By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The cheers and applause were thunderous, some tears flowed and there was plenty of laughter, too.
Joined by a who’s who of local, county and state politics, Assemblyman Antwan McClellan was presented with the 2022 Gerard A. Desiderio Republican of the Year award Wednesday night during a packed gala sponsored by the Cape May County Women’s Republican Organization.
McClellan was greeted with a roar of cheers and a standing ovation when he was presented with the award, which is named in honor of the late Cape May County Republican chairman and brother of Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard C. Desiderio.
“Cape May County, I’m here for you,” McClellan said, drawing applause from the audience at the A Modo Mio Ristorante in Sea Isle.
Fighting back tears at times, he thanked his family members, friends and political supporters during emotional remarks. His fondest remarks were saved for his wife, Angela, and his mother Cola Mae McClellan, who both attended the ceremony.
The 48-year-old former Ocean City councilman first joined the state Legislature in 2020 and now serves in a senior leadership position as the Assembly’s Republican Whip. He represents the First Legislative District, which includes all of Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties.
He made history by becoming the first Black lawmaker elected to represent the First Legislative District and became the Black Republican lawmaker in the state Legislature since 2002, according to media reports.
Leonard Desiderio, who also serves as a Cape May County commissioner, predicted that McClellan is destined for even higher achievements in a political career that he said may ultimately be “unmatched” by other Cape May County officials.
“I’m saying this tonight, you’re going to hear a lot more from our Assemblyman, Antwan McClellan,” Desiderio said of McClellan’s future in politics.
McClellan noted the special relationship he has enjoyed with the Desiderio family, including Leonard Desiderio’s mother, Carmel, and his late father, Leonard J. Desiderio.
“The Desiderio family means so much to me,” he said.
Carmel Desiderio, accompanied by her granddaughter Carmela Desiderio, joined McClellan at the microphone for a warm embrace.
“She’s the best listener and hugger I know. I appreciate that,” McClellan said of Carmel Desiderio.
McClellan also had words of praise for the Cape May County Women’s Republican Organization, which is headed by Carmela Desiderio, the daughter of Leonard C. Desiderio.
“The Women’s Republican Club is unmatched in this state,” he said. “Without these women, we would be nothing.”
Also during the ceremony, Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr presented McClellan with a proclamation from Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, whose congressional district includes Cape May County.
Barr spoke emotionally of the 31-year friendship he has shared with McClellan, beginning when Barr was just 9 years old and McClellan was a student at Ocean City High School.
“He took the time to get to know me and to talk to me,” Barr said. “Since then, our friendship has grown. I don’t know where I would be without him.”
Afterward, Barr drew laughter from the audience by joking, “Antwan paid me $20 to give that speech.”
McClellan is known for his roles over the years as an elected official, community volunteer, church leader, athletic coach, youth mentor and former member of the Ocean City Board of Education.
He first won election to the Statehouse in November 2019 as part of a Republican team with Sen. Michael Testa and Assemblyman Erik Simonsen that captured control of the First Legislative District.
McClellan spoke warmly of his friendship and political partnership with Simonsen, ending his remarks by saying, “I love you, brother.”
In closing remarks, Cape May County Republican Chairman Michael Donohue recounted McClellan’s quick rise in the Assembly to become a member of the party’s senior leadership this year as the Republican Whip.
He praised McClellan for his friendship to so many people and his devotion to public service.
“I can’t tell you what a friend he has become not just to me, but to all of us,” Donohue said. “More than anything, this is a solid human being – a stand-up guy.