OLD BRIDGE, NJ–Middlesex County Republican Organization Chairwoman Lucille Panos says she will likely step down from her position and not seek re-election at this year’s party re-organization meeting.
She plans to make her decision official via a letter to the party’s committee members after the June 8 primary election.
The move comes one year after Panos cancelled the elections for the party committee, effectively giving herself and hundreds of party committee members an extra year in power.
“I just put it off last year because of the paranoia,” Panos told New Brunswick Today, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
That cancellation extended the terms of the party’s committee members from two years to three years, and now for this upcoming election, the terms of office are listed as three-year terms, meaning there will not be another contest until 2024. Panos said she wanted to keep the elections in even-numbered years when federal elections are held.
Meanwhile, Middlesex County Democrats pulled off an even more un-democratic move, pre-emptively cancelling this year’s scheduled committee elections last May, and permanently doubling the length of their terms of office from two years to four years, leaving Democratic Party voters without a committee election until 2023.
When asked why she would want to step down now, Panos said, “I’ve been here for five years. I’m retiring from my regular job. I’m going to live happily ever after and travel with my husband, and I will always support good candidates.”
In terms of whom she would like to see succeed her, she wants someone who is politically active, younger, and has great communication skills to help forward the party’s agenda, as well as strong fundraising abilities and experience is government.
“The only person who I will support that fits that criteria is Councilman Robert Bengivenga from South Plainfield,” said Panos, a former Old Bridge Councilperson and state government employee.
She said that she has every confidence that Bengivenga will win and thinks it will be good for the party if he does.
She enjoyed her time as chair and felt it was in good hands under her leadership, but is confident that it will still be in good hands with a “young, active comprehensive person” like Bengivenga at the helm.
“I think I bring experience to the table, as far as winning campaigns,” Bengivenga said. “I successfully won five campaigns in my hometown. I ran for assembly twice in the 18th District. I have the ability to work together with everyone for the betterment of the organization to bring everybody together so that we can win in November and win elections.”
He began in political at the age of 23 when he won his first election in 2005. In college, he also volunteered for political organizations.
“Once I ran, I started working on campaigns and helping other campaigns do grassroots,” he said. “Now, it’s a lot of vote-by-mail tracking and stuff like that. And so my whole adult life has been an interest in politics and mainly working on behalf of the residents. That, to me, is the most important thing in politics.”
He believes of getting quality people elected because “in the end, good government is good politics.”
In terms of his chances of becoming committee chair at the reorganization meeting later in June, he feels confident.
“I feel confident that of the chairs I’ve reached out to and have gotten support from, I feel that I can be successful at the reorganization meeting and move forward with an organization that will build from the ground up, from the local elections up to the top,” he said.
But Bengivenga will have at least one opponent in his campaign for committee chair: Sharon Hubberman.
“It is an honor to serve my community and after much consideration I have committed to accepting the nomination for the MCRO Chairmanship. This is my second nomination for the position and only 42 votes could have changed the outcome of the last 2018 MCRO reorganization election,” said Hubberman, who currently serves as the head of the Perth Amboy Republican Organization.
Hubberman says she is excited for the future of the party.
“I am very hopeful and determined to make a big difference in the Middlesex County Republican Party with our team of exceptional leaders. Our team are innovative, experienced, and offer a service oriented and analytical approach to leadership,” she said.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve and have great aspirations for the good work we can do and we are committed to providing value added service.”
It’s unclear if additional candidates might enter the race.
The next Chair will be selected by whoever wins the 1,230 local level contests for Republican County Committee seats, the elections that were originally set to take place last year before Panos called it off.
No matter who wins the contest for Chair, it will mark the end of an era where the party has been controlled by politicians based in Old Bridge. Before Panos took office in 2015, the party was led by State Senator Sam Thompson for 20 years.
Thompson knows how difficult it is for Republicans to win in Middlesex County.
“As you know, Middlesex County is a very Democrat county,” Thompson told New Brunswick Today.
About 16% of the registered voters in the county are affiliated with the Republican Party, and it’s been almost two decades since a Republican has won a countywide election.
“Old Bridge is one of the towns here in Middlesex where we have been able to win, and win very frequently,” he said. “Sometimes the Democrats took it back but we have control for a great deal of time I’ve been in Old Bridge so it’s one of our most vigorous organizations we have in the county.”
When asked about the state of the New Jersey’s Republican Party and their chances of beating the Democrats for the gubernatorial race in November, he isn’t confident that they’ll win, but says they certainly have the opportunity to win.
“When you have a million less voters than the other party, that’s a lot to start out with to say that I am confident we’ll win, but I think it is possible,” he said.
In an unusual situation, he also finds himself in a contested race for one of the 1,230 committee seats within the party organization. Each local election district will have the opportunity select two committee members in the June 8 primary, and the winners will ultimately decide who will lead the party.
While most of the seats have no candidates at all on the ballot, Thompson is in a three-way race for the two seats in Ward 5, District 6 Republican, where a husband and wife find themselves in different columns on the ballot.
While Cathy Born appears in the same column and with the same slogan as Thompson, her husband Richard Born is relegated to Column H of the primary ballot with no slogan. Of the three, the top two vote-getters will be seated on the party committee, regardless of gender.
It’s the first time that Republicans in Middlesex County will hold gender-neutral party committee elections. Previously, the male with the highest vote total would be seated as “Committeeman” and the female with the highest vote total would be seated as “Committeewoman.”
The three-way race is also the only contested local race on any ballot in Old Bridge, and one of the few Republican County Committee seat to be contested anywhere in the entire county.
Regarding his primary, Thompson says he is “not particularly worried about the election” and sees himself being victorious and keeping his committee seat.
“I haven’t had a contest yet where anyone was close, so we’ll see,” he said. This is the first time he has faced a primary opponent since 2015 when his primary opponent was Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry.
In November, Thompson is facing a challenge for his Senate seat in District 12 by Matawan Mayor Joe Altomonte, a Democrat.
Thompson’s running mates, Assemblymen Ronald Dancer and Robert Clifton, are facing a primary challenge from Ahmed Basuoni. The winners of that contest will face Democrats Raya Arbiol and Michael Palazzola.
Haley Cafarella is a passionate journalist and content developer. She is currently creating content for IFPG, a franchise broker network, and writes articles for its franchise news site, FranchiseWire. In addition to contributing to New Brunswick Today, the Rutgers University journalism graduate has also written for The Buttonwood Tree, the Trenton Monitor, and Quo Vadis, Middlesex College's student newspaper.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.