BRANCHBURG – Offering considerable local government experience, Bridgewater Councilman Michael Kirsh wants a seat on the Somerset County Commission this year. The Republican is running with Watchung Board of Education Member Amber Murad as the alternative ticket to incumbent Democrats Commission Director Shanel Robinson and Commissioner Sarah Sooy.
A three-year veteran of the Green Brook Twp. Committee, Kirsh moved with his growing family to Bridgewater, served on the zoning board, involved himself in public affairs, and won a council seat in 2019. In tumultuous times as the GOP here attempts to rebuild in the face of political loss, Kirsh sat down with InsiderNJ to discuss his candidacy and why voters should break the 5-0 Democratic command the rival party secured over the course of the last four years and elect him and Murad.
Democrats love to sing their own praises at taxpayer expense, Kirsh maintains, while blundering through county government.
“One substantial misstep they made, which you will not hear about in their press releases, is everybody’s recycling fee went up ten percent,” said the GOP candidate. ‘When our local government opened its doors [after the worst of the pandemic], we were faced with a ten percent increase and left wondering how to accommodate other programs. Their assertion that ‘we kept a flat budget’ is not necessarily true. It was them kicking the can down to the local municipalities.”
The back-to-back horrors of COVID-19 and Tropical Storm Ida slammed Somerset, and Kirsh objects to some of the way county government handled those crises.
“Those are tragedies that I will remember for the rest of my life,” said the councilman. “In Bridgewater we lost over 100 people to COVID. We suffered three casualties during Ida and a fourth resident was swept away.”
Kirsh said he was disappointed with the county’s COVID response. “There is an attempt by the governor and commission to let people feel good now that they’ve gotten their shots and that the greatest amount of the crisis behind us,” he said.
“But we were very slow getting COVID testing up and running and never had a mega site,” Kirsh added.
In fact, Somerset did, at Raritan Valley Community College, but the challenger said it came too late – after other counties had already secured testing.
“I felt the response was poor,” he said, leading Republican officials in Bridgewater to partner with Atlantic Health to open a private pod.
“Within Bridgewater we took care of our own,” Kirsh said.
As for Ida, officials didn’t do enough prior to the storm, although they eagerly toured Manville with President Joe Biden after the storm, the Republican said.
“Manville was counting on the county; ultimately it was slow and confused,” he said of government storm response at the county level. “On the the night of the storm, there is no record of anyone from county government reaching out to NJ Transit to coordinate a closing of the floodgate there. It never happened, and a train got stuck. The gate could not be shut, resulting in flooding in a portion of Bound Brook that should have been protected. That lack of action created a liability for the taxpayers of Somerset County.”
Kirsh has a B.A. from Brown University and an M.B.A. from Rutgers University, and has worked in marketing and business development for over two decades.
“I’ve always been interested in politics and public affairs – I enjoy being part of the solution,” said the father of two, a diehard Yankees fan who tours ballparks nationwide with his wife and children for recreation. “The most relevant part of my service is in Bridgewater, where we keep our budget in line, and invest where we need to in our roads program.”
The roads repair program stands out to him as especially relevant for the job he seeks. He also emphasizes the fact that as an elected official in one of the county’s smaller towns – Green Brook, as well one of its biggest municipalities, Bridgewater – he has a unique perspective.
“We are committed to restoring confidence and commonsense to county government,” said Kirsh. “We’ve lost our way a little bit with Democrats in charge. The current crew is very interested in social media and press releases subsidized by taxpayer.”
He and Murad will do the work, he said, not just “try to look good.”
Kirsh said he particularly objected to Democratic Party leaders descending on Manville in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ida.
“They used the people of Manville as a prop, which in hindsight was offensive,” said the Republican candidate. “These are people who lost everything. They needed cleaning supplies. They didn’t need the President of the U.S. They did not need the governor. They did not need county commissioners walking around as if they were like the president. They didn’t need hugs. They needed help. They needed mops. they needed hope.
“I think there’s a lot of buyers’ remorse out there,” Kirsh added. I hear about it when I ask people if they know that the commission is 5-0 Democrat. A lot of voters are angry. I think Somerset remains a center right county, and I offer a partnership of county government with each and everyone of Somerset’s local governments.”
Hirsh and Murad are running in the general election on a ticket headed by Republican gubernatorial nominee, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. “Jack’s going to do phenomenally well in Somerset,” said Kirsh. “People know Jack in this county. They know his story. He will be a big vote-getter in Somerset. His message is a return to commonsense, and a return to a government you can be proud of.”
Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair Peg Schaffer maintains that people are proud of their government now, citing excellent interaction between the commissioners and the county sheriff’s office, the addition of a cafeteria to the county VoTec, and an overall progressive direction.
The registration numbers prove the trend away from the GOP in Somerset, Schaffer argues: 85.5K D’s to 60K R’s.
She notes control election opportunities in three towns: Bridgewater, Green Brook, and Raritan, where her party intends not just to defend what it claimed already, but to muscle in on more traditionally GOP turf, including two of the towns where Kirsh lived and served, or lives and serves now.
As for incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, “He will win this county,” Schaffer said.