By MADDY VITALE
Antwan McClellan walked onto the stage at the Patriots Theater in Trenton on Tuesday. He sat beside fellow Assemblyman-elect Erik Simonsen.
Within 30 minutes, the Ocean City resident, former councilman and beloved basketball coach would take the oath of office to serve in the state General Assembly and make history.
McClellan became the first African-American elected to represent the First Legislative District and became the first African-American Republican lawmaker in the state Legislature since 2002, according to media reports.
To McClellan, 45, whose family, fellow Ocean City Council members, city officials and friends were there to support him in the 219th organization of the Assembly, it was a day that meant time to get to work.
He said he is proud to represent the African-American community and bring further diversity to the Assembly. It is time for him to help the residents of not only his hometown, but his home state, he said in an interview after the ceremony.
“I look forward to being in the Assembly and I am excited to get to work,” McClellan said, with his fiancee Angela Mason by his side. “We have a lot of work to do.”
McClellan represented Ocean City’s Second Ward since 2012 before resigning during the last Council meeting earlier this month to serve in his new role.
He won election in November as part of a Republican team with Sen. Michael Testa and Simonsen, a former Lower Township mayor, to gain control of the First Legislative District representing Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties.
While the ceremony Tuesday encompassed the entire Assembly, administration of oaths of office for the Speaker Pro Tempore, Office of the Clerk and speeches by majority and minority leaders, the crux of the ceremony represented a deeper meaning to people who love McClellan as a family member, friend and mentor.
Ocean City Police Sgt. Tyrone Rolls grew up with McClellan. They lived in the same neighborhood.
Though separated in age by four years, the two teamed up to coach basketball and quickly became close friends, each working to be good role models for the community.
Rolls said a good role model is exactly what McClellan will be in Trenton. He is someone who will fight for what is right and show the youth that you can become whatever you want to be in life, Rolls noted.
“I’m not much into politics, but I think it is good that Antwan is here. It is good, especially for the kids in the neighborhood, to give them a goal to shoot for,” Rolls said. “He is very active in the community. He shows us that you can get out and make something of yourself.”
Michael Allegretto, director of Community Services for Ocean City, attended the ceremony, not in his official title as a city employee, but as one of McClellan’s friends, someone he grew up with.
As young men, the two worked together as ride operators at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
And decades later, McClellan coaches Allegretto’s daughter, Alexis, 13, in basketball.
“She enjoys basketball and going to practice because of Antwan. He is just one of those people,” Allegretto explained. “He always wants to help, and he works hard to show people they can do it. He is the one giving high-fives when the kids do well.”
When it comes to Trenton, Allegretto said his longtime friend will bring something special.
“He has a different kind of energy,” Allegretto added. “He is so engaging. He will be able to build relationships and excel at it.”
In addition to McClellan’s mom, Cola Mae McClellan, his fiancee, and his three siblings, his aunts other family members and friends filled the front rows of the theater.
His mother beamed as she spoke of how proud she was of her son.
“I was surprised at first. I never thought he wanted to be in politics, but I see how he loves it,” she said. “I see how he loves teaching kids and adults how to play basketball. Whatever he does, he just seems to love. I am really proud of him. We all are.”
She said some of his drive comes from growing up with both parents out of the house working. His grandmother helped raise him.
“We worked a lot and my mom was home with him,” she said. “She was very much into discipline.”
Mason, his fiancee, said she will help McClellan juggle his busy schedule and that she has complete faith in his ability to do well to serve the constituents.
“He is very excited, and I am thrilled for him,” she said. “Everything he puts his heart into he excels at.”
The Assembly term is for two years. The Assembly office for McClellan and Simonsen is located in Cape May Court House.
Marcus Karavan, chairman of the Cape May County GOP, said before the ceremony that the swearing in of McClellan and Simonsen came from a lot of hard work by a lot of people.
“It is a joyous day for us and a culmination of lots of hard work and a strong team effort,” Karavan said.
Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, of Ocean City, said their Republican slate “flipped the first,” noting that they took all three seats from the Senate with Michael Testa’s win to Simonsen and McClellan in the Assembly.
“Trenton will know that South Jersey is in the house,” said Hayes, who is going to be officially sworn in as president of the New Jersey Association of Freeholders on Jan. 24.
Ocean City Councilman Keith Hartzell spoke specifically about McClellan, whom he has known for many years and served on Council with.
“He prayed. He said if it was God’s plan, it would be. When negative stories came at him, it didn’t bother him. He has a strong faith,” Hartzell noted. “We need more people like him in Trenton. He ran a grassroots campaign and he is not on the hook to anybody. He will work for the people.”