SCOTCH PLAINS – In a world of political passion, factionalism, and ignorance, where virtual world dreams perhaps lack a fundamental foundation, and supposed love of country manifests as adherence to a cult of personality, state Senator Jon Bramnick (R-21) radiates calm, conservatism, and character, with an almost ever-present good-humored twinkle in his eye and a twist of New Jersey irony to accompany the solidity of worldly professional food fortune.
He keeps his family close.
His son, Brent, appears in the halls of the downtown family law office, with a next-generation sense of stability, competence, and old school manners. Art works painted by his wife of 42 years, Patricia, adorn the walls of the new addition across the street to the thriving practice. He talks happily about his daughter, Abby, an art therapist, and her upcoming wedding.
Social and sociable – gregarious, but with a trial attorney’s sense of the value of economy with words, eager to tell a story to make a point, but with brevity – and frequently grounding his words in the law, his chosen and profession, Bramnick never presents politics as the organizing principle, but as a part of his life, just as important in the overall balancing act of self-improvement, as another Bramnick interest – stand-up comedy.
Certainly, he has sought to join these disciplines together – politics and comedy – perhaps as part of his ongoing effort to underscore civility in public life, a word that relates – but never in Bramnick’s easygoing, unpreachy way – to a bigger and ever-threatened concept like civilization.
Years ago, a colleague of Bramnick’s, in the midst of a political fight, hovered at the edge of tears. Eyes twinkling, not unkindly, by way of seeking an explanation for why the other man’s condition should not cause alarm or even casual concern, Bramnick said, happily and with a shrug, “It’s politics.”
In other words, it’s supposed to be fun.
That’s not to say it’s unimportant.
But it should not put us at the precipice of life, and it should not catapult us into a civil war.
“It’s not first and foremost of everything I do,” Bramnick told InsiderNJ, on the second floor of his law office addition, a cozy spot with a bar he dubbed “O’Bramnick’s,” good-natured homage to his Irish brothers in public life, and another indication – amid framed accolades and photos from his life and family and Patricia Bramnick’s impressionist paintings – of his emphasis on the collegial, social, and relaxed as his preferred atmosphere.
From the beginning of Bramnick’s public life, which began in these parts on the Plainfield City Council, in the city where he grew up as the son of Jewish shop owners, he strived to put politics in perspective, not to minimize it, but as confirmation of his own inveterate conservatism. If left unchecked and unbalanced, and allowed to get out of control, government interferes with the life of an individual free to make his or her own choices.
He believes it, and sees it, especially every time the all-Democrat-run legislature tries to get its budget passed and the Democratic governor signs it, without any changes.
Bramnick – ten years the Republican Leader in the Assembly before going to the senate in 2022 – opposed those Democratic Party-affirmed budgets, which grew by $20 billion from the end of the Chris Christie into the years of sitting Governor Phil Murphy.
He voted against them, and strenuously made his case, without setting fire to the building, or leading an insurrection against his cross-party rivals. His style over the years somewhat suggests Casey Cagle, one-time Georgia Senate President, who, anytime someone – Democrat or Republican – became exorcised on the floor, would say, gently, with a friendly but mischievous smile, “I understand the gentleman, or gentlelady, is very passionate, [but the lawmakers need to return to work].” That’s a lot like Bramnick, raised in his parents’ stationary store. They never blamed government, but “worked hard and got stuff done.”
“That is your motto for the next governor of the State of New Jersey,” Bramnick told an appreciative audience at his campaign kickoff last Saturday afternoon at the Stress Factory Comedy Club in New Brunswick, lest anyone get too exorcised.
Lest anyone think it’s all fun and games with the veteran lawmaker, though, or confuse his good humor with lack of commitment to the state and to the country, Bramnick seized on the Trump era to reassert his traits of calm, conservatism, and character. The most calmly consistent outspoken opponent of Trump among New Jersey elected officials, Bramnick wants people to remember that as he heads toward the 2025 statewide election.
He never picked up a bullhorn and charged Trenton like Joshua at the Battle of Jericho. But he looked in the eye of power, specifically in the eye of power at the pinnacle of his own party, and while many others crawled underground in a cold sweat or refused to publicly oppose the president, Bramnick emphatically said, “No.”
“New Jersey wants to vote for a Republican,” he told InsiderNJ, “but they don’t want a Republican they don’t trust, so if you dance around the issues, such as Jan 6th and whether Joe Biden won the election, the people in the middle are going to go, ‘I’m not crazy about Biden or Murphy,’ [but they will vote for them against Trump.].”
As a candidate in the Republican Primary, Bramnick sets himself apart.
“I’m willing to speak truth to power,” he said. “The desire for balanced government is overwhelming, but they’re not going to deny science or what they see with their own eyes on Jan. 6th.” I’m passionate about the history of the Republican Party, and people want those values: efficient, small government, and law and order.”
In these impassioned times, however, will the GOP base – already fast-tracking the 2024 nomination of Donald Trump – back someone with that passion.
Will they trust him to fight for them?
First of all, as he noted in his speech last week, he has double NJ DNA.
Mother from Newark.
Father from Plainfield.
So, he has a set of lethal, alley-edged sharpened teeth.
In addition – “I’m a trial lawyer, and I’ve tried hundreds of cases. I’ve tried cases all over New Jersey and the South Bronx, and you can’t do that if you are not able to fight. But the way things get done in Trenton is you get people in a room and build consensus. The fight is people know you have the teeth and say what you mean. You get things done by trusting each other. If you ask anybody in Trenton if they trust my word, I guarantee you they’ll say yes.
“You don’t get things done by just fighting,” Bramnick added. “I didn’t spend ten years as Republican leader because they didn’t think I had fight in me.”
But fighting with torches and headdresses and confederate flags and cults of personality that gurgle over into totalitarianism isn’t the same as civil discourse in a democratic republic. That’s the space Bramnick occupies, has always occupied, and will occupy, he said – even if it means he gets run over by the Trump baseball hat-wearing crowd in next year’s GOP Primary.
“I believe I’m the only one [among the Republican, including Jack Ciattarelli] who can win that general election,” Bramnick said.
“Even when Chris Christie endorsed Donald Trump, I told The New York Times, ‘I’m not endorsing him,’” he recalled. “I believe character matters. You set an example for kids in this country. People do what the president does, and I did not feel Donald Trump had the character I thought would be respected by young people. I care about character.”
It’s not just fighting Trump, or opposing Trump, to use a verb Bramnick probably prefers. But it is standing up to power as a matter of character. Character, said Heraclitus, is fate.
“Every time somebody came to me with a problem, whether it was with a powerful company or government, I took it on, and insisted those powerful entities deal with me respectfully,” he said. “You tell me who controls Bramnick votes? I don’t care if I stand up to a healthcare company, a pharmaceutical company, or the State of New Jersey. As governor, I’ll be able to say ‘no’ to Democrats who want to put money in the budget for pet projects. It’s different for a Democratic governor to stand up and say ‘no.’ I can do that. There are a lot of Democrats who want me to do that. A lot of Democrats are happy I’m running. There is overwhelming support from the other side of the aisle because they know I’ll bring balance without being a nut.”
But he was close to Christie. Won’t that make some people nervous?
Christie limped out of office with a 16% approval rating.
Bramnick likes Christie.
They’re friends, and political allies.
But “I was there talking about the problems with Trump while Christie was standing next to him,” said the senator. “Christie came around to my position, and with respect to Christie fatigue, we got things done [including the two percent tax].”
If he never opposed Trump the way Bramnick did, without equivocation, Ciattarelli did fight with the Christie wing of the party. “If there’s a debate, everything will come out as to who controls who,” Bramnick said. “I represent individual people. Ask my wife or my kids who’s telling me what to do other than my wife or kids.”
In a presidential election year, the candidate for governor said he will not vote for Trump.
“I will probably write in Nikki Haley,” he said. “No, I won’t support him. I will probably write in a Republican. Again, character is extremely important. If you don’t stand up and tell the truth, if you don’t stand up, we are putting the entire Republican Party in New Jersey in danger. I am deeply concerned about how he [Trump] talks to America. People from his administration are saying the exact same thing. I’m going to put my country first and my political ambition second.
“If you see somebody hitting a police officer over the head with a stick and you’re president, you’ve got to say ‘this is unacceptable, disgusting behavior, not delay, no hedging your bets. If we’re the party of law and order, we’ve got to speak up. There should be an outcry to stand up and say the right thing.”
His tone of voice had a hard, unyielding quality.
Soon, Bramnick was joking again, telling a story about his wife telling him they have been together for 43 – not 42 – years, as he said in his speech. The easygoing spirit of O’Bramick’s pervaded. But as much as he loves to fuse comedy to politics, and a sense of the improvisational to the pillars of power, one senses the gravity of more than the governorship of his home state or the health of his political party in Bramnick’s self-belief, grounded in something precious – and threatened – at the core of the country.