Forget Mendham Township. The Republican epicenter in New Jersey is Westfield.
Mendham may boast the state's top Republican in Gov. Chris Christie, but Westfield features a deeper bench of five prominent Republicans on the state and national level: Rich Bagger, Tom Kean Jr., Jon Bramnick, Bill Palatucci and Mike DuHaime.
But jammed into a booth at a favorite hangout, the Westfield Diner, the group attracts none of the attention you'd expect of Republican near-royalty sitting down to cups of coffee; only "Mr. Kean" receives hugs from the staff, and he's the lone member to have his photo on the wall of important people.
Dressed in business casual attire, the Westfield Five met Sept. 18 at the North Avenue diner to discuss the town they call home and how they interact with each other there.
They may talk individually each week, but it's difficult to put the whole group together, they said; Palatucci said he and DuHaime, in particular, travel a lot.
"We have never done this before, as evidenced by how long it took to get us together," Palatucci said about the early-morning meeting. "This has never happened. Period."
It's more typical to find two or three of the quintet holding court here and, occasionally, holding simultaneous, but separate, meetings at the diner. But "on the weekends — I love these guys — but it's more of a family thing for me," Palatucci said. "The weekends are kind of busy. Everybody's got kids. … We've all got home commitments."
Their time living in Westfield spans 50 years for the third-generation, lifelong resident Bagger, to four months for DuHaime — but he doesn't feel like a newcomer. "I actually got pulled into Westfield politics before I ever lived in Westfield," said DuHaime, who has worked on campaigns for Kean, Bagger and Bramnick.
As a unit, the five have known each other for more than 12 years, and the friendship is evident by the banter and easy laughter. Bramnick was the brunt of most jokes, with the others suggesting their nickname should be the "Westfield Four-and-a-Half," but the assemblyman seemed to take the ribbing in stride.
"You can't pick up on a guy who did a presidential campaign. You can't pick up on Tom Kean Jr., OK? Senator Bagger, of course, is the perfect human being; he's the chief of staff," Bramnick said. "And nobody's messing with Bill Palatucci."
The group rejected the idea that Westfield is the state's Republican epicenter — as Kean said, "It's like Air Force One. New Jersey is wherever the governor is." But the town has a long GOP pedigree, and is a breeding ground for higher office. Calling himself an example, DuHaime talked about a migration pattern from urban areas like Hoboken, Jersey City and New York to suburbs like Westfield.
"Westfield has kind of tough local politics, which is why people go higher once they get to the Legislature," he said.
DuHaime and the others also called Westfield's politics bipartisan and civil, with candidates willing to knock on every door and the mayor and council serving in unpaid positions despite the town's size of about 30,000. And it's a good proving ground, Bagger said, as Westfield is a traditionally Republican town now in a pretty solidly Democratic county.
"Political legislators coming out of this district, coming out of Westfield, have to work on both sides of the aisle," he said. "They get very good at what it takes to get things done."
Asked to name their favorite Westfield Democrat, DuHaime selected his wife, Dore, while Palatucci joked it was "the last one we beat." The group ultimately agreed on Superior Court Judge James Hely, a Democratic councilman for at least 10 years who served with Bagger on the municipal body in the 1980s. Still a resident, Hely is noted for sponsoring the first municipal law requiring bicycle helmets for children, a measure later enacted by the state.
Bramnick said their wives aren't as eager to talk politics.
"Patricia's not nuts about talking about politics for three straight hours," Bramnick said. "It's more like three straight minutes." When asked, Bramnick said his wife is a registered Republican, which drew loud laughter, seeming to indicate her political leanings may tilt elsewhere.
The quintet said they have all been at each other's houses, with Bramnick most frequently hosting. As Westfield GOP chairman, Bramnick is known for holding political fundraisers as well as an annual New Year's Eve party from 6 to 9 p.m.
While the group came up with a favorite Democrat, none would identify their favorite local restaurants, pizza parlors, coffee spots or ice cream shops.
"One guy wins, 83 lose," Bramnick said. "For the next 20 years, as you walk by the other pizza guy, he's going to be like, 'I really appreciate it.' He'll forget how you voted on any issue, but he'll never forget" the pizza parlor answer.
Yet they agreed Westfield's Memorial Day parade is an annual highlight, which serves as a kickoff for the Little League season and includes marches by scouts and veterans — but no one in the Westfield Five.
"This is a town of 32(thousand), 33,000 people, and it feels like a small town," Kean said. "And they don't allow any politicians over the level of mayor to participate in either the original service … or to march in the parade. It's a very strong sense that this is a community feel."
Bagger noted Westfield retains its residents. He recalled a back-to-school night at his twin daughters' intermediary school — the same school he and his parents had attended — where he saw a half-dozen parents who were in his eighth-grade class.
"A lot of people stay here," said Bagger, who called himself a "townie."
When asked, each man said he, too, was planning to stay in Westfield for the long haul; only Bramnick joked that he'd take the next redistricting under consideration. Only one now-prominent politician seems to have looked at Westfield as a short stay — Christie, who rented in town for about a year while his Mendham house was being built.
But no one at the table asked the waitress to bring a sixth chair — and while the men said the governor would be welcome to take up residence here again, no one expects the group to become the Westfield Six.
Background: Lifelong resident, except during college at Princeton University and one year working on Capitol Hill after college. Westfield High School, 1978. Baggers have lived in Westfield since 1919; his father, Donald H. Bagger, was a councilman and school board member in the town. Rich was elected to town council during his first year of law school at Rutgers. Former mayor and state senator.
Current: Christie's chief of staff.
Why Westfield: "Excellent schools, great neighborhoods and 'Main Street' downtown, good commute to New York City."
Favorite event: "Westfield athletic tradition, especially swimming."
Favorite outdoor spot: Mindowaskin Park.
Date with wife, Barbara: "Dinner for two at any one of Westfield's many restaurants."
Favorite Westfield Diner item: Florentine omelet.
Background: In Westfield 30 years. Strategist for Christie campaign. Co-chairman of Christie inaugural committee. Campaign manager in New Jersey for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and for Gov. Tom Kean. Fundraiser and senior adviser for George W. Bush campaign. Member of 2011 legislative redistricting team.
Current: Friend and confidant of Christie. Republican National committeeman.
Why Westfield: "The great schools, municipal pool complex and stable taxes."
Favorite event: "The annual street fair called Spring Fling."
Favorite outdoor spot: "Any Westfield High School athletic event at Kehler Stadium."
Date with wife, Laura: "A movie at the Rialto in downtown Westfield."
Favorite Westfield Diner item: "Everything at the diner is great."
Background: Moved to Westfield four months ago. Lead strategist for Christie's 2009 campaign and member of his executive transition team. Presidential campaign stints: Rudy Guiliani's campaign manager, John McCain's political director, George W. Bush's regional political director in 2004. Former director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee.
Current: Political adviser to Christie and others. Partner at public strategy firm Mercury Public Affairs. Member of 2011 congressional redistricting team.
Why Westfield: "Great schools, the wonderful downtown and the overall feeling of community. It is simply a great place to raise a family."
Favorite event: "So far, it is first-grade girls' soccer."
Favorite outdoor spot: "We finally have a backyard!"
Date with wife, Dore: "With three kids 6 years old and younger at home, including a new baby, we haven't had a whole of dates with just the two of us in Westfield yet."
Favorite Westfield Diner item: Egg white omelet with tomatoes and onions, or the barbecue chicken panini.
Tom Kean Jr.
Background: A 12-year resident of Westfield. Son of the former governor. A former minority whip and deputy whip in the state Senate. Former assemblyman. He was first appointed to the state Senate to fill the unexpired term of Rich Bagger when Bagger resigned to pursue business interests. Lost a close U.S. Senate race to Bob Menendez in 2006.
Current: Minority leader in the state Senate.
Why Westfield: "Excellent schools, a thriving town center and great neighborhoods."
Favorite event: The Memorial Day parade.
Favorite outdoor spot: Westfield Memorial Pool.
Date with wife, Rhonda: "Walking to the downtown and finding a restaurant with outside seating."
Favorite Westfield Diner item: Chicken salad sandwich on rye.
Background: Resident for 20 years. Plainfield High School, 1971. Plainfield councilman. Assemblyman since 2003, including Republican whip and assistant whip.
Current: Conference leader in Assembly. Westfield GOP chairman.
Why Westfield: "We moved here because of the schools and the downtown."
Favorite event: "The Westfield-Plainfield Thanksgiving football game has been a tradition that I have attended since I was 5 years old."
Favorite outdoor spot: "A little-known park at the end of Prospect Street."
Date with wife, Patricia: "A two-and-a-half-mile walk to the downtown every morning. That is our daily date. At night, if I am not at an event, we normally walk back to town and sit outside a Westfield restaurant."
Favorite Westfield Diner item: Toasted corn muffin.
Correction appended: Jon Bramnick said, “And nobody’s messing with Bill Palatucci.” The quote was incorrectly attributed in an earlier version.
Contributing: Andrew Kitchenman
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