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Ciarrocca Drops Reelection Bid to Focus on Judicial Confirmation

Councilman says he'll remain in office pending Senate action.

Councilman Mark Ciarrocca has dropped his bid for a third term in order to focus on .

Ciarrocca, who represents the third ward, made the announcement during a press conference Tuesday evening hours after his judicial nomination was announced by Gov. Chris Christie. Ciarrocca had been seeking reelection in a three-way race against and Independent Greg Kasko.

“I am not going to run for reelection. The reason for that, with the uncertainty of the nomination and the rest of the process, I don’t think it would be fair to the voters of the third ward,” Ciarrocca said. “If I can’t commit to knowing that I will be able to serve the voters of the third ward I think it would be better if I not run for reelection. I look forward to continuing to serve as a councilman in the third ward.”

Ciarrocca was nominated for the judicial seat Tuesday as one of four Superior Court nominees in Union County and 14 statewide proposed by Christie. Ciarrocca’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee has not been scheduled. The Senate is due to recess for the summer and fall by June 30, with no sessions projected until after the November election, following the June recess.

If Ciarrocca’s nomination is confirmed by the Senate before the June 30 recess, the third ward councilman is likely to resign his seat over the summer to take the judicial oath. A confirmation following the November election could theoretically leave Ciarrocca in office for the remainder of his second term, which expires on Dec. 31.

When former Democratic Councilman Jim Hely was for a state judgeship by then Gov. Jon Corzine in June 2009, Hely was confirmed by the Senate prior to the summer recess. The Democratic controlled Senate and the Republican governor have been locked in a battle over multiple appointments since last year, with some appointees waiting over a year for a confirmation hearing.

Ciarrocca indicated he has spoken to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari (D-Linden) about his nomination, but did not discuss the specifics of his conversations with Scutari. Ciarrocca also noted he has known Scutari for years, based on both being attorneys in Union County. 

Under the state’s tradition of allowing senators to single handily block nominations of residents of their home county, known as senatorial courtesy, judicial appointments are traditionally discussed with senators prior to gubernatorial nominations. Patch has learned that Ciarrocca’s nomination was discussed between Union County’s three senators – Scutari, Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) and Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) – during the process leading up to Tuesday’s announcement.

Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), the town’s Republican chairman, who joined Ciarrocca at the press conference, said he has started the process of finding a replacement nominee in the third ward. He declined to say if he has a shortlist of candidates for the seat in mind.

Bramnick said he does have one criteria he is looking for in a new third ward candidate.

“Somebody who wins,” he said.

Bramnick also indicated he is looking for a candidate who will be able to work hard during the fall campaign, noting that Ciarrocca, Mayor Andy Skibitsky and other Republican councilmembers have worked hard in their campaigns. Bramnick said he is currently having discussions with the town’s GOP committee over new candidates.

Bramnick indicated the three-way nature of the race will not have an impact on who the committee selects to replace Ciarrocca. Kasko earlier this month, in to Ciarrocca’s decisions on several issues. Kasko, a retired police officer, has been vocal in his opposition to the placement of a stoplight on a residential front lawn on Central Avenue.

Town Democrats congratulated Ciarrocca on his nomination, but noted they did not want to focus on the politics of the race at this moment.

“Mark will be a great judge,” Councilman Dave Haas, the town’s Democratic chairman, said. “He deserves this post. I will deal with the politics another day.”

Sontz indicated that while he believes Ciarrocca’s absence from the race will change the dynamics of the third ward campaign, he does not think it will change his strategy.

“I want to congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well,” Sontz said. “It won’t change what I will do. I will try to get as much support as I can.”

Kasko questioned why Ciarrocca ran for reelection when he was under consideration for a judgeship. Ciarrocca’s interest in the bench has been widely rumored in town political circles for several months. Ciarrocca noted he did not receive word from the governor’s office about being Christie’s pick until Monday.

“I find it surprising that the Republicans would nominate somebody for the position of town council when they already knew they had recommended him to the bench,” Kasko said. “It is unfair to the public and to the Republican Party to run somebody in a primary who does not intend to do the most to win.  While I was looking forward to running against Mr. Ciarrocca I must wish him well in his new position and trust that the Republicans will be a bit more transparent in their next nomination.”

Ciarrocca said he was not concerned over his chances against Sontz and Kasko if he had remained in the race.

“I still have a lot of family in the third ward,” he said with a laugh.

Privately, Republicans have said they expected Ciarrocca to do well against Sontz, who he defeated with 60-percent of the vote in 2007. The third ward race is considered the premier race on the fall ballot, due to Kasko’s candidacy. The open seat nature of the race now contributes to that ranking.

Bramnick said should Ciarrocca resign prior to the end of his term to take the bench, the replacement candidate would likely fill Ciarrocca’s seat for the remainder of the term.

“It’s probably a good idea to do that,” Bramnick said. “There is always an exception.”

The last two vacant posts in town government  - mayor and the other third ward Council seat in 2005 – were filled by the Republican candidates in the fall election – Skibitsky and Darielle Walsh. Bramnick was town GOP chairman when those decisions were made.

Skibitsky said he has made no decisions regarding Ciarrocca’s posts as acting mayor and finance committee chairman, noting that Ciarrocca continues to remain a councilman pending a confirmation. Councilman Sam Della Fera currently serves as finance vice chairman and Councilwoman Joann Neylan is the alternate acting mayor.

“Should Mark make it through the confirmation process, I think he’ll serve the residents of New Jersey with the same distinction and honor he has served the town,” Skibitsky said of Ciarrocca’s nomination.

Ciarrocca, who appeared to be in a reflective mood during the press conference, held in a conference room in the Municipal Building, noted that while his accomplishments as a councilman are not done yet, several areas stick out to him from his almost eight years in office.

“Certainly what we’ve done with the budget and the difficult decisions we have had to make. Issues with respect to traffic safety and the different processes,” he said. “The best part about being a member of the Council is when someone calls you with a pothole on their street or a playground that needs tending to. That is the most satisfying part of the job, giving people a voice to get things done for their quality of life.”

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