Being Levine: Franklin mayor says he could help restore confidence in government

Brian D. Levine doesn’t know if he broke any records in losses suffered when he ran for student council at Rutgers. But he retained his interest in politics after marrying and moving to Franklin Township and at the polls one June he noted that no one from his party had filed to run for Republican County Committeeman.

So he wrote himself in, and won.

“You could say I squeaked it out because I won by one vote, or I won by a landslide because I won by 100 percent,” says Levine. “That proves you can spin the numbers.”

In the 1997 race for city council, Levine faced a formidable 16-year incumbent. He prevailed in a close election, triggering what became for him a pattern of victories, and spawning two back-to-back wins in mayoral races, in 2004 and 2007.

Now Levine, 50, a certified public accountant who is married with two daughters, is considering a run for governor, and believes his record as a fiscally conservative Republican in a Democratic town gives him particularly well-suited skills to serve as New Jersey’s chief executive.

“I take that old maxim of Eisenhower’s and apply it to Franklin when I make decisions,” says Levine. “The question is, ‘Is it good for America?’ Then there was that other piece of advice from Tip O’Neill in his book, ‘Man of the House.’ He said when he has a vote he votes conscience first, then country, then district, then party. I try to do things that way locally.”

Levine likens what he calls the governing crisis in New Jersey to the insider trading scandal of the 1980s, when Wall Street big shots illegally used non-public information to get an edge.

“When regular people have the sense that those on the inside can make money – are making money – they lose confidence,” says Levine. “When there’s corruption, pension-padding, and double-dipping, that erodes confidence in our system. We have to bring the confidence. That’s what I would like to do if I run.”

And if he wins.

He knows he’d be a long-shot – particularly in a GOP primary.

“I’m not a multi-millionaire,” he says. “I’m a middle-class CPA. To run, I would really have to go grassroots.”

He’d also do it without throwing red meat to the hard-right side of his party.

“If you stopped abortion, you’re going to send women to the alleys with the coat hangers,” says the pro-choice Republican. “What I think we need is we need to go back to the roots of fiscal conservatism and limited government. I don’t like to over-regulate and I like to be financially prudent. If you don’t need it, you don’t have to spend.”

In addition to his record as a fiscal hawk presiding over what is now a $59.2 million Franklin budget, Levine says two other factors give him what he thinks is a solid argument for why he’d be a good governor.

The first is Franklin itself, the town of 60,000 situated on the eastern end of Somerset County.

“We’re a mixed kind of town, made up of five wards,” says the mayor. “We have a lower income area by New Brunswick, and an upper income area near Princeton. Working with seeming irreconcilables is not a new concept for us. I think we are, in fact, a microcosm of the state. We have warehouses, manufacturing, data centers, a tofu factory, farms, rural, urban, every ethnicity imaginable, religious organizations, a small mosque, Hindu temples, churches, Jewish temple. It makes it interesting and, I have to say, nice for me. I never felt I had to bridge the constituency in Franklin. We are diverse, and my job is to give everyone a fair hearing.”

His ability to build consensus is Levine’s other point of pride.

“As a councilman, and even during my first year as mayor, I lost 8-1 a lot,” he says. “But the important issues ultimately came my way. Televised meetings are an example. There was resistance. But I had citizens on my side, and a couple of years later, it became unanimous in my direction.”

In another example, Levine was initially the sole “no” vote concerning a development project on Route 27: 600 units plus a Home Depot.

“North Brunswick residents were saying they couldn’t get out of their driveways now, how could they sustain new development,” says Levine. “Finally, we got unanimous opposition and the project died. It didn’t make sense.”

The mayor projects no ideology other than striving to keep government small and efficient.

“My philosophy is I don’t like code people imposing fines unless it’s as a last resort,” says Levine. “Fines are last. Education and getting people up to speed are first. I want to help create a friendly environment for business. …On the budget side, we have made very few additional hires in local government. We’ve kept it flat, with the exception of the police department. We have our challenges. Healthcare costs are increasing by ten percent. Pension costs are rising. And in this bad economy, our construction fees will go down. We have to make the necessary adjustments.”

The new Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) rules do not negatively impact the town, in Levine’s opinion, but the larger structure of unfunded mandates, including studies costing $125,000, for example, to protect against possible lawsuits by builders, adds up significantly.

Assessing the field of potential challengers in a gubernatorial primary – former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham), Levine says he doesn’t “want to take a poke at anyone.”

“I think politicians have strayed from core values and ideals,” he says. “On the state and federal level they just pass everything off to the next person, the next generation. Those chickens have come home to roost.”

Being Levine: Franklin mayor says he could help restore confidence in government