance expert, Levine (pictured with his daughter Ariella, at the Polar Bear Plunge in 2018 raising money for Special Olympics) said New Jersey needs “common sense in Trenton from an outsider, not the same old swamp-reboot.”
He insists he would improve the state in many areas, and would focus on financial incentives for businesses “that are being used as unpaid tax collectors,” and the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
“People are hurting. Leadership is needed. Pandemic ancillary victims have not been addressed,” Levine said. “Closed small businesses are in dire straits, domestic violence is up, mental health services are required. As for state agencies, the workers are great, but DMV leaves people frustrated. There is so much more to be done.”
“What am I seeking if I decide to run? I want civil discourse with the other candidates, I want ideas to flow amongst all, I want solutions to be discussed, I want New Jersey to be the stellar place it can be. Some run for office because they want to hold the office; I will run to create a better life for our residents. If I run, it will be a grass roots campaign. Just like I was ‘The People’s Mayor,’ I seek to be ‘The People’s Governor’ if I run and succeed.”
When he ran for governor in 2009, Levine presented himself as a successful mayor, whose political identity 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 congealed 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 last year. “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 that statewide Republican Primary back in 2009 when 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 then-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.
It worked for a while, six years to be precise.
“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.”
But Levine and fellow Republican incumbent Freeholder Brian Gallagher of Somerville (another former mayor of a Democratic town) went down last year and Republicans finally succumbed to a total 5-0 Democratic Party domination of the Somerset Freeholder Board, leaving the Franklin resident – who once took an unsuccessful crack at state Senator Bob Smith (D-17) – in search of new vistas for his political career.
Levine decided he still had a hankering for the office of governor.
Curiously, if he ultimately formally decides to run he would find himself pitted against fellow former Freeholder (and former Assemblyman) Jack Ciattarelli (R-16), who somewhat complicated Levine’s designs on endorsing the gubernatorial candidacy of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno in the 2017 Republican Primary.
Levine liked Guadagno’s candidacy and wanted to endorse her, but found himself at odds with Gaburo and Ciattarelli, who made every effort to ensure that Somerset would back Jack. Levine backed down in the name of peace in the valley, and would face Ciattarelli for the 2021 Republican line with that somewhat discomfiting political history between the two men.