Gary Engelstad says he will not run for a third term as Bradley Beach mayor.
“I came in in a hurricane, right after Sandy, and it looks like I’ll be leaving during a pandemic,” the mayor said during an interview with The Coaster in the backyard of his home on Second Avenue.
The Washington, D.C. native was elected to the Borough Council in 2004, and reelected in 2007 and 2010. He defeated three other candidates for mayor in 2012, and ran unopposed for reelection in 2016.
“I’m ready for the next phase in my life,” Engelstad said.
Engelstad is the youngest of four children whose father was the head of the fugitive section at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Engelstad attended Catholic grade school and high school in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and graduated from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1979 with a degree in political science.
“It was at Mount Saint Mary’s that I met my future wife Stephanie, who is from Ocean Township,” Engelstad said. “That’s when I learned there was a town in New Jersey named Ocean, and it’s not on the ocean.”
After college, he went to work for the 1980 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush. Once Ronald Reagan chose Bush as his running mate, Engelstad joined the Reagan-Bush campaign before working at the White House in the Office of the Vice President and starting in 1989, in the Bush administration.
For presidential trips to China, Honduras and other exotic locations, Engelstad was asked to serve on an “advance” detail, reviewing arrangements and protocol for Bush’s visits.
“He knew I loved baseball so I was on the team to go to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati,” the mayor said. “One time he visited the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. We get a pass that lets us go anywhere we need to go to set up his visit. After about my 10th time going through the museum, the president goes, ‘I think you’re just doing this for yourself right now.'”
“Other than my father, George H.W. Bush is my hero in life,” Engelstad said. “I would not have anything I’ve accomplished without him saying come work with us. It was extremely emotional going to his funeral last year.”
In an unusual turn of events, Engelstad was asked to stay on at the Department of the Treasury at the beginning of the Clinton admimistration in 1993.
Engelstad’s four children Ryan, Tori, Kelsey and Brendan were born while he and Stephanie lived in Cheverly, Maryland, a suburban town slightly larger than Bradley Beach where he served as a councilman from 1990 until moving to New Jersey in 1996 for work reasons.
“The reason we ended up here is that we had to find a Catholic grade school that would take four kids,” Engelstad explained. “St. Rose was the only one, and we branched out from there and found this place.”
Real estate values in Bradley Beach have skyrocketed during Engelstad’s time in the borough, though not everyone in town was bullish when the family came looking for a new home.
“We bought this house for $200,000,” Engelstad said. “The neighbors told me later on that they were dancing because some idiot paid $200,000 for a house in Bradley Beach.”
Today, tax records show the property is worth six times that amount.
Engelstad was named director of sales for the new Seabrook community in Tinton Falls, later serving as director of resident life for 13 years. In 2015, he went to work for United Methodist Communities, which is based in Neptune and manages four senior facilities along with five affordable housing communities.
After becoming active with the Bradley Beach recreation program, coaching biddy basketball, Little League and serving on the Board of Recreation, Engelstad was elected to the non-partisan council in 2004 and began a 16-year term of service which will end on the last day of 2020.
“For me, my legacy is that people’s home values have doubled since I came into office,” he said. “We have a great beach, we have an incredible public works department, a great, cohesive police department that does a lot of stuff with the community, we’ve got a vibrant Main Street.
“There’s a reason why Bradley Beach is now a very desirable place to live and I gotta get some credit for that, right?” the mayor said with a wry smile.
This is the first year in Engelstad’s second term that municipal taxes will increase. The two council members who Engelstad endorsed for reelection in 2019 were defeated and the new council recently approved a municipal budget with a 9 percent increase, though some of that will be offset by a planned decrease in sewer rates.
“The funny thing is, you would think that after 16 years my skin would be a foot thick, but it’s actually gotten worse,” he said. “I’ve gotten more and more sensitive, maybe because I feel like I’m doing a great job. I’d come home from a council meeting and decompress, and my wife said I think we’re getting near the end here. She would always be the one to ask how many people were at the meeting. Maybe 15, 20. She says there are 4,000 people at home tonight, for the most part very happy with how things are going.”
“If I had a tremendous ego and I needed this, I’m quite confident that I would win again, but I don’t need it,” the mayor said.
In addition to enjoying more time with family, there are other items on the Engelstad agenda.
“One of the things I’m determined to do is about helping a community of volunteers that help seniors stay in their homes,” he said.
The National Aging in Place Council established a program which pairs seniors with a part-time coordinator and volunteers in a “village” concept, enabling retired citizens to live at home as long as possible.
The mayor said the borough’s recent drive for the local food pantry demonstrated how many “really loving, caring people live in Bradley.”
Engelstad said a nonfiction book club he started two years ago and participation in a men’s discussion group at the Church of St. Rose in Belmar will continue to occupy some of his free time.
As for politics, when asked, the mayor said he could reconsider his 2016 separation from the Republican party should a vacancy arise on the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
“It’s really a different organization at the county level,” he said. “I look at someone like [Freeholder Director] Tommy Arnone (R-Neptune City). He is a great example of a good, bipartisan elected official. There are Republican mayors who sing his praises, and Democratic mayors who sing his praises. There are good examples of Republicans at the local level.”
Engelstad said he has no plans to take on U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.), with whom he has disagreed in the past.
“I’ve been at events where the congressman and I have both spoken and he’s been very cordial to me, but I actively worked against him in the last election,” Engelstad said. “I tried to help [Democrat] Josh Welle as much as I could.” Smith, one of only two Republicans representing New Jersey in Congress, defeated Welle in 2018 by 12 percentage points.
Engelstad will serve out his term through the end of the year but he has a plan for an informal meet-up with borough residents in the near future.
“In the next few weeks, I’ll be at D’Arcy’s Tavern and my credit card will be on the bar,” the mayor said. “And anybody who wants to come and say nice job, drinks are on me. Anybody that wants to punch me in the face, drinks are still on me.”