BELMAR – As part of the caravan in the biggest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New Jersey, state Sen. Sean Kean (R-Wall) travels on Main Street in Belmar in a family heirloom his parents used to drive around Essex County.
Down here on what the locals call the Irish Riviera, some visiting old school Essex and Hudson County Democrats absorb the environs and grumble about the Driscoll Bridge and its mysterious transformative powers in the political lives of their now Monmouth County-based New Jersey brethern.
“As soon as they go across the Edison Bridge, they become Republicans,” cracks Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Montclair), long-time organizer of the Newark St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
But Kean, whose late father was an AFL-CIO Reagan Democrat, makes no apologies.
“If JFK were alive today, he’d be a Republican, not a Democrat,” says the senator, whose 11th Legislative District contains a seaside pocket of 13,884 registered voting Irish Americans, whose party affiliation numbers are almost evenly divided, with the edge going to Republicans.
Born in Essex and raised in Wall, Kean maintains North country connections with lawmakers like fellow Irish American state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Roseland), co-prime sponsor with Kean of a bill calling on the Irish government to grant northern Irish ministers of parliament speaking rights in the Irish parliament, and to expand voting rights for the Irish president to the citizens of the six counties of Northern Ireland.
Beyond politics, the Belmar parade itself serves annually as a gathering point for Irish American politicans of both parties.
“It’s a locally organized and supported event, which has thrived in part because it hasn’t gone corporate,” said Kean. “Eight or ten weeks before the parade there is a fundraiser at one of local taverns. It’s really a grassroots parade, and, of course, the weather is always a factor. You turn the corner and get out of the winter. Some business owners do better on parade day than on July 4th weekend. Tavern and restaurant owners both are glad for that day as an economic stimulus.”
Some of the political animal transplants from Essex say they can’t get used to political culture here in Monmouth.
“I had a home in Vailsburg until eight or nine years ago before I retired,” said Paul Reilly, former deputy mayor of Newark, who now lives in Middletown. “It’s a different way of life. Everything’s malls. You get on the other side of this bridge, forget about it. These people have no idea what city life is like. Ocean and Monmouth have gone so Republican.”
But Giblin said he doesn’t forget Kean’s roots as a worker in Local Laborer’s 472.
“I knew Sean when he was a member, and his philosophy of working men is the same as mine,” said the veteran Democrat.
And he and others regardless of party don’t forget roots that run deeper even than labor.