The November meeting was the stuff of urban legend for New Jersey’s political class: Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy sat at a diner table with George Gilmore, the chair of the Republican Party of Ocean County.
Even if patrons of the Red Bank Diner in Red Bank, N.J., noticed the governor, they probably weren’t aware they were witnessing one of the biggest political resurrections in New Jersey history.
Just two years prior, the 73-year-old Gilmore, who had been the undisputed boss of the most powerful Republican organization in New Jersey for more than two decades, had been largely written off as one in a long series of disgraced politicos. He was hit with three felony tax-related convictions after a federal trial that included embarrassing personal revelations, like those about his profligate spending on antique Coca-Cola machines, a $33,000 bronze George Washington statue and other items. His defense attorney characterized it as a hoarding disorder.
But a key connection to Donald Trump got Gilmore a pardon on the president’s last day in the White House. By the following year, Gilmore had again become a force in New Jersey politics, so much so that the state’s Democratic governor and a Democratic state senator in a neighboring county — Vin Gopal, one of Republicans’ top targets in state legislative elections — broke bread with him.
“I found out who were extremely loyal and true friends, and I found those who were just political friends who were easy to desert you in time of need,” Gilmore, who never pleaded guilty and still maintains his innocence, said in a phone interview.
The diner meeting — which was first reported by POLITICO and also included Murphy’s chief of staff — came a few months after Gilmore, still owing millions to the IRS and facing liens on his home, narrowly won back the Ocean County Republican chairmanship after a hotly-contested race that ended in a lawsuit.
Now Gilmore is poised to have a huge influence on who Republicans run to replace Murphy when he’s term-limited out in 2025, creating a potential impediment to Jack Ciattarelli, a former assemblymember who came just three points shy of unseating Murphy in 2021 and immediately declared his intention to run again in 2025.
That’s no small thing. Despite New Jersey’s blue tilt, Republican candidates for governor can and often do win there.
Gilmore worked against Ciattarelli in 2021, boosting a far-right candidate, Phil Rizzo, who finished second in the Republican primary. In 2022, when Gilmore once again ran to be chair, Ciattarelli’s former campaign manager Eric Arpert aided Gilmore’s rival, County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy. “Ciattarelli I know made phone calls against me because people let me know they received them,” Gilmore told POLITICO shortly after winning back the chairmanship.
Ciattarelli declined to comment on Gilmore. But there are signs he’s seeking to counter his influence in the county. Arpert, Ciattarelli’s former campaign manager, is consulting for a new super PAC founded by the wives of a prominent developer and rabbi in the county’s burgeoning Orthodox Jewish community — a potential hedge against Gilmore’s influence.
But the relationship between Gilmore and Ciattarelli, while tense, is not necessarily beyond repair. The two met Wednesday, and both described it as a positive discussion. “Like all my meetings with Republican county chairs, the discussion is pretty much a private matter,” Ciattarelli said.
Gilmore’s return as chair didn’t start smoothly. He blamed the officials who had controlled the party during his absence for removing items from the party headquarters late at night and quickly transferring funds out of party accounts. He filed a lawsuit seeking emails and other records, with one defendant, Republican Assemblymember Greg McGuckin, calling him “someone in severe financial distress who managed to escape federal prison only due to his political connections.”
But tensions have quieted as Gilmore has worked to restore his grip on power. This month, he agreed to drop his lawsuit, under the stipulation that the party’s former executive director admitted in writing to deleting a Google account to block Gilmore’s access to the former party leaders’ emails. And after several internal party battles over running candidates for state and local offices, some successful and some not, he appears to have secured support for his chosen candidate to replace a retiring state senator — all but ensuring his candidate will win.
“[A]ll of the things that he’s said he’s going to do, the promises he’s made of uniting everybody together and working with everyone again — we’re hoping he stays with that,” said Ocean County Commissioner Virginia Haines, who’s worked with Gilmore for decades and was affiliated with the faction that opposed his return to power. “He is trying.”
Meanwhile, Gilmore’s law firm — which, prior to his trial, made about $2 million a year in public contracts around the state — has disbanded, and he left his position as a lobbyist with one of New Jersey’s most prominent firms. But there are indications that he’s still able to parlay political connections into income — if indirectly. An engineering firm run by a Gilmore ally recently started a new division to expand its work in the public sector, with Gilmore’s wife as a co-founder.
One relationship did more than anything to help Gilmore get back into this powerful position.
Gilmore was sentenced to a year in prison in 2020 over his tax convictions. But he didn’t wind up doing the time because he had something that those other politicians didn’t: A key connection to Trump world in Bill Stepien, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager and a top White House aide who had years earlier nearly seen his own career ended by the infamous Bridgegate scandal. Stepien had kept a lifeline of income from the GOP super PAC GOPAC, thanks to Gilmore’s help. That connection helped secure Gilmore the Trump pardon. Late last year, Stepien took charge as manager of the Ocean County Republicans’ 2023 campaigns.
Stepien knows the power of Ocean County in statewide elections first-hand. He managed both of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s campaigns, for which Ocean County ran up the score, securing Christie’s relatively narrow 2009 win and boosting his 2013 landslide reelection.
“Every New Jersey Republican should be cheering George’s return. If they’re not, they’re caring more about self-interest or their bruised egos than they are about winning elections,” Stepien said. “Campaigns are math equations, and New Jersey Republican can’t win statewide without the Ocean County margins only Geroge has been able to deliver over the last 20 years.”
Stepien didn’t call out Ciattarelli directly, saying he was speaking of “no one specific.” But it’s hard to read it any other way.
“One out of every seven votes will come out of Ocean County in the next statewide primary. So if you’re not spending time trying to build a relationship with George and his team, I have to question your strategy,” Stepien said.
Gilmore declined to comment on the meeting with Murphy and Gopal (D-Monmouth), though Gopal confirmed it. The topics discussed were important to the Jersey Shore region, according to Gopal, if mundane by the standards of those salivating for juicy political gossip that would arise from such a meeting of seeming political rivals.
“George had reached out individually to both the governor and I about wanting to talk about shoreline issues that impact both Ocean and Monmouth Counties,” Gopal said. “He wanted to talk about beach replenishment funding, issues with cabanas … and other general funding issues.”
Regardless of what they discussed, the governor’s presence at a meeting with Gilmore sent the real message: Gilmore is once again a powerful force in New Jersey politics.