By John Celock
Noting his unlikely rise to the ranks of the nation’s state legislators, 35-year-old Democrat Jamel Holley was sworn in to the New Jersey Assembly Monday.
Holley took the oath to complete the term of fellow Democrat Joe Cryan, who stepped down last month to become Union County sheriff. Roselle’s youngest ever mayor, Holley used brief remarks to the Assembly to talk about his family, his years as a political staffer and his path to Trenton.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen to me,” Holley said. “They say that a child born to a teenage mom is less likely to graduate high school. Thank you mom.”
Holley was elected earlier this month by Union County Democrats to complete the remainder of Cryan’s term which expires in January of next year. He faces a competitive Democratic primary in June from forces allied with the Elizabeth Board of Education, which has long been at odds with Union County’s Democratic Party. Holley’s district includes Roselle, Elizabeth, Hillside and Union Township. The first African-American to represent the 20th district, Holley serves alongside Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth) and Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth).
Holley was in the last year of his term as Roselle’s mayor, an office he was elected to in 2011 following several years on the Borough Council. Roselle’s youngest ever mayor, he has long been viewed as a rising star in state Democratic politics, including being mentioned as a potential lieutenant governor running mate for unsuccessful 2013 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono. Holley received his political start as an aide to former Deputy Assembly Majority Leader Neil Cohen (D-Roselle).
“I am often reminded as a young staffer many, many years ago is this is where I got my start. This is where I received my start in politics working for the deputy majority leader,” he said Monday. “I am happy to join the ranks of so many colleagues of mine. I am honored to be a part of it today.”
Holley stepped down as mayor to join the Assembly.
Holley received bipartisan praise from his new colleagues. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) praised his new Union County colleague. He also recognized Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Plainfield), the Union County Democratic Party chairman.
“I’ve had the privilege of knowing Mayor Holley for a long time and we’re very lucky to have someone such as you who I consider to be an optimist and who brings joy to this chamber,” Bramnick said. “Chairman Jerry Green is one smart chairman.”
Bramnick, a likely 2017 gubernatorial candidate, also joked about Holley’s political future.
“I am not happy that you’re a potential future superstar but at this stage in the process I am a supporter and I welcome you,” he said.
As mayor Holley was active in Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns, including lobbying Congress with fellow mayors in 2013. He also led the Roselle Borough Council in passing a resolution calling on President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a federal investigation into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Green also took to the floor to praise Holley. He noted that Holley was entering the Legislature during Black History Month. He noted how Holley’s younger brother, Jesse, used to play professional football for the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots.
“You are coming into the people’s house and we all are family and we are moving in the same direction,” Green said.