HAMILTON — Hamilton Council President Tom Goodwin was elected the interim state senator for the 14th Legislative District tonight, beating out former assemblywoman Barbara Wright for the seat of Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton).
Goodwin got 75 votes to Wright’s 31 among Republican county committee members from the distirct’s seven towns in Mercer and Middlesex County. State Sen. Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), who was on hand to give Goodwin his official state senator pin, said Goodwin will be sworn in on Monday. He will have toseek reelection in the June primary and November general election, most likely against Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro). That race is expected to be one of this year’s most competitive and expensive.
The two Republicans made their pitch at a catering hall where the Mercer GOP regularly holds events. Both describing themselves as conservative and pro-life. Voter turnout was about 53%, with 106 of 199 Republican County Committee members voting. As of last week, Mercer had 136 of 168 seats filled, and Middlesex had 63 of 172.
Goodwin told the crowd that Hamilton faced a similar fiscal bind that the state is in now two years ago.
“Our former mayor took our municipal to the brink of economic collapse. But just like Governor Christie is doing right now, we took action,” he said, adding that under Republican leadership they transformed a budget deficit into a surplus.
Wright played down her defeat by Greenstein in 1999, arguing that the Republican Party is better positioned than it was a decade ago. She also argued that it was important to run another woman against Greenstein, and that she has stayed involved on the policy front, most recently managing the state Nurses Association.
“I went in there and managed a $2 million budget. I found that it was kind of easy after the legislature. I feel that I have the experience, I have the strength, I have great health,” she said. “I feel like I can beat Linda Greenstein not because it’s only me, but because the party is in a different place than it was in 1999.”
First elected to the council in 2005 and reelected as Hamilton’s top local vote getter last year, Goodwin is a financial advisor who came just short of winning an assembly seat in 2007. He became the favorite to succeed Baroni almost as soon as Gov. Christopher Christie appointed the former senator to the Port Authority three weeks ago, both in terms of geography and Republican establishment support.
Goodwin wrapped up support from Baroni, Wright’s two former running mates, and the two top leaders of the Middlesex Republicans. Supporters cited Goodwin’s name recognition in Hamilton, which dominates the district, and his close third place finish in the 2007 assembly race. And while Gov. Christie never officially endorsed anyone, there were signals from Trenton that clearly indicated the state party’s preference.
“It was a narrow decision with input from various political leaders at the state level,” said Middlesex GOP Chairman Joe Leo, who declined to name those leaders.
Goodwin also had the advantage of having the convention in his home town, though Mercer GOP Chairman Roy Wesley pointed to a number of attendees wearing Wright stickers to demonstrate it didn’t matter.
“Given the enthusiasm for the Middlesex candidate, the Middlesex people were going to find this place whether it was here or on the moon,” he said.
State law requires that special election conventions be held in the county of the legislator being replaced, but Wright said that her supporters hoped to hold it at a West Windsor school, which is still in Mercer but closer to her home town of Plainsboro. One Wright partisan complained that the “deck was stacked” in Goodwin’s favor, but Wright said she wanted to “stay positive.”
Wright, who served in the assembly from 1992 to 2000, made a tough push for the seat, winning the endorsement all five municipal chairs from Middlesex County and riding a wave of discontent over a perceived snub last year, when Mercer Republicans who traditionally split an assembly nominee with Middlesex County refused to endorse 21-year-old Monroe resident Brian Hackett, who had won the Middlesex GOP nod.
While nominating Goodwin, former state Sen. Peter Inverso, who served with Wright, urged the delegates to get past that divide and unite.
“We should not consider this a Mercer versus a Middlesex issue. We have outstanding people that have offered to lead our party to a senate seat in this district, and we’re fortunate for that. But we have to remain united,” he said. “We have to understand that the Democrats have considered this district theirs by divine right, and they can’t understand how for the past 18 or 20 years they have not had control for this district. We as a party cannot let that happen.”
Goodwin will face a tough vote in a few months, when the Governor’s budget comes before the senate. The 14th District has the largest concentration of state workers, and he will likely be in the tough position of either siding with their unions or with Christie, who is expected to call for layoffs next year.
“I haven’t seen what the Governor’s budget is going to be. I have to really see what happens on Tuesday with his budget address. I can’t forecast what he’s going to say,” he said.